January 24, 2013

(++++) DISCOVERIES


Scholastic “Discover More”: Disasters. By David Burnie. Scholastic. $15.99.

Wild Discoveries: Wacky New Animals. By Heather L. Montgomery. Scholastic. $6.99.

These are discovery books with attitude. The attitude is that human beings’ judgment and knowledge are preeminent, except when Nature decides to do something different. The books are serious and meant to be taken seriously, although there is a certain level of hubris associated with both of them, as if capturing disasters within the pages of a book somehow renders them more comprehensible, and describing animals as “wacky” somehow reflects something significant about the animals’ appearance or their place in the ecological web of life.

But of course that is over-analyzing books that are basically meant to be gawked at and then read for solid, useful information that young readers really will find fascinating, giving them a wider perspective on the world in which we live.  Disasters is a big splash of a book, with text snippets, diagrams, statistics, charts and photographs scattered all over its pages, showcasing sections labeled “Disastrous weather,” “Unstable earth,” “Troubled waters,” “How people cause disasters” and “The threat from space.”  All four of the old “elements” get their due: air (tornadoes, hurricanes), earth (earthquakes, landslides), fire (volcanoes) and water (floods, tsunamis).  The large photos, which take up two facing pages, are by far the most dramatic element of the book, showing, among other things, Haiti after its 2010 earthquake, a lava river around a soon-to-be-destroyed home, a sinkhole as deep as a 20-story building is tall, a man and his livestock marooned on a tiny piece of land during a flood in Pakistan, and much more.  The text is packed with useful and intriguing information, including the difference between ordinary waves (formed when wind blows across the water surface) and tsunamis (caused by undersea earthquakes); the causes of pandemics (a full-color picture of a mosquito, magnified 100 times, is amazing and scary); a threateningly fiery view of the sun (explaining that it will eventually swell and wipe out all life on Earth); and so on. A picture of three enormous simultaneous lightning strikes in South Africa is a visual highlight; pictures of weather scientists at work (including one showing the hyper-armored Tornado Intercept Vehicle) put the study of disasters in perspective; and the book is packed with data on the toll of everything from the “killer cold” of snowstorms and blizzards to the effects of global warming.  The layout is busy, even chaotic, with boxes, small and large pictures, graphics, pages laid out sideways, arrows, and multiple type styles all competing for a reader’s attention. The result is a rather frenzied appearance that actually goes well, in a somewhat overstated way, with the book’s topic – and that helps it fit into our media-saturated, highly visually oriented age.  The disasters discussed here are nothing new, with the possible exception of global warming, but the presentation is designed to showcase them in a newly intense way, not with an eye on prevention (since few of these events are preventable) but with the aim of titillating the reader and perhaps getting him or her to tune in more closely to the world at large.

Tuning in is of a different sort in Wild Discoveries: Wacky New Animals, another picture-heavy foray into the world of science. The hyped elements of layout are even stronger here. For instance, a discussion of the Shocking Pink Dragon Millipede from the jungles of Thailand includes not only a huge blowup of the creature but also the words “CRAZY COLOR” (in shades of pink), “FOUND!” and “OUCH!” (this last one with an explanation that millipedes are not dangerous to people but that the related centipedes can deliver a painful bite).  The creatures shown and discussed in these pages really are amazing in many ways, even if they are “wacky” only by inappropriately applied human standards. And the information given is solid and often very intriguing. But the layout may take some getting used to, except for those interested primarily in the “ick” factor. “SUPER SNOT” and “SLURP TIME” appear on a page about velvet worms, “SUCKING SNOUT” on one about seahorses, “FRANKENSPIDER” and “DINO SPIDER” on one about the Ayewa hooded spider, “UP THE NOSE” on a page about leeches, and so on.  It happens to be true that, for example, glassfrogs are so named because “you can SEE RIGHT THROUGH TO THEIR GUTS!”  But the necessity of being quite so emphatic is a bit hard to fathom.  Still, the surprising and highly unusual traits of these co-inhabitants of our planet make up for the excesses of the presentation (which, however, mean that this book will be of interest to younger readers than will those in the Scholastic Discover More series).  Seeing the patterns of stripes on frogfish – each set of swirls as unique as human fingerprints – is quite something.  Looking into the huge eyes of a tarsier, examining a close-up view of the horns and mouth scales of Matilda’s hooded viper, and observing in magnification the gigantic jaws of the black warrior wasp – these are experiences that make this book very worthwhile indeed.  And the facts, including ones about scientists studying these creatures, are highly involving even without the hectic layout – for instance, the story of the discovery of the Tennessee bottlebrush crayfish, and the fact that two new types of crayfish are found every year in the United States.  A book that succeeds almost in spite of itself, Wild Discoveries: Wacky New Animals (“new” in what sense, anyway?) is wackier than the animals it depicts, but if its rather frantic presentation gets young readers more interested in the underlying science, then the design will have served a decidedly non-wacky purpose.

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