April 10, 2014


Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy. By Dr. Pat Morris with Joanna Ebenstein. Blue Rider Press. $19.95.

Galápagos George. By Jean Craighead George. Paintings by Wendell Minor. Harper. $15.99.

Five Little Monkeys Sitting in a Tree. By Eileen Christelow. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Martha Speaks: Play Ball! Martha Habla: ¡Juega al sóftbol! A Spanish Bilingual Book. Based on the characters created by Susan Meddaugh. Adaptation by Marcy Goldberg Sacks. Translated by Carlos E. Calvo. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $3.99.

     There is something uniquely Victorian about the odd, whimsical creations of taxidermist Walter Potter (1835-1918), who took anthropomorphic depictions of animals to extremes by stuffing rabbits, squirrels, cats, mice and other critters and setting them up in dioramas depicting scenes from the mythic to the then-modern. Potter lived in the village of Bramber, in West Sussex, England, and there created a museum in which to display his remarkably detailed tableaux, from items inspired by Goethe to ones that sprang entirely from Potter’s own mind. The stuffed animals in human scenes, a curiosity when created, are something more than that today: they show with remarkable accuracy what everyday life was like in Victorian times, displaying furniture, clothing, events and poses with remarkable accuracy – but in miniature and with animals as the “players.” Guinea pig musicians perform in a brass band; toads cavort in a playground; beautifully dressed kittens attend a remarkably detailed wedding; other kittens play croquet during an elaborate tea party; rabbits attend school, taking notes and reading books; squirrels play cards; and on and on. Potter was a skilled taxidermist, and it was only after his death that his humanizing arrangements of small animals started to seem peculiar to some observers. His mythic scenes, however, have stood the test of time quite well. For example, “The Death & Burial of Cock Robin,” based on the old nursery rhyme, was his first tableau – it took him seven years to create – and one of his most elaborate, containing nearly 100 birds (including some that are now rare or extinct in Sussex). Taxidermy expert Dr. Pat Morris writes knowingly and glowingly of the Bramber Museum and its creator, while the photographs by Joanna Ebenstein display Potter’s remarkable creations in all their beauty and, to modern eyes, peculiarity. The Potter collection, which included not only the tableaux but also preserved oddities such as a two-headed lamb and conjoined twin pigs, was broken up at auction in 2003, its pieces scattered worldwide – a sad ending to Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy and to a collection with remarkable historical importance as well as considerable inherent interest. The reassembly of the collection, as Morris notes, “is precluded,” but at least we have this beautifully made and thoroughly fascinating book to document a footnote to history that is filled with charm, a touch of erudition, and considerable skill in animal preservation.

     Modern taxidermy is altogether more scientific and is handled in museums and laboratories far more often than in small-town museums. It has been brought into play to preserve Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise from the Galápagos Islands, who died in 2012. After a necropsy (the animal equivalent of an autopsy for humans), George’s body was transported to the American Museum of Natural History for extended taxidermy work to allow him to be seen by future generations. But Galápagos George, by the late Jean Craighead George (1919-2012) and Wendell Minor, focuses not at all on George’s postmortem treatment and mentions his death only at the end. The book is about how Lonesome George came to be, who his ancestors likely were, how those ancient tortoises came to the Galápagos Islands in the first place, and how Charles Darwin’s observations of them fueled his theory of evolution. Starting with Giantess George, an imagined ancestor of Lonesome George, author and artist trace the giant tortoises’ heritage and explain, in simple enough terms for kids ages 4-8 to understand, how one type of tortoise became 14 different types over many, many years of life in subtly different environments among the Galápagos Islands. The flowering of the multiple species, and the natural and human-made reasons for their decline, are explored with sensitivity and a clear understanding of the food chain – more accurately, the food web – on which all life depends, and the ways in which people and the animals they brought interfered with the natural balance of the Galápagos Islands and eventually reduced the tortoise population nearly to the point of no return, and in some cases all the way to it. Writer and artist manage to make the ending of their book a positive if not entirely upbeat one; the story will encourage involved young readers to find out more about what happened to the Galápagos Island tortoises and to Lonesome George himself – and the resources at the back of the book will be an excellent starting point for further exploration.

     Anthropomorphic taxidermy may have gone out of style, but the anthropomorphic use of animals certainly has not, especially in children’s books. Eileen Christelow’s Five Little Monkeys Sitting in a Tree, which originally dates to 1991 and is now available in board-book form, shows just how much times have changed – and not only in the way animals are handled in stories. The book is based on the old nursery rhyme about five little monkeys taunting an alligator and getting snapped up one by one, until at the end there are no little monkeys left. But that is no good for hyper-cautious modern sensibilities, under which much time is spent trying to shield young minds from any hint of violence – even in an amusing, fairy-tale-like setting. And never mind that crocodiles, which (unlike alligators) live where monkeys do, really do eat monkeys if they can catch them! Anyway, Christelow turns the silly old nursery rhyme into a story in which the little monkeys and their mama go on a picnic, mama falls asleep, and the monkeys then decide to tease Mr. Crocodile – who smiles at them even as he snaps his jaws, and who never actually threatens them, much less eats them. One by one, the little monkeys hide from the crocodile, frightened by the snapping, while mama and other on-shore monkey observers become theatrically upset at what is going on. Of course, it turns out that the little monkeys are all just fine, and not even particularly frightened, and their mama tells them, “Never tease a crocodile. It’s not nice – and it’s dangerous.” It’s sort of hard to see how it’s dangerous, in light of what happens here – it all seems like fun, and even as mama gives her warning, the very anthropomorphic crocodile is smiling and resting his head on his front feet in quite a human-like and thoroughly nonthreatening pose. At the end, the little monkeys and mama eat their picnic and do not tease Mr. Crocodile anymore, and he waves jauntily and smilingly at them at the end. The mixed messages here and the unnecessary revamping of the old nursery rhyme for somewhat too-delicate modern tastes mean that Five Little Monkeys Sitting in a Tree is not among Christelow’s best stories of the little monkeys, but it still gets a (+++) rating and will be fun for fans of the series – especially if parents carefully explain just how unrealistic the entire scenario is.

     The Martha Speaks books are always completely unrealistic, at any time and in any language, since the whole point of them is that a dog talks to kids and helps them out. Martha Speaks: Play Ball! Martha Habla: ¡Juega al sóftbol! gets a (+++) rating and fits right into the sequence: it is effective as a dual-language entry at Level 2 in the “Green Light Readers” series – being for ages 5-7 and written with short sentences and simple dialogue. The story is that Martha’s friend Truman wants to run away from home because he is supposed to play softball and cannot catch. Martha says that she can catch and will help Truman learn, and that is just what she does, with a little assistance from several of Truman’s human friends. So during the game, Truman does make a catch – but he does not throw very well, and Martha cannot help him with that because, as she points out, dogs have no thumbs (“no tenemos pulgares”). Word-matching and fill-in-the-blanks activities at the back of the book are in both English and Spanish, along with the story itself, and the whole short work is appropriate for its target age group and will be fun for young children who are both fans of Martha and interested in learning some basic English/Spanish translations. There is nothing consequential about the book, but as one part of early bilingual education, it serves a good purpose.

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