August 20, 2009


Planet Earth: Incredible Reptiles. By Tracey West. Scholastic. $5.99.

Lessons of a Turtle (The Little Book of Life). By Sandy Gingras. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     One of the most photographically striking of the ongoing Planet Earth collaborations between the British Broadcasting Corporation and Scholastic, Incredible Reptiles is a thin book (46 pages) whose amazing close-ups will make readers wish it went on a lot longer. Tracey West offers a basic, one-page introduction to the seven environments in which reptiles live – fresh water, shallow seas, ocean depths, rainforests, deserts, plains and mountains – and then provides bare-bones text to accompany the truly remarkable photos of (among others) a green anaconda with wide-open mouth, a Nile crocodile, a snapping turtle, a Gila monster, a carpet python, a leaf-tailed gecko, and an Aldabra giant tortoise. The mixture of familiar reptiles (green iguana) with unfamiliar ones (panther chameleon) is one thing that makes the book attractive. Another is the brief facts about each animal: the venom of the banded sea krait is 10 times as powerful as rattlesnake venom; the European legless lizard has a small stump where its back legs would be; the sidewinding adder has eyes on top of its head, which let it see when its body is buried in sand; the green tree monitor has a prehensile tail. It is the photos rather than the text that will bring young readers to this book again and again, but there is enough information here to capture potential herpetologists’ imagination and send them looking for other books about reptiles. There are a few flaws in the book – for instance, the author calls reptiles “cold-blooded,” which is incorrect, although the author then explains that “their body temperature is controlled by the environment around them,” which is right (this would have been a good place to introduce the accurate word ectothermic). But most of what appears in Incredible Reptiles is fascinating, and some of it really is incredible – such as the extreme, head-on close-ups of a brown tree snake and a Tokay gecko, the view of an open-mouthed king cobra with its hood flared, and the gorgeous full-body view of a bright green, yellow-and-brown-striped veiled chameleon.

     There are no particular lessons in Incredible Reptiles, except indirectly about the amazing diversity of life on our planet and the importance of understanding how it is all interconnected. But Sandy Gingras looks at one reptile and finds plenty of life lessons from observing it. Her little gift book, Lessons of a Turtle, is a little bit too soupily sentimental and New Age-y, as such books tend to be, but it still deserves a (+++) rating for the ways in which Gingras manages to relate elements of human life to turtles’ characteristics. For example, “Protective shells are all well and good, but they make it hard to dance close” (with a charming drawing of two turtles standing on their back legs and awkwardly trying to dance); “You can’t move forward until you stick your neck out”; “Everyone is soft inside”; and “The slower you go, the more you see.” These are lovely chelonian (that is, turtle-related) thoughts, and much more interesting than some less-clever comments that have nothing to do with turtles, including “Lost is just another word for exploring,” “Ick happens” and “Hug your mother” (a lovely sentiment, but something turtles never do). Of course, Lessons of a Turtle is not meant to be taken too seriously or to be lessons about a turtle. It’s just another of those cute small-size hardcover books that you can give to someone special – in this case, perhaps someone who is a little too insistent on living life in the fast lane. Still, to the extent that the book connects human sentiments with elements of turtle life, it is a touch more offbeat and charming than the many others of its type.

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