The Adventures of Marco Polo. By Russell Freedman. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $17.99.
Dino Poop. By Jane Hammerslough. Illustrated by Andrea Morandi. Scholastic. $9.99.
Quincy the Hobby Photographer: The Complete Guide to Do-It-Yourself Dog Photography. By J. Otto Seibold. Harcourt. $14.95.
Books can take young readers on real-world journeys as fascinating as anything in fantasy – and, in some cases, on adventures in which readers can participate themselves. These three books offer one adventure in the past, one in the deep past with modern-day participatory elements, and one in which kids can get involved anytime.
In the case of Marco Polo, the amount of fantasy and the amount of real-world adventure remain in question after 700 years. Polo is famous as the greatest explorer of his time, perhaps of any time – unless he was one of the world’s greatest liars. Polo certainly journeyed out of 13th-century Venice, his home, into what are now Turkey and Iran – places well known to Venetian traders. The questions about his travels arise based on what he said he saw as he pressed onward toward and into China – a land then unknown to Europeans. The Adventures of Marco Polo is a fascinating account of Polo’s report of his journey, and a book that makes doubts about his observations clear. Polo, for example, said that bandits he encountered used spells to turn day into night. More likely, they waited for naturally occurring sandstorms and then attacked – but Polo’s certainty about magic has caused some of his other apparently fantastic observations to be called into question. On the basis of what we know now, Polo’s journey to China – which covered 8,000 miles, including detours – does seem genuine. But it is hard to doubt that Polo may have exaggerated at times, as when he says that a huge lion brought into the presence of the Great Khan immediately flung itself down at the Khan’s feet, acknowledging the Khan as its lord, and then remained lying placidly, unchained, in the throne room. Readers of The Adventures of Marco Polo can try to unravel the mysteries of his travels themselves – and imagine what it must have been like to go to a land so different from one’s own that it seemed truly magical.
There is magic of a different, humbler sort in the oddly titled Dino Poop, which actually comes with a small coprolite – fossilized dinosaur dung. Jane Hammerslough’s title may be off-putting to parents (though probably not to kids), but families willing to look beyond what the book is called will find some truly fascinating information about very, very ancient times. The importance of dinosaur dung for plant propagation (a role dung still fills today), the sheer amount of the stuff (some dinosaurs may have produced a ton a day), even the possibility that methane produced by dinosaurs may have damaged Earth’s ozone layer in prehistoric times – these are just some of the subjects considered in this fascinating book. Chapters on amber (“Tree Spit” – Hammerslough is obviously going for a gross-is-cool factor) and the remains of mammoths and other extinct mammals are also highly interesting. And the book tells modern-day kids how to make their own coprolite-like sculptures, where to see some amazing fossils, and more.
For a much more everyday sort of adventure – but an adventure nevertheless – Quincy the Hobby Photographer shows kids the ins and outs of taking interesting photos of their canine pals. J. Otto Seibold’s book is odd in some ways: the illustrations of equipment are realistically done, the actual photos included as examples are attractive, but the pictures of Quincy and other make-believe characters range from silly to somewhat unpleasant. It’s also a little difficult to know the age range at which Seibold’s book is directed: many instructions are simple enough for even young children to follow, but when Seibold includes a page called “Keep This Chart in Your Head” that includes 11 interconnected elements of photography, he is likely to go over the heads of many kids and more than a few parents. Despite the high quality of the advice in the book, its odd presentation gives it a (+++) rating rather than a higher one. Also, kids may want an explanation of what that thing called “film” is: this is a book about traditional photography, not the increasingly common digital type. The best things here are the actual dog photos, including some that Seibold modified in a darkroom rather than on a computer. Suggestion: skim well before buying.
November 02, 2006
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