May 29, 2008


Oodles of Animals. By Lois Ehlert. Harcourt. $17.

Tadpole Rex. By Kurt Cyrus. Harcourt. $16.

Jim Arnosky’s All About Manatees. By Jim Arnosky. Scholastic. $5.99.

      Colored papers in nine shapes are all that Lois Ehlert needs to create an utterly charming book about animals for kids ages 3-7. Oodles of Animals includes bugs and birds, fish and mammals, large creatures and small ones, all made from squares, rectangles, triangles, circles, diamonds, half circles, ovals, hearts and teardrops – plus a dollop (or a heaping helping) of imagination. Ehlert goes for the salient characteristics of each animal: a crocodile’s big teeth and googly eyes (never mind that real crocodiles’ eyes are rather small); a crab’s claws; a swan’s long, graceful white neck. Short rhyming comments go with each illustration: “A bat frown is a smile upside down.” “A hedgehog is prickly and small in size, like a pincushion with two beady eyes.” “Walrus skin is rubbery, and tusks rest on belly blubbery.” Everything is fun here – with the most enjoyment coming from seeing the thoroughly unrealistic but thoroughly delightful, impressionistic way that Ehlert gives each made-from-paper creature its own unique personality.

      Tadpole Rex has a personality, too – an outsize one. Kurt Cyrus’ book is set “deep in the goop of a long-ago swamp,” where an amphibian egg brings forth a tadpole with “an inner tyrannosaur.” Although tiny by comparison with the huge creatures around him, this little tadpole – after changing into a full-grown frog – refuses to be intimidated: “Bouncing around with the boldest of hops,/ Rex nearly tripped a triceratops.” The brief and amusing adventure ends with an explanation that even though the dinosaurs are long gone, “frogs of all fashions continue to huddle/ around any suitable freshwater puddle.” Rex looks a lot like modern-day frogs – except that he has teeth, as some prehistoric frogs did. By giving him a distinctive personality, Cyrus helps young readers (ages 3-7) enjoy and perhaps identify with Tadpole Rex – and that may give them empathy for modern-day amphibians, which (as Cyrus points out in an author’s note at the end) are increasingly threatened by pollution and habitat loss.

      Manatees are threatened, too – mainly by the human use of boats, whose propellers gash the marine mammals’ thick skin. Wires and fishnets also can trap and injure manatees, or even kill them if they prevent the huge animals from swimming properly or surfacing to breathe air. Jim Arnosky’s All About Manatees provides a basic introduction to these strange-looking creatures, which are distantly related to elephants. Although manatees are quite real, it is hard to imagine them if you haven’t seen them, so Arnosky’s drawings are really helpful. Even if you did see a manatee, it is unlikely that you would get close enough to observe everything Arnosky shows: the algae growing on its skin, the hairs on its back (like other mammals, manatees have hair), or the three “fingernails” on each of its feet (manatees have front feet only, with a broad tail in the rear). Arnosky explains, and shows graphically, why manatees are not attacked by the large predators among which they live, such as alligators and sharks: they are simply too big and too tough-skinned. But he also shows how human activity has killed many manatees – boat collisions, for example, can leave the injured animals unable to maneuver or dive properly, so they eventually die. Arnosky’s sensitive text and clear illustrations may help young people better respect a highly unusual animal that is strange enough to be imaginary, but that really does live and swim, especially in warm Florida waters, all year long.

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