June 02, 2016


Bertram and His Funny Animals. By Paul T. Gilbert. Pictures by Minnie H. Rousseff. Pomegranate Kids. $24.95.

Cat Book. By B. Kliban. Pomegranate Kids. $10.95.

The Great White Shark Scientist. By Sy Montgomery. Photographs by Keith Ellenbogen. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.

     The first Bertram book by Paul T. Gilbert (1876-1953) is long overdue for republication, and Pomegranate Kids – which wisely touts its books as being for ages three to 103 – deserves heaps of praise for bringing it back. Originally published in 1934, Bertram and His Funny Animals has as much outlandish charm and gentle humor in the 21st century as it did in the first half of the 20th. The concept is simple: young Bertram always asks for animals to play with at home, but never anything as mundane as a cat or dog – in this volume, for example, he wants (and gets) a hippopotamus, dancing bear, giraffe named Rudolph, South American tapir, kangaroo, circus elephant, ticklish rhinoceros, baboon, and “troublesome camel.” Yes, yes, this is all politically incorrect, since every right-thinking bastion of political correctness celebrates not having bears that dance and elephants that perform in the circus; but anyone willing to put aside all the PC nonsense will have a grand time with Bertram’s modest adventures (those unwilling to compromise this week’s eternal principles can hope soon to see a reprint of the second book in this series, Bertram and His Fabulous Animals). In every story, Bertram’s mother – sometimes complicit, through misspeaking, in agreeing to let Bertram get an animal, sometimes simply bemused by all that is happening – puts up with the inconveniences and irritations of the animal until she has had more than enough; then it generally falls to Bertram’s father, usually upon his return from a business trip to Omaha, to straighten things out. Part of the fun of these stories – and part of what makes them great for kids – is that they all follow essentially the same formula, but present enough variations on it so that children and adults alike will find them to be plenty of fun. All the animals talk – to everyone, not just to Bertram – but they also exhibit some real-animal behaviors. The hippopotamus, for example, complains about the paltry amount of food Bertram brings him (although the poor boy eats almost nothing for several days so he can feed the hippo) – and then it turns out that what the hippo wanted all along was hay, not suburban-family food. The tapir becomes a problem for Bertram because it is nocturnal and insists on roaming at night and eating watermelons planted by Mrs. Cree, the next-door neighbor, who then blames George Fish, another boy in the neighborhood – and when Bertram tries to make amends, things only get stickier (largely with watermelon juice). All the animals turn up right in Bertram’s neighborhood, although sometimes he has to go looking for one – for example, Bertram learns that kangaroos live in Van Diemen’s land (the old name for Tasmania), so he finds a neighbor named Mr. Van Diemen and, sure enough, can buy a kangaroo from that gentleman for 47 cents (money later returned to Bertram when he brings the kangaroo back after it causes havoc). There is something so good-humored about all the Bertram adventures, so resolutely offbeat and so normal-seeming at the same time, that Bertram and His Funny Animals is a real feast for readers – and for viewers, too, thanks to Minnie H. Rousseff’s lovely full-color cartoon illustrations, done in attractive 1930s period style. Some Bertram books are unlikely ever to reappear, such as With Bertram in Africa, whose racial stereotypes would offend political correctness to a degree beyond acceptability in these “offend no one” times. But having Bertram and His Funny Animals back is wonderful, and hopefully the sequel from 1937, with fantasy animals and more Rousseff illustrations, will also show up again.

     More-recent animals, and ones in which reality and fantasy blend to delightful effect, are the cats created by B. Kliban (1935-1990), some of which can be seen in a wonderful board book with rhyming text by Zoe Burke. Both readers familiar with Kliban’s plump, big-eyed, sort-of-anthropomorphic cats and those encountering them for the first time will find plenty of amusement here. “Sneaker Cat has bright red feet,” says one page, on which a cross-eyed feline walks from left to right while wearing four bright-red sneakers; “Ice Cream Cats love stuff that’s sweet,” says the next page, showing two shirt-wearing cats happily licking ice cream cones. Then there are the cat contrasts. On the left, “Tea Time Cat enjoys a cup,” this cat having eyes closed in bliss and the tea cup having a fish sticking out of it; on the right, “AerobiCat is bouncing up,” with a suitably sweatband-attired cat using its spring-coiled tail to bounce about. Kliban (whose first name was not “B.” but Bernard) had a great sense of fun and the ability to make his cats look almost alike but not quite – a classic drawing here shows seven of them, the largest on the left and the smallest on the right, each leaning on the next one and each in a different color. Simple enough for use with pre-readers and early readers, packed with enough fun for adults (perhaps even ones above age 103), Kliban’s Cat Book is one of those deceptively simple productions that readers will find themselves returning to again and again, just for the fun of it.

     Real real-world animals are much less fun, although learning about them is enjoyable in a different way. Sy Montgomery’s The Great White Shark Scientist, one of the always excellent “Scientists in the Field” books, follows shark researchers as they try “to smash a whole year’s worth of study into just two months,” as one puts it, because access to sharks is complicated by weather, migration patterns and various circumstances beyond anyone’s control. Montgomery’s book is packed with facts about sharks, such as his note that there are 500 shark species, of which three (bull, tiger and great white) are responsible for two-thirds of shark attacks on humans. Keith Ellenbogen’s first-rate photographs are coupled with well-executed illustrations, notably one showing the parts of a great white shark and explaining what each does. Some sharks, for example, can hear struggling fish 820 feet away; one-quarter of a shark’s brain is devoted to smell; sharks have distinctive patterns where their light and dark colors meet, making it possible to identify individuals; and much more. As in all the books of this series, everything shown and discussed is a work in progress: there is drudgery aplenty in the hunt for sharks to investigate, but there is also high drama, as in a photo sequence showing how to tag a tiger shark (hint: very carefully). Montgomery is careful to pause periodically in his science narrative for some fascinating facts. For example, in one year (1996), 13 Americans were injured by sharks and 43,000 were injured by toilets; and the single species of humans numbers about the same as the 500 species of sharks (seven billion). Montgomery and Ellenbogen are careful not to try to humanize or “prettify” sharks, and indeed the book shows quite clearly why these fish so capture humans’ imagination and are so frightening: one photo of a swimming shark clearly shows its overbite and huge number of teeth (sharks may have 300 teeth at any given time and can produce 300,000 in their lives), as well as one of its very dark and (to humans) baleful-looking eyes. Although the actual danger from sharks is statistically small, it makes good sense to avoid attracting their attention, and the book ends with some recommendations that are blithely delivered but quite serious, such as: “Avoid areas where many fish are congregating and sea birds are diving (don’t swim with the menu!).” An excellent blend of education and flat-out fascinating information, The Great White Shark Scientist will show young readers – and older ones, too – why sharks are ecologically important, what is being done to learn more about them, and why the likelihood that their numbers are decreasing significantly may be of greater concern than any worries about “monsters from the deep” attacking human beings. The motto of the “Scientists in the Field” series is “Where Science Meets Adventure,” and this is one book in the sequence that fits that description perfectly.

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