September 17, 2015


A Passion for Elephants: The Real Life Adventure of Field Scientist Cynthia Moss. By Toni Buzzeo. Illustrated by Holly Berry. Dial. $16.99.

Happy! By Pharrell Williams. Putnam. $19.99.

     What motivates someone to a lifelong commitment to a particular focus, a specific way of living? Certainly strong passion for a particular idea or activity can become the foundation of one’s life work – and parents can explain that to young readers who become engaged with the story of Cynthia Moss as Toni Buzzeo tells it in A Passion for Elephants. This is the biography of a woman who, Buzzeo says, has spent her life facing BIG challenges and learning about BIG things and accomplishing an ENORMOUS amount – the words “big” and “enormous” are highlighted and given in all capitals throughout the book. The point for young children is that there is nothing wrong, and a great deal right, in thinking BIG and dreaming BIG and being unafraid to tackle BIG projects as Moss (born 1940) has done. There is little here to explain Moss’ engagement with elephants – Buzzeo simply suggests that letters from a friend encouraged Moss, then a magazine reporter, to visit Africa, where Moss fell in love with the land and then with elephants. That is surely an oversimplified version of Moss’ story, but it is entirely appropriate for kids as young as age three – and Buzzeo’s book is intended for ages three and up. So it is best just to accept Moss’ interest in elephants as given and learn, through pages filled with pleasant illustrations by Holly Berry, how Moss photographed elephants, learned to distinguish individuals by carefully examining their ears, and slowly became more and more knowledgeable about the animals, their way of life, their family groupings and their behavior patterns. Then the book takes a turn into advocacy, explaining about hunters killing elephants for their ivory tusks and about the way Moss helped rally people around the world to end the trade in ivory – although some countries still allow it, as the book makes clear. Buzzeo does a fine job of humanizing the elephants without actually making them anthropomorphic: her writing and Berry’s illustrations adhere to realistic descriptions and depictions of the animals, but at the same time show how elephant behavior could certainly have fascinated Moss for decades and how it can continue to interest people today (and presumably, in the future, intrigue the children who read this book or have it read to them). There is nothing conclusive in A Passion for Elephants: saving the remaining ones, Buzzeo writes, is yet another ENORMOUS job in which Moss is involved and in which the author implies that children who are unafraid of BIG things can also develop an interest. A sensitive blend of biography and animal advocacy, A Passion for Elephants has a low-key attractiveness both in the story it tells and in the way it tells it.

     Things are significantly brighter, bouncier and more overtly enthusiastic in Happy! As befits the title – which is also the title of the Pharrell Williams song whose lyrics the book illustrates – everything here is brightly colored and full of style and motion and sing-along enthusiasm for ages 3-7. The book has no plot at all; the words are simply those of the song, with photos of perfectly ethnically and racially balanced kids looking as if they are doing suitably happy things on every page. There is a lot of super-bright yellow here! The book’s title is bright yellow, the inside front and back covers are bright yellow with white polka dots, the front and back flaps are bright yellow, and on the very first page, kids will see a boy in bright yellow pants and a girl wearing a skirt with bright yellow and white stripes. Everything here is about sunshine (although, oddly, the sun, when it is shown in cartoonish form, is orange!) and happiness and silly, amusing images: a hot air balloon heading into  outer space, kites crisscrossing in the sky, a little girl photoshopped to look like a judge for the words “clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth,” three kids holding bright yellow smiley faces in front of their own faces, and on and on and on. This is actually a short picture book, but it feels jam-packed – not with words but with images, because there is so much happening on every page. Yes, it is necessary to know the Williams song in order to appreciate everything the book offers, but even families uninterested in the song will be able to enjoy some of the sheer daffiness of the photos here: the girl with a megaphone and hearts on her knees, the one who seems to be floating in the clouds while actually wearing a cloud as a tutu, the three kids seeming to hang in the air to the words “bring me down, can’t nothing bring me down.” The typical illiteracy of the lyrics may bother some parents, although it is right in line with ordinary pop-music norms; and at least there is nothing objectionable in the words or the sentiments behind them. This is a book that is purely for fun and almost entirely targeted at fans of Williams and people enthusiastic about this specific song. What helps the book work even for people not enamored of the music (or not aware of it) is the sheer joy that emanates from every page – and, after all, who can object to that?

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