July 09, 2009


Planet Earth: Guide to the Planet. By Matthew Murrie and Steve Murrie. Scholastic. $7.99.

Planet Earth: Amazing Animals of the Rainforest. By Tracey West. Scholastic. $5.99.

Planet Earth: Lion Cubs. Scholastic. $6.99.

     Three new entries in the collaboration between the BBC and Scholastic confirm the Planet Earth series as one that is not only exceptionally intelligent but also truly gorgeous to look at. Guide to the Planet is the broadest-ranging of these three books, all of which are printed on recycled paper containing at least 30% post-consumer fiber. It is filled with wonderful information and fascinating photos of impalas, AdĂ©lie penguins, pine martens, wildebeests, pink river dolphins and other animals – but it is not just an animal book. It is structured by habitat: polar areas, forests, plains, deserts, mountains, caves, rainforests, fresh water, shallow seas and open ocean. Each short section – the whole book is just 80 oversize pages long – tells about one part of our planet as well as explaining about some of the animals that call that area home. For example, “the world’s oldest tree, Methusaleh, is 4,700 years old. …The biggest living organism on Earth is the giant sequoia tree called ‘General Sherman.’ It is 272 feet (82 m) tall and has a diameter of 36 feet (11 m) at its base.” Or, in the section on caves, “Sarawak Chamber in Borneo is large enough to hold 40 Boeing 747s.” As for animals, even people familiar with some of the ones discussed here may learn some surprising facts about them: “The emperor penguin is the only animal that permanently resides in Antarctica.” “Golomyanka, or oil fish…lives at the depth of 4590 feet (1399 m) [in Lake Baikal]. This fish’s body is kept in solid form by the tremendous pressure of where it lives. However, when it is brought to the surface there is less pressure and the solid fish begins to melt.” Guide to the Planet is, inevitably, a once-over-lightly about our world and some of its inhabitants, but it is fascinating enough – and well enough presented – to leave the young readers for whom it is intended eager to learn more.

     Amazing Animals of the Rainforest provides some of that “more” by focusing on a single habitat of the many discussed in Guide to the Planet. This is an even shorter book – 48 pages – and its attention is entirely on animals after a brief introduction to what rainforests are and how the types of these habitats differ. Among the creatures profiled here are the tucuxi, known as the “river dolphin” for its appearance but growing to only about four feet; the dorado, a carnivorous fish that can weigh 75 pounds and that fights back when caught on a hook; the agouti, a rodent that can grow to two feet long and may weigh nine pounds; the tree anteater, which has a barbed 16-inch-long tongue; the harpy eagle, whose wingspan can reach six-and-a-half feet; and such more-familiar animals as the Bengal and Sumatran tigers, jaguar, chimpanzee and brown howler monkey. The close-up photos of the animals are well complemented by the simple, straightforward text that explains their anatomy, where they live, and whether or not they are endangered – as many of these creatures are. The sheer variety of the animals makes this rainforest book fascinating; the pictures tell a story effectively even without the words.

     Lion Cubs is essentially all pictures: it is a board book for the youngest children, with very simple text designed to go with the photos rather than go beyond them. For example, beneath a picture of two cubs at play, the text says, “The cubs in the pride run together, play together…” And on the facing page, showing a whole line of cubs, the text continues, “And no matter what, they stay together.” The photos here are really quite delightful – one of a mother lion carrying a sleepy cub in her mouth is a standout, as is one showing three side-by-side cubs facing the camera with nearly identical expressions. The point of the book is simply to show young children what lion cubs look like and how they spend a typical day in the pride: playing, walking, tussling with each other, drinking and sleeping. There are no great lessons here, but the book can help create an early appreciation of the beauty of these big cats and perhaps an appetite to find out more about them in more-complex books as a child grows. For this age group, that is lesson enough.

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