July 11, 2013
(++++) FACTUAL FASCINATION
Brush of the Gods. By Lenore Look. Illustrations by Meilo So. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
The Tapir Scientist: Saving South America’s Largest Mammal. By Sy Montgomery. Photographs by Nic Bishop. Houghton Mifflin. $18.99.
For all the attractions of fiction for young readers, there are plenty of factual stories out there that are every bit as interesting and may be even more intriguing. There is, for example, the tale of Wu Daozi (689-759?), regarded by many as China’s greatest painter. Considered the first painter to present movement in figures – flowing scarves, for example – he created murals, scrolls and hundreds of frescoes, although none of the frescoes has survived. Lenore Look’s Brush of the Gods is an imagined biography for ages 4-8, using information from period sources and complemented by excellent Meilo So illustrations made with watercolor, ink, gouache and colored paper. Look imagines that Daozi could not help but create his unique art forms – try as he might to do what everyone else did, his work came out differently, imbued with motion and so captivating to him that “he painted so much that he knew not whether the sun was up or down or whether he was standing or sitting.” And then the tale becomes one of magical realism, as Look tells that Daozi started painting creatures that would actually come to life and move out into the world – first a gorgeous butterfly, then pigeons and crickets and birds and horses. Eventually given a commission by the Emperor, Daozi works for many years to fulfill it, finally creating such a marvel that all who see it are beyond astonishment – even the Emperor bows. And then Daozi, now elderly, walks into this portrayal of Paradise and simply disappears – and it is in fact part of his legend that he did not die but only vanished. Brush of the Gods falls short of biography but is certainly not a work of fiction, and its spirit, which So’s art communicates exceptionally well, does honor to its subject – and serves beautifully to introduce today’s young readers to an enormously important artist of whom neither they nor their parents are likely to have heard before.
Nor will most families be familiar with the tapir, whose story – on an entirely factual basis – is told by Sy Montgomery in yet another of the top-notch “Scientists in the Field” books for preteens and teenagers, The Tapir Scientist. Just as most art students are unfamiliar with Daozi, most people living where the tapir does – in and near the Pantanal, a huge freshwater wetland in Brazil – have never seen one. Although the tapir is the largest mammal in South America, as the book’s subtitle says, it is hard to find; and although it is known to be endangered, its very elusiveness makes it difficult to save. Nic Bishop’s superb photographs not only showcase the work of scientists who work with and for tapirs but also show amazing views of the animals themselves – such as one that includes a typically dull-colored adult female with her adorable striped and spotted infant. The book’s title is a trifle misleading in speaking of a scientist, singular, because in fact there is a “tapir team” here, a five-member, mostly Brazilian group that searches for tapirs and works to preserve the Pantanal, which is 10 times the size of the Florida Everglades. The tapir itself is an oddity, an animal largely unchanged for 12 million years, distantly related to rhinoceroses and horses but looking like a sort of elephant-hippopotamus. In addition to information on tapirs, the book includes slices of life in the areas where the animals live, with discussions of the drinking of maté tea from a cow’s horn, a close-up view of the deadly fer-de-lance snake, and a look at a caiman that especially enjoys snacking on piranhas. Many of the sidelights of this science story are as fascinating as the main one, such as a discussion of the ticks that infest tapirs and why it is important to study them, and one about the very-little-understood giant armadillo. These animals all deserve to be called exotic, but that does not mean they are so rare as to be unimportant – they are, in fact, crucial to the ecosystem in which they live; and The Tapir Scientist explains how, and why their preservation is important on multiple levels. Many matters in this book are as strange as anything in fiction for young readers, and the fact that the information is real makes it all the more amazing to read.