October 22, 2009


Never Smile at a Monkey (And 17 Other Important Things to Remember). By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin. $16.

Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea. By Sy Montgomery. Photographs by Nic Bishop. Sandpiper. $8.99.

Nathan Fludd, Beastologist: Book One—Flight of the Phoenix. By R.L. LaFevers. Illustrated by Kelly Murphy. Houghton Mifflin. $16.

     “This book is about creatures…whose dangerous nature may not be so obvious,” writes Steve Jenkins in Never Smile at a Monkey. To be more precise, it is about some creatures whose dangers are less than clear – and some that are dangerous in ways you might not expect. In the “non-obvious” category would be the amusing-looking platypus, which has venomous spurs on its hind legs; the electric caterpillar, whose hairy bristles can be dangerous to humans (although it turns into a harmless moth); and the tang, an attractive coral-reef fish often used in salt-water aquariums that has a sharp spine on either side of its tail and can inflict serious injury. In the “unexpected dangers” arena are the spitting cobra, whose bite most people would instinctively know to avoid – but which can also spit its venom accurately more than eight feet; the hippopotamus, whose huge size would keep most people away, but which will charge if its path to water is blocked; and the fierce-looking African buffalo, whose unpredictable temper means it may attack without warning even if you keep your distance. Jenkins does not sugarcoat the effects of getting too close to these creatures – several of them can kill people. His illustrations show everything clearly, without romanticizing or anthropomorphizing what he depicts. Black-bear cubs, for example, are shown in all their wide-eyed cuteness – along with a warning that the mother is usually nearby and can be aggressive and extremely dangerous. At the end of the book, Jenkins offers considerably more detail on where the various creatures live and just what makes them so deadly. Oh – and the book’s title? Showing teeth to a rhesus monkey is a sign of aggression, inviting an attack from a sharp-toothed mammal that does not understand that humans consider smiles to be indicators of friendship.

     Many of the creatures depicted in Jenkins’ book and others are far harder to find in the wild than readers might think. Among mammals, one of the rarest is the tree kangaroo, which, Sy Montgomery writes, looks “like something Dr. Seuss might have dreamed up. Impossibly soft, with a rounded face, button eyes, pink nose, pert upright ears and a long thick tail, it was about the size of a small dog or an overweight cat, with plush brown and golden fur.” There are 10 kinds of tree kangaroos, all hard to find and getting even scarcer as the forests where they live are cut down. Quest for the Tree Kangaroo is the story of a scientific expedition to New Guinea, a large island (second in size only to Greenland) where strange and rare animals abound: birds with poisonous feathers, egg-laying mammals called echidnas, and many more. At the center of the book is the team’s research leader, Lisa Dalbek. Readers follow her and the team on lengthy hikes through gorgeous countryside teeming with strange plants and animals. Also insects – lots of them. Anyone thinking that field research is glamorous will soon encounter the reality that the scientists did: steep and difficult climbs, slippery rocks, rotten logs, and rain. Lots of rain. The photographs by Nic Bishop are astonishing in their beauty and variety, and Montgomery’s text provides real insight into the scientific life, the animals and other creatures the expedition finds, and the villagers who act as guides and helpers. By the time Dalbek is quoted as saying “this is really intense work – this really challenges you on so many different levels,” armchair scientists will better understand not only the intensity but also the joy of coping with the many challenges.

     But all that is real-world stuff. Young readers looking for something more escapist as lighthearted fun can turn to Flight of the Phoenix, the first book in a planned series about 10-year-old Nathaniel (Nate) Fludd and his distant cousin, Phil A. Fludd, the world’s only living beastologist. Phil – Aunt Phil, that is (yes, Phil is a woman) – explains that beastologists study animals that most people think are just myths, such as basilisks, griffins and manticores. Actually, Phil herself doesn’t explain that – the dodo does. It seems that dodos are merely extremely rare, not extinct, and this one (whose name is Cornelius) talks quite well, thank you, and – well, there is certainly nothing real-world about Flight of the Phoenix. But then, R.L. LaFevers doesn’t intend there to be. Abetted by amusing illustrations by Kelly Murphy, LaFevers takes Nate and Aunt Phil to Arabia for the laying of an egg by the world’s only phoenix. Along the way, Nate befriends a gremlin; on arrival, he learns some Fludd family history (including the fact that the family has a “black sheep”); and eventually, he not only has to watch over the phoenix but also must figure out how to rescue Aunt Phil, who has fallen into the hands of Bedouins. And all this is just the start of Nate’s education in becoming a beastologist – not a real-world profession, true, but one that readers will surely enjoy imagining in all its glory (and without all that real-life discomfort and mucking about).

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