February 18, 2016
(++++) CREATURES THAT ARE, OR WERE, OR NEVER WERE
Dill & Bizzy: An Odd Duck and a Strange Bird. By Nora Ericson. Illustrated by Lisa Ericson. Harper. $17.99.
Duck, Duck, Dinosaur. By Kallie George. Illustrated by Oriol Vidal. Harper. $17.99.
Last of the Giants: The Rise and Fall of Earth’s Most Dominant Species. By Jeff Campbell. Zest Books. $13.99.
Harry Potter Magical Creatures Coloring Book. Scholastic. $15.99.
The interesting thing about the title of the Ericson sisters’ highly amusing “bird book” is that reversing the first letters of the characters’ names would give a clue to the whole plot. Think of “Bill and Dizzy” and you imagine one staid, straightforward character (and one with a bill) and one that is rather – well, dizzy. What is so much fun in Dill & Bizzy, though, is that both characters are oddballs, as the subtitle makes clear, but the duck (drawn comparatively realistically) considers himself quite ordinary, while the “strange bird” (which looks a bit like an escapee from a Dr. Seuss book) is well aware of his peculiarities and only wishes the duck shared them so they could become friends. Well, it turns out that the duck is just as odd as the whatever-it-is, to such an extent that when Bizzy decides to take a bicycle ride, “ordinary duck” Dill is ready to go along on his unicycle – and when Bizzy balances bagels on his nose and says an odd duck could do the same, Dill explains that because he is so ordinary, the best he can do is to juggle some ordinary peanuts while upside-down. There are definitely the makings of a beautiful friendship here, with Nora Ericson’s story making it clear that these two strange birds are well-matched and Lisa Ericson’s illustrations driving the point home through page after page of parallel silliness. The climax comes when the two birds, tired after all their activities, decide to splash in the fountain where Dill lives. Bizzy dives right in and is glad to be with an ordinary, water-loving duck – except that Dill explains that he cannot swim and has to use floaties. After this, the two birds decide that they might as well be best friends even though one is so thoroughly oddball and the other is, by his own standards, so thoroughly ordinary – which means, as Bizzy points out, that in fact Dill is “extra-ordinary.”
The mother duck and two ducklings in Duck, Duck, Dinosaur are more ordinary than Dill, but Kallie George adds something extra-ordinary to the mix – a very big something. Mama Duck is first seen awaiting the hatching of her three eggs, one of which is suspiciously larger than the other two. The first two eggs hatch nicely, with the two fluffy ducklings immediately becoming hyper-competitive as to which is bigger, Feather or Flap. While they argue, the third egg – the gigantic one – cracks open, and out comes a dinosaur that, thanks to Oriol Vidal’s illustrations, looks strange even by the standards of children’s books. He is all head (vaguely that of a predator, but with blunt teeth and pronounced overbite) and feet (gigantic ones), with almost no body at all. Mama Duck, filled with mother love, simply names him Spike and sets about enjoying her newly enlarged family. Now all three hatchlings compete for attention: Feather brings Mama a flower, so Flap brings a whole bouquet, and Spike rips a huge tree out of the ground and makes it his present to Mama Duck. Spike talks only in single words and sounds: “Sweet!” “Funny!” “Brrrr!” The two ducklings are much more expressive and argumentative. But in the end, the differing personalities and sizes – and species – matter not a whit, because “under Mama’s wings, no one was bigger, or sweeter, or funnier, or better. They were all the best. The best family.” And there you have a dinosaur-sized helping of warmth that will elicit an “awwww” from young readers – or at least from adults.
