October 09, 2014

(++++) WHYS AND WHEREFORES


Creature Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do. By Steve Jenkins & Robin Page. Illustrations by Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

Marlene, Marlene, Queen of Mean. By Jane Lynch with Lara Embry, Ph.D., and A.E. Mikesell. Illustrated by Tricia Tusa. Random House. $16.99.

     The reasons things are the way they are can make for fascinating reading – and instructive reading, too. And that applies whether dealing with physical or personality characteristics. Creature Features is a short and wonderful guide to the unusual anatomical structures of 25 animals, some of them likely to be familiar to young readers (panda, giraffe) and some they are very unlikely to know (babirusa, spicebush swallowtail caterpillar). The book’s structure is simplicity itself: using collages made of cut and torn paper, Steve Jenkins provides closeup views of each animal that emphasize a distinguishing characteristic; and Jenkins and Robin Page create a question-and-answer format that explains the animal’s appearance in a very few words. For example, “Dear pufferfish: You’ve got me worried – are you going to explode? No, I won’t burst. I’ve inflated my body with water to make it tougher for a big fish to swallow me.” Or, “Dear leaf-nosed bat: Seriously, is that your nose? I know, I know – it looks strange. But my nose directs the high-pitched sounds I make, which helps me find my way as I fly.” The science here is accurate, and the characteristics explored are not necessarily the ones you might expect – for the giraffe, for example, the question is about its purple tongue, not its long neck. Two well-done pages at the back of the book show where the animals live, what they eat, and how their size compares with that of a human being. This is a book that is easy to read, intriguing to look at, and quite informative despite its brevity and pictorial emphasis.

     The “why” question applies strictly to a person in Marlene, Marlene, Queen of Mean, a book that tries with mixed success to tackle the issue of bullying and what can be done about it. Intended for very young readers and pre-readers – the target age range is 3-7 – the book is designed to connect the problems of real-world bullying with the use of bullies in fictional presentations: Jane Lynch plays one on TV in the show Glee. Whether very young kids will know Lynch or not is unimportant for the book’s message, though; and the message itself, which appears to have been crafted primarily by clinical psychologist Lara Embry and structured for early-childhood consumption by former children’s-book editor A.E. Mikesell, is certainly clear enough: bullying is bad, and kids can band together to stop it. Unfortunately, the need to simplify both the problem and the solution makes this (+++) book too simplistic to have the value that its creators clearly wish it to have. The title character is described as “a girl seeking glory,” which makes no sense except as a reached-for rhyme with “story.” What really motivates Marlene to her comparatively mild forms of bullying (a few pinches, some yelling, standing in and blocking doorways) is never said explicitly – and is not the point, anyway. “She’d stand on a chair/ to gloom and to glare,/ making everyone/ feel really tense.” All it takes to stop Marlene – if only shutting down a bully were really so easy! – is one boy asking “why” she casts such a large shadow on everyone. A single sentence from the boy to the effect that “we cringe and we cower/ and give her our power” takes that power away immediately – one page later, “the kids were no longer afraid.” And Marlene starts to cry, and “all the anger she felt” (perhaps the root cause of her meanness) “flew from her nose in three sneezes,” and all the other kids immediately help her – and Marlene ends up “becoming a much nicer kid.” There is a nod to the notion of minor backsliding in this transformation, but the basic point is that simply standing up to a bully unravels the bullying behavior, and then the bullied kids can immediately be very nice to their tormentor, and all will be well. But however well-intentioned this formulation is, it is a bit too pat an explanation of bullying and its consequences for even the youngest children. More importantly, the book misses out on an absolutely crucial element of combating bullying: tell an adult what is going on. There are no adults in this book at all; and while it is certainly true that bullies thrive by mistreating their victims out of sight of adults, it is equally true that one major way to shine light on the darkness of bullying is by making sure responsible adults, most specifically including parents, know it is happening. Marlene, Marlene, Queen of Mean is intended to empower kids and show them how to handle bullying, at least of the mild sort practiced by the title character, on their own. But it is such a na├»ve exploration of this complex topic that it is likely to be less helpful in real-world circumstances than its well-meaning creators want it to be.

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