July 15, 2010


Project Seahorse. By Pamela S. Turner. Photographs by Scott Tuason. Houghton Mifflin. $18.

Orangutans Are Ticklish: Fun Facts from an Animal Photographer. By Steve Grubman with Jill Davis. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

Beaver Is Lost. By Elisha Cooper. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

     What does a coral reef look like to the creatures that live in it? Scott Tuason’s photos give an excellent idea of the answer in Project Seahorse, which looks at one community in the Philippines where conservationists and scientists, working with local villagers, are trying to find a way to preserve the local community’s fishing livelihood while also bringing a fragile coral reef back to health. The focus of all this activity, as the title of Pamela S. Turner’s book indicates, is the seahorse, one of the world’s odder fish and one that depends entirely on coral reefs for food and protection. Extreme close-ups of seahorses and their environment are not only gorgeous to look at but also highly informative about sea creatures and the way they live – from the sea slug that appears to be covered with fried eggs to the male seahorse giving birth from his pouch (yes, the males give birth). Tuason’s photos show creatures such as the cashew-size Barbigant’s seahorse many times lifesize, making anatomical details, coloration and basics of life much clearer than they would otherwise be – and indicating the importance of preserving and restoring the environment on which these fish depend (for example, one photo shows more than a dozen baby seahorses clinging to a single strand of seagrass). Turner’s writing explains how the scientists gather and use their data, and also discusses the conflicts between those seeking to conserve seahorses (which have been in worldwide population decline) and those for whom the fish are crucial economically (local fishers can earn the equivalent of 52 cents for a single large seahorse, to be dried and used in Chinese medicine). Attempts to balance the needs of humans and animals are imperfect, and there are no easy answers here to the continuing conflict between preservation and economic necessity. But Project Seahorse is more a book that makes readers think than one that espouses a particular course of action – and it is all the more valuable for being less than dogmatic. Project Seahorse is suitable for all ages, but it will be of most interest to kids starting around age eight.

     Orangutans Are Ticklish is a much lighter book, intended for ages 3-7. Steve Grubman here offers pictures of a kangaroo, a grizzly bear, an aardvark, a chimpanzee, and other animals – including, yes, an orangutan – and, with help from Jill Davis, gives some facts about each animal in addition to anecdotes about taking the photos. A picture of a yawning hippopotamus, for example, comes with a note that hippos yawn not when they are tired but when they want to fight – and that, says Grubman, “this girl ate a hundred pounds of veggies during the thirty-minute photo shoot.” A photo of a 10-foot-long alligator comes with text that explains the differences between alligators and crocodiles, and Grubman’s comment that “we got this alligator to sit still for the camera by dangling a piece of raw meat on a string in front of him.” Giraffe pictures come with a note that the animals “whistle, moo, and hiss,” and that despite the handlers asking Grubman not to touch the giraffes, “they kept bending down and rubbing their heads against me and the camera.” All the animal photos are posed – the creatures are shown against plain backgrounds, not in their natural environments – and the pictures show details of anatomy very clearly. Back-of-the-book facts about each animal offer some additional information as well as more photos – a winning combination.

     Beaver Is Lost is winning, too, and is for the same age range – but this is not quite a “reality story,” since it has pencil-and-watercolor illustrations rather than photos, and is a narrative rather than a descriptive book. But even though this beaver is not real, it looks real, and its adventure seems plausible if not highly likely. Elisha Cooper tells the tale mostly in pictures, using just a few words here and there to explain a little about one event or another. What happens is simple enough: a young beaver, working on a beaver dam, floats away from the other beavers and is borne on the current toward a city, where he encounters a dog, gets into a swimming pool and a fountain, spots some other beavers (who turn out to be in the local zoo), swims in a pond, and eventually finds his way back into the river, in which he swims back to where he started. Unlikely the round trip may be, but it does not seem quite impossible, and there is no attempt here to anthropomorphize the beaver, which behaves as a real beaver would (including getting into a sewer while looking for water in which to swim). The beaver has no human expressions and no human drives; and if its desire to return home and its success getting there are not quite in line with what happens in nature, they nevertheless make for a good story that – unlike other tales for this age range – takes an animal pretty much at face value and gives kids an idea of what might, just might, happen to it. Beaver Is Lost should also give parents a chance to discuss the difference between made-up stories about animals and real animal lives. One good question to start the talk: “What do you think would really happen to a beaver that got lost and found itself in the middle of the city?”

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