October 06, 2016


Animals by the Numbers: A Book of Animal Infographics. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

I Am a Story. By Dan Yaccarino. Harper. $17.99.

     Sometimes it’s not just what you say that matters – it’s how you say it. And sometimes both what is said and how it is communicated are significant. That is the case in both these books, whose forms are unusual and whose messages will be fascinating and meaningful to young readers and adults alike. Steve Jenkins’ Animals by the Numbers is packed with all sorts of intriguing comparative facts – but it is the way Jenkins presents them, not just the facts themselves, that makes this book so attractive. Infographics are a burgeoning form of communication in which striking visuals are used to make statistical information clear. Jenkins employs them here with considerable skill. For example, one page explains how many hours per day various animals sleep, and the numbers themselves are interesting enough. But to show and compare them clearly, Jenkins offers a series of circles, each with an animal shape in the middle; the “awake” hours are shown as yellow arcs and the “asleep” ones as purple. Thus, readers can see words explaining that squirrels sleep 15 hours a day and elephants only three-and-a-half – and can visually compare the colors of circles indicating how much time each animal spends awake and asleep. The whole book is arranged this way. To show just how big some animals are (and how large extinct ones were), Jenkins places a human silhouette in a small circle and splashes silhouettes of the animals, on the same scale, across two pages – not only showing that, for example, Tyrannosaurus rex is clearly about six times as large as a human, but also indicating that the blue whale of today is about four times bigger than the famous dinosaur. The infographics are used in genuinely striking ways. One section of the book estimates the biomass of various animals, using circles of different sizes to represent total weight – thus showing with great visual impact that all humans on Earth weigh about 350 million tons, while Antarctic krill have a total weight of 400 million tons and termites a total biomass of 700 million tons. Jenkins uses humor from time to time to complement his graphic presentations. For example, one part of the book is about animal tongues, showing in bar graphs that the giant anteater’s (24 inches long) is longer than the chameleon’s (21 inches) – while also showing that the anteater’s tongue is “only” half its body length, while the chameleon’s is one-and-three-quarters times its body length. The champion tongue length compared to body size belong to the Morgan’s sphinx moth, whose tongue is three times the length of its body – which means, Jenkins explains, that “if your tongue were as long as this moth’s, you’d be able to lick an ice cream cone that’s on the other side of a room.” The fascinations of Animals by the Numbers are nearly endless. One fan-shaped graphic shows how loud the sounds made by various animals are – and reveals that a bulldog bat’s cries, at 140 decibels, are as loud as the sound of a jet plane taking off, but are inaudible to us because they are too high-pitched for our ears. And then there is the armadillo flow chart, showing graphically how a three-banded armadillo makes the quick decisions needed to help it stay safe when another animal approaches – that is, how it decides whether to run, stand perfectly still, ignore the approaching creature, dig a hole, curl into a ball, try to swim away, or leap straight into the air to try to startle its possible enemy. Make no mistake: the basic facts here are themselves captivating (e.g., “bees kill twenty times as many people as sharks”). But the presentation method doubles down on the information so effectively that Animals by the Numbers is a book to which children and parents alike will return time and again.

     Dan Yaccarino’s I Am a Story is far more straightforward visually and is thought-provoking in a different way. It is a “meta” story – a story about a story – and is also a circular tale, beginning and ending at a campfire. But the concluding campfire is a contemporary one, while the opening one occurs in the very distant past, at a time long before writing, when (Yaccarino assumes) families gathered around to hear stories of various kinds. Yaccarino traces the whole notion of “story” over millennia, starting with oral transmission and then moving to cave paintings, clay tablets, hieroglyphics, writing on papyrus, and so on – a compendium of the ways in which a story, any story, was or could have been told over many ages. Each scene includes people known to have used a particular form of story transmission – Chinese women creating ink and woodblocks, for example, and medieval European knights standing at attention in front of tale-telling tapestries. Most scenes have both adults and kids in them, although a few are historically accurate in omitting children (a monk creating an illuminated manuscript does, however, have a cat for company). The march of storytelling through the ages goes right on to “vast private libraries,” thence to “public libraries open to everyone,” and from there to some of the amazing places where books can be found today: in bookmobiles, vending machines, and being carried from place to place by camels and elephants. Then Yaccarino deals with the effects of stories, subtly weaving in three famous science-fiction-related scenes from the past that young readers will surely not know and most parents may not understand, either: Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds radio broadcast from 1938; Georges’ Méliès’ famous 1902 film, A Trip to the Moon; and Steven Spielberg’s 1982 movie, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. And then Yaccarino shows what has been done to stories – censorship, banning, burning – before concluding that none of the attacks succeeded: a story does not die and “will live forever.” This is a well-thought-out, well-designed book that raises some tricky questions toward the end, after providing a nicely paced and historically informed lesson in idea transmission. Its winning combination is an unusual one combining history, drawings with artful touches (look for the small red bird in various guises throughout), and subtle thoughtfulness.

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