September 29, 2011


Animal Planet: Incredible Journeys—Amazing Animal Migrations. Kingfisher. $19.99.

Animal Planet: My Life in the Wild—Cheetah; Penguin. Kingfisher. $9.99 each.

Animal Planet: Weird and Wonderful—Attack and Defense; Show-offs. Kingfisher. $12.99 each.

     Pick your age range, pick your topic, and you can pick up an Animal Planet book to fit your preference. Preteens (ages 8-12) get Incredible Journeys, an oversize book crammed with foldout pages the size of posters – and crammed as well with spectacular photographs of animals migrating across the Serengeti, through the Arctic, across the oceans and beneath the waters. Amazing Animal Migrations shows journeys with which TV viewers have long been familiar: those of Monarch butterflies, zebras, whales and more. But there are less-known migrations here as well – those of the European eel and Mexican free-tailed bat, for example. The text here is minimal, with most information in short paragraphs or communicated through tables, lists and diagrams. The primary point is the photographs, which, not surprisingly, are spectacular: locusts swarming (and also seen in closeup), flamingos launching themselves into the air, dozens of garter snakes raising their heads in unison from their den, a wolf pack separating a mother caribou from her calf, humpback whales breaching, a huge colony intermingling penguins and elephant seals, and much more. This is a book to marvel at, and also one in which surprising facts peek out from among the photos: “People used to think zebras were white with black stripes. In fact, they have black skin and white stripes.”

     At the other end of the age range for the latest Animal Planet offerings, My Life in the Wild is intended for kids ages 4-8. The approach here is first-person, or rather first-animal: Cheetah and Penguin are both “narrated” by the young animals whose lives the books describe. “Our ears prick up as we hear a cheeping sound,” the young cheetah tells readers. “It’s Mom, back from the hunt with our dinner.” In Penguins, the text explains, “My life begins inside an egg. Mom catches me on her feet. …If she drops me on the ice, I will freeze!” The simple narratives make it easy to follow the animals’ stories, but again it is the photos (which take up most of the room on the pages) that are the main attraction here. Instead of including a variety of facts within the story, the My Life in the Wild volumes put them at the end, in a section called “Did You Know?” This is where the homey stories get a firmer scientific grounding. “Female cheetahs leave their male siblings at around two years of age and set up their own territory, called the ‘home range,’” for example, and “Penguin calls can be heard from 0.6 mile (1 km) away.” Young readers then get to “meet the family” of each animal profiled. The cat family, for example, includes the margay, serval and lynx, while the penguin family includes the gentoo, chinstrap and fiordland types, among others. Attractive books that simplify animals’ life stories effectively, the My Life in the Wild volumes are both easy to read and informative.

     For kids ages 6-10 – more or less between Incredible Journeys and My Life in the Wild – there is an Animal Planet series that goes for the unusual. Weird and Wonderful looks at what the series describes as “astonishing animals, bizarre behavior,” although of course the animals and their lives are strange only to human perception. These books are somewhat more sensationalized than the other new Animal Planet releases, with sections called “little monsters” and “shocking hunters” in Attack and Defense, and “dressed to impress” and “scare tactics” in Show-offs. Once again, the pictures are the main attraction here, but now they are selected for dramatic value as well as information: an emerald tree boa with wide-open mouth showing its long, fanglike teeth; a Burmese python with a death grip on a Siamese crocodile; army ants swarming over a doomed scorpion; a vampire bat with open mouth – pictured atop the sentence, “Vampire bats sometimes feed on human blood!” Those examples are from Attack and Defense. In Show-offs, things are a bit milder: “The blue-tongued skink surprises attackers by poking out its alarmingly colored tongue.” “The male emperor moth has the best sense of smell of any animal.” “To impress females and frighten rivals, male alligators make a deep rumble, like silent purring, then bellow loudly.” Even with the less-intense text, though, the photos are bright, punchy, and intended to intrigue, from a closeup view of the nose of the male elephant seal to a look at the bright blue of a mandrill’s buttocks. All these new Animal Planet books are designed to pull young readers into a world of visual brilliance, intrigue them with stories of surprising or outlandish (to humans) behavior, and – hopefully – get them interested in more-sober science and animal studies in the future. But whether or not the books produce adult animal lovers or animal scientists, they certainly help familiarize young readers with the visual wonders of the creatures with which humans share the planet.

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