September 18, 2014
(++++) PATHS TO AND THROUGH REALITY
Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My! By Artie Bennett. Illustrations by Pranas T. Naujokaitis. Blue Apple. $17.99.
Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth. By Molly Bang & Penny Chisholm. Illustrated by Molly Bang. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $18.99.
I’m Brave! By Kate & Jim McMullan. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Hmm. Yes, there certainly are different ways of providing factual information to young readers. Very different ways. Artie Bennett’s involves tackling bodily functions that are not usually discussed, much less written about, in polite society, and doing so in such an amusing way that readers will not know whether to be fascinated or grossed out. Or both at the same time. Actually, the response depends on the reader, and perhaps on the reader’s age: adults may be horrified at Bennett books such as The Butt Book and Poopendous, but the kids for whom the rhyming text and abundant illustrations are intended will more likely be, if not charmed, at least amused. Oh – and informed, too, since Bennett does get the science (and anatomy) right. And that brings us to Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My! With inside covers adorned (if that’s the right word) with Pranas T. Naujokaitis illustrations of kids, babies, snakes, giraffes, dogs, cats and other creatures emitting gas, with a copyright page on which a baby’s farts turn into boilerplate information on the book’s publication, this is a book that never takes itself seriously – but does take its subject matter seriously. That is a curious combination, and one that works exceptionally well. Even parents who find the whole topic uncomfortable will have to admit that Bennett has dug up some fascinating facts: we cannot burp while on our backs; belching during a meal in China is a compliment, not an insult; jellyfish, sponges and anemones cannot fart – while the dubious distinction of champion farter goes to the termite; humans average 14 farts per day; and so forth. More-mundane information is here, too, in Bennett’s well-structured rhymes: “Animals that chew their cud/ Pass a massive gaseous flood!” Naujokaitis offers pages ranging from one showing a boy belching the alphabet in class to one diagramming the intestinal process that leads to gas expulsion, complete with smiling and tooting bacteria. The pictures are so exaggerated that they make it difficult to dislike a topic that simply doesn’t find its way into kids’ books – or doesn’t usually show up, anyway. Bennett has a way with words that neatly complements Naujokaitis’ with pictures. For example, on one page, the words are, “The more you belch,/ the less you’ll fart./ You could even keep a chart!” The picture shows a boy and girl studying and, yes, charting the various emissions of a baby. The back of the book offers two pages of “Fart-tastic Facts & Burp-tacular Bits” that add some additional science to the narrative, such as “flatus” being the medical term for farting and “eructation” being the official word for belching, and what happens when someone burps in space (the lack of gravity usually means some food comes up as well). Funny, factual and unafraid to tackle topics usually untouched, Bennett and Naujokaitis produce…err, emit...err, expel…err, offer an offbeat winner of a book in Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My!
Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm tackle a much more conventional topic in a much more conventional way in Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth. The presentation here is more along the lines of what is typical in nonfiction picture books – although having the sun itself as narrator is a clever touch (and one also used in three previous Sunlight books). Buried Sunlight tackles complex scientific subjects in clear, if necessarily simplified, form, explaining how photosynthesis works and what “the cycle of life” is (with Bang’s pictorial representation of the cycle being particularly attractive and clearly illustrative). The slow transition of Earth from a planet without oxygen to one with an oxygen-rich atmosphere is explained, and the way that change relates to the eventual formation of fossil fuels is presented clearly – including an explanation of why such fuels are, in a sense, “buried sunlight.” Bang and Chisholm then explain how carbon dioxide gets into the atmosphere and what it means when “burning fossil fuels and burning your forests puts more CO2 into Earth’s [atmospheric] blanket every year.” They explain climate change, but also note that “Earth has changed a LOT over the billions of years since it was born” – the issue now being not change itself but the pace of change, which is “VERY VERY VERY VERY fast.” The book ends with the sun asking whether humans will “risk the changes” of continuing to use fossil fuels or “work together to use my ancient sunlight more slowly.” The question is reasonable, whatever one’s attitude toward climate change may be, and the extensive back-of-book notes (six pages of comparatively small type, with only a few small illustrations) can be excellent discussion points for families or classrooms. The book’s perspective is an intriguing one: “Since the 19th century, human civilization has been run on ancient sunlight stored in fossil fuels.” And the authors state directly that “there are things we left out, or greatly oversimplified, in writing this book.” Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth is nevertheless a surprisingly comprehensive overview of a complex and difficult subject, presented in easy-to-follow text with very engaging illustrations. The one omission that parents or teachers will have to bring up on their own – and it is a serious one that is not discussed even at the end of the book – is that of Earth’s population. All the technology and good will in the world that may be devoted to limiting fossil-fuel use and finding alternative energy sources cannot possibly cope with the enormous and continuing increase in the number of humans on the planet. Of course, that is more of a Malthusian book than an energy-centric one, but the population reality is the “elephant in the room” when energy use and conservation are discussed – an elephant that is overlooked here, as in so many other books on the same subject, whether for children or adults.
Fact-based books need not be as funny as Bennett’s or as serious as Buried Sunlight – they can fall somewhere in between, as in the case of I’m Brave! The title does not make it clear what the book is about: fire engines. But the smiling, rather self-important-looking engine on the cover points clearly enough to the topic. Just as the sun narrates Buried Sunlight, the engine itself is the narrator of Kate and Jim McMullan’s book. This is an engine with an attitude and a pronounced accent, proclaiming that he carries “a whole lotta, WHOLE LOTTA HOSE” and has a water cannon “sproutin’ from my HEAD!” Oh – and he makes it clear that he is “GOOD LOOKIN’, that’s what.” There is serious commitment behind that on-the-verge-of-bragging way of talking, though, and the engine gives young readers an interesting guide to firefighting tools – including not only familiar items such crowbars and drills but also “duck-billed lock breakers, rabbit-tool door forcers,” and “Halligan tools.” Kids will actually have an issue with the tool lists, and for that matter, so will parents, since the McMullans do not provide a key showing which tool is which – the engine simply asks, “Can you match ’em?” The rest of the book is clear enough, though, as an alarm comes in and the engine gets down to business, using blinkers, flashers and light bar to race through traffic and, at the fire, sets about ordering chocks, hydrant wrench, twin connector, pump and other equipment to get going – the engine itself issuing commands and dispatching the tools, there being no human firefighters seen in the book. There is good, solid information in I’m Brave! And there is enough that is amusing in the book’s presentation to make the facts easy to understand and absorb – all in all, a potentially dour subject handled with a fine combination of the serious and the lighthearted.