A much more serious look at giant creatures omits dinosaurs entirely, not because some dinos were tiny but because Last of the Giants focuses on megafauna that existed long after the age of dinosaurs. Jeff Campbell’s selection of 13 creatures is a very personal one, and not entirely consistent: it includes the very small passenger pigeon, for reasons that Campbell explains in his introduction, and also includes two other non-megafauna animals, the red wolf and thylacine. Campbell says he is primarily interested in “animals that dominated their environments,” often because of their size but sometimes for other reasons. But even accepting Campbell’s comment at face value makes some of his choices a bit hard to understand. For example, Last of the Giants includes the huge flightless birds called the moa (from New Zealand) and elephant bird (from Madagascar). But it omits Australia’s seven-foot-tall, 500-pound Genyornis newtoni – undoubtedly because that bird went extinct (apparently largely because of human predation of its eggs) tens of thousands of years ago, and Campbell focuses on extinctions within the last 500 years or so. So this is less a book about megafauna and other apex predators or environmentally significant creatures than it is a look at large and/or impressive animals that went extinct between roughly 1500 (moa) and 2011 (western black and Vietnam Javan rhinoceros). Within its somewhat fuzzy focus, Last of the Giants explores human interaction with now-extinct creatures and discusses the complex relationship between people and animals. Thankfully, Campbell does not take the all-too-common view that humans are some sort of pestilence, destroying other creatures willy-nilly. Regarding rhinos, for instance, he notes that they “find themselves in the same precarious position as so many other giant species whose fate is in our hands. Because of us, rhinos have become one of Earth’s most endangered species; yet without us, they would be long gone already.” That is, while some humans, such as poachers, destroy animals, others – conservationists and scientists – work to preserve them. All the creatures in Last of the Giants eventually succumbed to forces in whose involvement humans had a greater or lesser, more direct or less direct, role. In addition to the six entries already mentioned, Campbell discusses the aurochs, Steller’s sea cow, Indian Ocean giant tortoises, the California grizzly, certain lions, some tigers, and the baiji (a type of river dolphin). Of this last, he writes, “We loved the baiji, but it wasn’t enough. …Scientists barely understood the species, and they couldn’t agree on how to care for it.” Conservation attempts failed; a combination of factors relating to human encroachment eventually doomed the species. Like most contemporary writers about environmental topics, Campbell is very well-meaning but has a significant blind spot. The elephant (or other megafauna) in the room where conservation is concerned is human overpopulation – the ultimate issue affecting everything from energy use to deforestation to species extinction. Well-meaning First World scientists and researchers can do all they want to try to assist and preserve species, but as long as the human population grows essentially unchecked – and more quickly in less-developed countries than in developed ones – everyday human needs for food, shelter and energy are always going to put pressure on animals. Sometimes the pressure will be unsustainable and the animals will disappear. Campbell’s (+++) book is scarcely the only one to fail to acknowledge this reality. It is simply naïve to say, as he does of the baiji, that this river dolphin “was the first cetacean driven to extinction by humans, but we need to change our ways if we want it to be the last.” That is a distinctly First World formulation. The reality is that unless the entire world addresses its population issues – whose complexity has deep societal, tribal and religious elements – no amount of well-meaning intervention will be enough to sustain threatened species in the wild. And unfortunately, a willingness to confront the issue of human population is notably absent from virtually all discussions of climate change and species disappearance.
No climate on Earth or, as far as we know, anywhere else, ever produced the things seen in the Harry Potter Magical Creatures Coloring Book, but the human imagination can conceive of beings that even Mother Nature cannot bring into being (or at least has not). Fans of the eight Harry Potter films, from which the pictures in this coloring book were taken, will likely recognize at least some and perhaps many of the black-and-white characters and scenes that are available for coloring in any way one chooses – along the lines of the actual film stills (color pictures taken from a number of scenes are included) or using a different palette altogether. The book is a (+++) release for hardcore, highly devoted fans only, because there is nothing in it except the black-and-white pages to color and the colored pictures on which to base (or not base) one’s own approach to the creatures. That is, nothing here actually explains anything about any creature or scene, or even says which movie a page comes from. The assumption appears to be that anyone who wants this book will be so devoted to the whole Harry Potter movie universe that he or she will be able to identify all the creatures and the scenes in which they appear – or perhaps will not care what comes from where, but will simply be delighted to re-encounter these flights of imaginative fancy. Many people may remember such scenes as Harry’s meeting with Dobby and Dumbledore’s gentle handling of his phoenix, but the merpeople and certain specific dragons may be less easily recollected. In any case, the purpose of this book is to re-immerse fans of the Harry Potter films in the world the movies’ directors created – and thus, indirectly, in the world as originally envisioned by J.K. Rowling. The Harry Potter books have never really dropped from public consciousness, and Rowling continues adding to the mythic universe she created, so the Harry Potter Magical Creatures Coloring Book is sure to find a receptive audience among Potterphiles. It will not, however, entrance anyone who is not already captivated by the way the movies imagined and reimagined Rowling’s novels.