November 21, 2007


Knut: How One Little Polar Bear Captivated the World. By Juliana, Isabella, and Craig Hatkoff and Dr. Gerald R. Uhlich. Scholastic. $16.99.

There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Bat! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.

      What is the right way to treat animals that, left on their own in the wild, would surely die? The question raises serious issues of animal husbandry and of the interaction between people – who go to great lengths to preserve weaker members of their own species – and other living things. It was raised in poignant form in two Hatkoff family books about an orphaned baby hippopotamus named Owen and the giant tortoise named Mzee with which the hippo bonded. But the issues were fairly straightforward there: Owen had been left orphaned by a devastating tsunami, and the ability to rescue him was to an extent a stand-in for attempts (not all of them successful) to rescue the tsunami’s human victims. The case of Knut, a polar bear cub at a zoo in Berlin, Germany, was different. Knut was born to a captive polar bear at the zoo – another cub born at the same time died within days – and became the special project of chief bear keeper Thomas Dorflein. Knut: How One Little Polar Bear Captivated the World is packed with photos of the adorable bear cub and filled with information about the relationship between Knut and Thomas. But there was controversy about saving Knut, and none of it appears here. Some self-proclaimed animals-rights groups argued that if Knut’s mother could not or would not care for him, that was just nature’s way and should be allowed to take its natural course. This turned into a larger argument about zoos and human-animal interaction in general – a subject admittedly not appropriate for a book of this sort for young readers. But because the book omits even a whiff of controversy, focusing on the so-cute bear cub and his delightful-looking interactions with Thomas and with zoo visitors, it does run the risk of anthropomorphizing the cub and making some young readers think, wrongly, that polar bears are basically huge teddy bears. In reality, if all this leads young people to support efforts to save polar bears – which some scientists believe are threatened by global warming – it will be all to the good. But Knut: How One Little Polar Bear Captivated the World does seem a touch too sugar-coated to give readers an accurate impression of these animals, despite the three pages of further information on polar bears offered at the end.

      There is nothing real or realistic at all in There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Bat! – one of several recent books to produce variations on the nonsense song, “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” The original song ends with the old lady swallowing a horse: “She’s dead, of course.” But that seems a bit too gruesome and final for Lucille Colandro, who has the old lady cough up everything she swallows – the bat, an owl, a cat, a ghost, a goblin, some bones and a wizard – at the end. Not surprisingly, it’s all a trick-or-treat tie-in, although the book will be fun, especially for small children, at any time of year. Jared Lee’s illustrations are right in the spirit of the story, with the ghost looking surprised while being swallowed and scared when the goblin is swallowed next, the old lady howling after swallowing the owl, and so on. The book is completely inconsequential, but it’s fun to read and fun to look at.

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