August 28, 2014


BirdWingFeather. By Siri Schillios. Pomegranate Kids. $17.95.

What’s in the Coral Reef? A Nature Discovery Book. By Zoe Burke. Illustrations by Charley Harper. Pomegranate Kids. $14.95.

101 Hidden Animals. By Melvin and Gilda Berger. Scholastic. $8.99.

     Taking nature as their cue, some artists make the everyday world realer than real – enhancing it, modifying it, changing it in ways both subtle and obvious, all for the purpose of showing its beauties more clearly and getting observers of their art as involved in natural wonders as the artists themselves are. Siri Schillios does this with particular skill in her entirely wordless BirdWingFeather, a lovely Pomegranate Kids book that is most certainly for adults as well as children. Schillios explains in the book’s introduction that “certain colors are especially excited about getting to sit next to each other in a painting,” adding, “I like to think this happens because of a friendship between colors.” A fanciful notion, yes, but the attractive acrylic-on-wood paintings reproduced in this book make it seem entirely reasonable. The right side of each two-page spread shows a bird – some of them real, some created by Schillios but looking every bit as realistic and wonderful as the genuine ones. The left side shows parts of the bird: an eye, the flair of a tail, a wingtip, feet, beak, and so on. The pages contain no words at all, although there is a “key” of sorts at the start of the book, with specific paintings called “Glow,” “Coat of Many Colors,” “Small Wonder,” “Paradise,” “Sweetness and Light,” and so on. Readers can look first at each left-hand page and then see how the elements are combined on the right – or first at each right-hand page and then “disassemble” each illustration by looking at its components on the left. Either way, the experience is a delight: this is a book to experience rather than one to read, filled with illustrative subtleties of shape, form, color and expression that make these small feathered creatures even more enthralling on the page than they are amid the trees and flowers where they live.

     The realm is an underwater one in What’s in the Coral Reef? And Charley Harper’s spare, geometric illustrations serve a purpose completely different from those of Schillios. While Schillios enhances and thus celebrates reality, Harper encapsulates it, reducing it to patterns and colors that, while not particularly realistic in their totality, nevertheless express the real-world existence of creatures with a directness that more-elaborate drawings do not. Zoe Burke’s explanatory text is rather pedestrian, written in rhymes that are at times a bit “off” and in meter that does not quite scan: “LOOK twice! The Foureye Butterflyfish/ Has just two eyes, not four./ And you’ll never hear the Cornetfish/ Play a tune or musical score.” Still, Burke’s words serve the purpose of pulling readers into Harper’s bright illustrative world, where a coral reef teems with the odd-looking, oddly shaped, oddly colored and just plain odd – and with fish of considerable beauty. Some of Harper’s illustrations are exceptionally striking and effective, such as his depiction of a “Grouper black and white” (and pink and red) facing directly out of the page, patterned in triangles and trapezoids and ellipses. Other portrayals do not quite come off, such as one of a Pelican that has just caught a Snapper but that, because it is seen from below (as if one is looking up from the water), is little more than a strangely shaped blob. Still, the illustrations by Harper (1922-2007) are by and large as fascinating here as in two earlier Pomegranate Kids “Nature Discovery Book” offerings featuring his work: What’s in the Woods? and What’s in the Rain Forest? As in both those earlier works, Harper delights through a simplification process that makes the primary characteristics of animals clearer than a more-literal rendering would. For example, neither a Squid nor a Manta Ray really looks anything like the depictions in What’s in the Coral Reef? But Harper’s unusual view of their essentials somehow makes them seem every bit as realistic as they would in a typical photograph.

     Photos do have their place in impressing readers with the wonders of nature, though. The photos in 101 Hidden Animals are particularly attractive, because this is a book about camouflage – and the whole point of these animals’ survival strategy is to be invisible to predators and potential predators, including humans. So the pictures in this Scholastic book by Melvin and Gilda Berger actually show things that most readers would never have a chance to see on their own – in fact, you might be looking right at some of the creatures on display here and not know it. Some of the pages – the ones showing more-familiar animals, such as the lion, deer and giraffe – are only moderately interesting: these larger animals do blend with their surroundings, but there is nothing particularly surprising in seeing them in their natural habitat. However, some photos of less-known creatures are tremendously fascinating: the giant swallowtail caterpillar looks exactly like bird droppings; the glasswing butterfly has completely transparent wings, so anyone looking at it – including this book’s readers – sees right through the wings to the flower on which the insect is perched, as if there is no butterfly there at all; the leaf insect looks so much like a leaf that it is almost impossible to see even when you know exactly where it is; the longnose hawkfish’s red and white stripes help it blend almost perfectly with the type of coral amid which it lives; the stonefish is so bumpy and mottled that it looks like a rock when resting on the ocean floor; the thorn bug looks exactly like a rosebush thorn – and its sharp shell is as painful as a thorn if a predator bites it. A few of the entries in 101 Hidden Animals are a bit out of place, since they show animals that actually draw attention to themselves. For example, “Poison dart frogs are boldly colored animals that do not try to hide or blend in like other types of frogs,” but instead sport warning colors, as do black-and-yellow honeybees. But even if the book’s title is slightly misleading, its easy-to-read information on creatures from A (agama lizard) to Z (zebra) is always involving, and its look at defensive strategies based on sight (and on not being seen) is intriguing from start to finish.

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