December 17, 2015
(++++) STRANGE CREATURES, REAL AND NOT
Glow: Animals with Their Own Night-Lights. By W.H. Beck. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
Jampires. By Sarah McIntyre & David O’Connell. Scholastic. $16.99.
Sometimes reality trumps fiction. The creatures shown in W.H. Beck’s Glow look like invented otherworldly phenomena, things that cannot possibly exist. But they are real, and they live right here on Earth. The key is that they exist in places where more ordinary-looking animals cannot live – and despite the size at which these unusual creatures are shown in the book, many of them are actually quite tiny, so their apparent oddity and fierceness are a function of our misperception of how big they are. Glow is a book about bioluminescence – the word, with the way to pronounce it, appears at the start. And Beck points out that readers are likely to be familiar with some examples of the phenomenon, such as firefly lights. However, “more than anywhere else on our planet, animals glow in the water,” specifically in water so deep that sunlight cannot penetrate. Here very strange-looking creatures make their own light – but, again, they are generally very small strange-looking creatures, much littler than they appear in the book. It is important, although difficult, to keep this in mind when looking at, for example, the scaly dragonfish, which looks like a massive toothy monster but in fact measures no more than eight inches – which means its terrifyingly tooth-filled head, which is five inches long in the book, is in reality no bigger than an inch or two. Similarly, the green bomber worm, which releases glowing round balls when pursued, is more than six inches long in the book but in reality measures only six-tenths of an inch. The striking photographs here, which show the animals glowing against an all-black background, make their colors and their offensive or defensive strategies very clear, and the pictures in themselves have considerable beauty. Glow is also a scientifically accurate book, as far as it goes, explaining how the chemicals luciferin and luciferase are what create bioluminescence. The many uses of a glow are well presented, too: to hide, to hunt, to trick an enemy or trap a potential meal, to call for help, and in some cases for reasons not yet explained. The book’s final two pages are a useful supplement, explaining the true size of the creatures pictured and telling where they live. Not everything shown here is an animal: the book includes the foxfire mushroom, and single-cell dinoflagellates, although classified as animals, are difficult to see as such. The point here is not classification, however, but basic information on an unusual phenomenon that young readers may have encountered in their own lives – most likely through those fireflies – but may never have thought of beyond that. The variety of creatures producing bioluminescence is indeed wide, and the phenomenon is indeed a fascinating one: Beck’s book may well lead readers to seek further information elsewhere.
But there is no need to go further than Sarah McIntyre and David O’Connell have gone to get information on Jampires. They are small and odd-shaped creatures distinguished by the fact that they do not exist outside this book. The story is silly and endearing: young Sam finds all the filling missing from his jelly doughnut, so he sets a trap at night, using the dry doughnut – filled with ketchup – as bait. And sure enough, a couple of fanged, pointy-eared critters show up, explaining that “we both got so hungry we couldn’t resist/ slurping from what we could find./ A dollop of jam would never be missed!/ Or at least, we thought you’d not mind.” The jampires take Sam on a flight to their own land, which is “up through the start-speckled blue” and consists of a gigantic jam jar and “doughnuts that looked plump as cushions” – plus “mountains of blueberry pie,” presumably including jam filling. The jampires’ realm, a kind of oddball modification of the Land of Sweets as seen in Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, is packed with all sorts of jam-based or jam-related goodies – and lots of smiling jampires of all sizes. Sam and his newfound friends land in a “skyberry orchard,” where jampire moms welcome them and thank Sam for bringing back their “two jammy dodgers” (although, in truth, Sam did nothing but tag along as the jampires found their own way home). The grown-up jampires decide that Sam deserves a reward, so they now bring him a basket of jam-filled doughnuts every day, and everything ends pleasantly stickily. The mild and silly story is well complemented by the mild and silly illustrations – McIntyre and O’Connell both write the tale and both illustrate it – and the story will especially delight any child who is fond of jam-or-jelly-filled doughnuts but occasionally discovers one that really ought to have more filling than it does. When that happens, clearly jampires have been at work.