August 06, 2015


Picture This: Homes; Shapes. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99 each.

How to Swallow a Pig: Step-by-Step Advice from the Animal Kingdom. By Steve Jenkins & Robin Page. Illustrations by Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

     From France they come: visually striking, beautifully laid-out board books featuring excellent photos of animals and their Homes or the Shapes their bodies make. Significantly longer than most board books – Homes has 44 pages, Shapes 42 – the books originally appeared in 2014 in France with text by Judith Nouvion. Now they are available in an English translation by Vali Tamm. But the text is scarcely the point here. Each two-page spread in each book includes a background photo and a foreground explanation. In Homes, for example, there is a large picture, covering two pages, of a weaver-ant nest, with a small foreground close-up of one of the ants. There is also a large picture of a beaver lodge in a river, with a small foreground close-up of a beaver. And so forth. The text, although minimal, is occasionally surprising. For example, “Satin bowerbirds decorate their homes with blue objects they find: bottle caps, clothespins, straws, feathers – anything blue!” A child learning this is likely to ask “why?” But there are no answers here – these are not really science books except in an incidental way: they are visual feasts in what you see is all of what you get. That will be plenty for many children, though, especially younger ones who have started to outgrow more-typical, very brief board books. To be sure, it is fascinating to see both a clownfish and the sea anemone within which it lives. But it may also be frustrating to look at pages featuring a “tropical bird” – one that is not specifically identified – and its hanging nest. Homes has science-related flaws such as this one, but in the main is so visually attractive that parents can use it to get kids interested in the material and then find further information elsewhere. As for Shapes, it uses animals in some very creative ways to explore its topic. Yes, it is obvious that a starfish will be used to show the shape of a star, but a different form of starfish is used to show what a pentagon is – and the pentagon is not a shape often encountered in books for young children. Indeed, there is much that is unusual here. “Line” is illustrated by a row of birds on a wire; “rectangle” by a flying squirrel with flaps fully extended; “coil” with a look at the antlers of a male blackbuck antelope, and so on. The photos here are of the animals in their natural habits, while the foreground inset shows a drawing of the shape being illustrated and explains where to find it in each photo. Spotting the shapes is easy, but it is also uncommonly enjoyable to do so in the context of such fascinating pictures: the spiral in a chameleon’s tail and trapezoid (another of several uncommonly discussed shapes) of a peacock butterfly with spread wings are both intriguing and beautiful. Neither Homes nor Shapes provides significant detail on the subject matter, but both books introduce their topics with so much beauty that children will likely be inspired to look for more-detailed material somewhere else.

     The explanatory material is considerably more extensive in How to Swallow a Pig by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page – and as the book’s title indicates, this is a how-to book that is more than a little out of the ordinary. Jenkins and Page write the book as if the animals they show are actually instructing young readers in ways to do what the animals do naturally. A humpback whale, for example, explains the five stages of trapping fish: find some, tell your friends about them, slap the surface with your tail, swim in smaller and smaller circles beneath the fish to herd them, then swim straight up through the fish and gulp them down. The illustrations show the animals quite realistically, but are also designed to highlight each specific step of the “instructions” being given. Thus, for example, in the fourth of five steps of “How to Woo Like a Mountain Sheep,” the words say to “rear up on your hind legs, charge your opponent, and smash your head into his,” and the illustration shows two male sheep doing just that – but not quite at the point of contact yet. As for “How to Crack a Nut Like a Crow,” the text warns that “it’s probably best not to try this technique until you learn how to fly.” And the six steps of “How to Disguise Yourself Like an Octopus” not only show the mimic octopus assuming various shapes of which it is capable, but also show the actual appearance of the animals it imitates – a lionfish, for example, and a sea snake. And speaking of snakes, the book’s title refers to something that large constrictors, such as a python, can do, and the final entry explain how to go about it: the fifth of six steps, “Swallow,” says. “Unhinge your jaw (this takes practice),” while the final step, “Rest,” points out that “you won’t have to eat again for several months.” The facts in How to Swallow a Pig are scientifically accurate and carefully chosen, and additional information on the animals is provided at the back of the book. The illustrations really do show how animals do the various things they need to do in order to survive, and the narrative presents the information in such an interesting way that kids will find themselves being educated without really thinking of it as learning. Those characteristics add up to “how to teach about animal behavior in the style of Steve Jenkins and Robin Page” – which is not a book title, but a pretty good description of this one.

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