January 26, 2006


Owen & Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship. By Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff, and Dr. Paula Kahumbu. Photographs by Peter Greste. Scholastic. $16.99.

The Journey: Stories of Migration. By Cynthia Rylant. Illustrated by Lambert Davis. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $16.99.

     One of the most heartwarming animal stories of 2005 – and certainly the most unusual – was about the friendship that developed between an orphan baby hippopotamus and a 130-year-old tortoise.  Owen & Mzee tells that story with wonderfully lucid prose and truly astonishing photos.  The tale begins with the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004, which wiped out a hippopotamus herd and left a single baby stranded.  This was Owen, who was only two feet tall but weighed 600 pounds and could not easily be moved from the reef where he was stuck.  The story of his rescue and move to Haller Park, an animal sanctuary 50 miles away, makes up the first part of this book – and a riveting story it is.  But it is after the move that the remarkable event occurs.  Owen meets Mzee (pronounced mm-ZAY), an old Alhambra tortoise from islands off the African coast, east of Tanzania.  For reasons that scientists do not yet fully understand, Owen attaches himself to Mzee – and Mzee, usually solitary and unfriendly, soon accepts and starts to encourage Owen’s attention.  The narrative that follows, and the photos that illustrate it, make for a genuinely uplifting experience: Owen will eat only when Mzee is near, and the two swim together, sleep together, and show genuine affection by nuzzling each other.  The conclusion, indicating what is happening now and is likely to happen in the future to these two unlikely friends, ends the book on a positive note.  And speaking of unlikely: the impetus for this book, and some of its contents, come from Isabella Hatkoff – age six.

     Cynthia Rylant’s The Journey cannot compete with Owen & Mzee for heartstring tugging, but it is quite remarkable in its own way.  This is the story of some of the amazing animal migrations that take place regularly, but of which most people are only sporadically aware.  Imagine swarms of locusts covering 100 square miles of sky…gray whales traveling 6,000 miles on an empty stomach…and eels successfully moving between fresh and salt water in a journey that would kill other fish.  These are just some of the stories Rylant tells, enlivened by realistic and beautifully detailed paintings by Lambert Davis.  Rylant does not simply say what happens during migrations – she also tries to explain why things happen.  But she does not hesitate to say what scientists do not know: caribou surely travel to find food in bitterly cold weather – but no one knows how the caribou locate the forests 600 miles away in which they can feed.  Nor does anyone know for sure how the Arctic tern can fly an astonishing 25,000 miles – from North Pole to South Pole and back – every single year.  Rylant concludes that migration is “one of the most wonderful mysteries on this earth.”  Readers will surely agree – and marvel.

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