August 26, 2010

(++++) DEM BONES

Bones: Skeletons and How They Work. By Steve Jenkins. Scholastic. $16.99.

Dogs 101: Your Ultimate Guide to Man’s Best Friend. By Rebecca Paley. Scholastic. $7.99.

Bone: Tall Tales. By Jeff Smith with Tom Sniegoski. Color by Steve Hamaker. Graphix/Scholastic. $22.99.

     With straightforward, information-packed text and outstanding illustrations, Steve Jenkins gives young readers a fascinating lesson in anatomy – human and animal, modern-day and extinct – in Bones. Some illustrations show bones in their actual sizes: the skull of a giant anteater runs from the left side of one page to the right side of the next, while the smallest human bone (the stapes or stirrup, found in the ear) is barely visible next to a dime. Other illustrations show bones at one-fourth or one-twelfth actual size, so Jenkins can fit them into available space. Every picture is tremendously detailed and highly accurate anatomically. Comparisons are fascinating: an actual-size human skull next to that of a mouse lemur (a tiny relative of monkeys) – plus, in a foldout, actual-size skulls of a parrot, tree shrew, vampire bat, armadillo and more. The shapes as well as sizes of the skulls are amazing to see, and the information here is no less intriguing. There is a closeup of an elbow joint, showing what happens when bones meet. There is a picture showing that giraffes and humans have the same number of neck bones: seven. There is a turtle skeleton, showing how the ribs grow through the skin of the back and fuse to form the shell. There is an absolutely marvelous picture of the skeleton of a six-foot python with nearly 200 pairs of rib, covering two foldouts (four pages) – snakes have more ribs than any other animal. There are dinosaur skeletons and elephant skeletons and fruit-bat and blue-whale skeletons. There is a human finger bone – one of the 27 in a human hand. There are two pages that together show all 206 bones in an adult human skeleton, plus information on how that number comes about even though babies are born with about 300 bones. And there are such fascinating facts as notes that 97% of animals on Earth do not have bones – and that the Eiffel Tower’s shape was inspired by the internal structure of the human thigh bone. Jenkins’ book is wonderful science, a wonderful anatomy lesson and a wonderful work to read, study and simply look at and marvel.

     Among the bones Jenkins shows are those of a dog, and everyone knows how much dogs love bones – maybe not their own, but the kind they can chew on. There are more than 400 different breeds of dogs, all of which can interbreed (some more practically than others). This means there are uncountable thousands of types of dogs, although the American Kennel Club officially recognizes only 163 purebred lines. Twenty-five of those are shown in Dogs 101, an elementary but very interesting introduction to the canine world. The dogs here fall into seven groups: sporting, hound, working, terrier, toy, nonsporting and herding. Rebecca Paley’s book tries to focus on easily recognizable and popular purebreds: dachshund, beagle, cocker spaniel, Chihuahua, poodle, pug, Yorkshire terrier, etc. Each breed is shown in multiple pictures, and there is basic information on size, coat, color, origin, health, grooming and more. There are also interesting facts, such as the note that three U.S. presidents owned Airedale terriers: Warren G. Harding, Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge. Each breed has specific characteristics that Paley points out clearly: bloodhounds have the best sense of smell of any dog; French bulldogs snore exceptionally loudly; Labrador retrievers can swim twice as fast as ducks; the Maltese is the world’s oldest lapdog. One fact that may surprise young readers is the lifespan of dogs: it is not very long by human standards. Very few dogs normally live to be 15 or older, and many breeds live only until about age 10. Dogs 101 will bring joy to any family that loves dogs or is considering getting one. It is scarcely comprehensive – calling it an “Ultimate Guide,” as its subtitle does, is an exaggeration – but it is a delightful basic introduction to the canine world, and may inspire families to find even more information elsewhere.

     The information keeps flowing from bones of another sort – the characters in Bone, the wide-ranging epic series of graphic novels by Jeff Smith. The nine books in the main sequence of Bone told a complete story from start to finish, but Smith and several collaborators continue to fill in aspects of the Bone world through a prequel (Rose), a guide (BONE Handbook), and now a series of stories that flesh out some of the background of the world in which the main tale takes place. Like Rose, this book is a bit of prehistory – or at least the stories in it are, although they are told by Smiley Bone after the main adventure has ended and the Bone cousins have returned to Boneville. There is an introductory tale of Smiley and three “Bone Scouts,” clearly drawn in homage to Carl Barks’ nephews of Donald Duck. That story and a tale called “Powers That Be” are written and illustrated by Smith himself. The three remaining stories, which focus on long-ago frontier explorer Big Johnson Bone, are written by Tom Sniegoski and illustrated by Smith. Everything in the book is wonderfully colored by Steve Hamaker, whose work on the main Bone sequence significantly enhanced Smith’s original black-and-white illustrations, which were excellent already. The stories themselves are rather thin – they do indeed have the flavor of tall tales, but none of the drama and personality interplay that made the main Bone sequence endlessly fascinating. However, Bone: Tall Tales is not really intended as a standalone book – it is a supplemental volume for readers who just couldn’t get enough of Smith’s creation and wanted something more. Sniegoski and Smith are soon going to release a different sort of Bone story called Quest for the Spark, and an excerpt is included at the end of Bone: Tall Tales. The new story is clearly intended to be on the epic scale again, but as an illustrated book rather than a graphic novel. Whatever its merits may turn out to be, there is nothing wrong with staying on the small side for the time being. For these tall tales and the other snippets created after the primary Bone story are charming in their own way, and Bone fans will not be disappointed to revisit some familiar characters, meet some new ones, and return – however briefly – to Smith’s delightfully conceptualized world.

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