October 05, 2017
(++++) JUST LIKE, UM, THIS
Just Like Us! Ants. By Bridget Heos. Illustrated by David Clark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.
Just Like Us! Birds. By Bridget Heos. Illustrated by David Clark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.
Here are science books with a difference. Or rather with a similarity. A lot of similarities. No, actually a lot of differences. OK, this can get confusing – but the approach of these books by Bridget Heos, with often-hilarious illustrations by David Clark, is engaging and highly attractive. The books take creatures that appear to have very little in common with humans and find ways in which we and they are similar – sometimes very clearly, sometimes with a stretch. The idea here is to involve young readers (ages 4-7) in studying ants and birds by giving them a basis of comparison with their own lives – even while explaining all the things these critters do that are quite different from what we humans do.
The relationships can be rather far-fetched, but that makes them, if anything, more interesting to think about. Heos talks about humans babysitting littler humans and ants helping their colonies in similar ways. Then, continuing with the helpfulness angle, she writes, “Bigheaded ants catch fruit flies. But since the fruit flies won’t fit through the ants’ tiny digestive tracts, the ants give them to their larvae. The babies drool on the flies, turning them into mush (or protein shakes), which the grownups can then digest.” Umm, yes. Not much of a direct comparison there with what humans do, despite the protein-shakes reference. But the attempts to draw parallels, even when imperfect, really do make the information in these books much easier to, well, digest. The photos of the actual creatures being discussed, which complement Clark’s cartoons, are also helpful. In a discussion of leafcutter ants, for example, the photo of these ants with the pulp they produce by chewing leaves goes with cartoons of an ant with a scythe, another driving a tractor, another using three of its six limbs to chop leaves into tiny pieces, and one of ants searching trash cans for food. What’s that all about? Well, leafcutter ants do their own weeding, and because some weeds are deadly if eaten, certain ants must take them to the ant version of a dump. Then those ants are excluded from the fungus fields maintained by the main group of ants, “to avoid contamination. So the selfless workers must eat what they find in the trash. It’s a tragic fate.” Again, there is nothing here that is directly like what humans do, despite Heos’ reference to the ants’ unfortunate absence of hazmat suits. But by drawing a parallel, even a rather shaky one, between ants and people, she comes up with a nifty way to communicate some genuinely interesting material. Thus, she explains elsewhere, “During the last Ice Age, humans hunted in packs to bring down mammoths. Ants bring down animals even larger, proportionally. Azteca andreae ants can kill an insect 13,350 times their size. That would be like human hunters killing a two-million-pound land animal, or a beast the size of twenty brachiosauruses, with their bare hands.” Clark here contributes a cartoon of an ant-packed leaf on which a battle royal is raging between the ants (some of which are barely holding on and some of which look distinctly frightened) and a giant bug with scowling, toothy mouth and gigantic monster-like eyes. Point made – even if the human relationship is a bit strained.
In the book on birds, some comparisons are genuinely intriguing: “Birds can sing up to one hundred notes in two seconds, compared to the twenty-eight sung by the world’s fastest rapper.” And “birds learn to sing in the same way that babies begin to talk,” which means they first sing random notes, then “sing parts of songs incorrectly” before getting the sounds right. Also, there is some truly fascinating human connection in this book: “Mozart heard a bird [in a pet store] whistling a section of his [Piano] Concerto No. 17 in G Major,” which he had just composed and which had never been performed. Unsure whether the bird made up the tune on its own or whether he himself had been humming it when he visited the store at another time, the composer “took the fellow musical genius home, and the bird became his beloved pet.” This sort of anecdote really humanizes science and nature study (and classical music, too). The book also gets into plenty of ways in which birds are scarcely like humans but are all the more interesting as a result. Eagle nests, for example, “stand ten feet tall and weigh more than two tons,” while those of Northern orioles are sewn from plant fibers and “string and yarn left behind by humans,” with the birds creating a nest that “is strong, yet stretchy enough to expand” as the oriole chicks hatch and grow. Here as in the book on ants, real-world photos are well-complemented by amusing cartoons that make the various points in the text. For example, a suitably hassled-looking parent bird is shown carrying a basket of what seem to be dirty diapers away from the nest, illustrating Heos’ words, “Birds need to keep their nests poop-free so as not to attract microbes and insects. But their babies aren’t potty-trained yet. Luckily, baby poop comes in a diaper of sorts called a fecal sac. The parents carry these birdie diapers off and drop them. Or in some cases, eat them, which is not like us at all!” And that last phrase is really the point: creatures such as ants and birds are not like us at all, yet some of their adaptations and instinctive behaviors are so similar to our own that Heos and Clark can use the points of similarity to introduce young readers to a whole series of remarkable pieces of information. No, the creatures in the Just Like Us! books are not just like us – but as a hook on which to hang explanations of some highly interesting aspects of the world around us, the books use the series title to admirably imaginative effect.