November 04, 2010


Leo the Snow Leopard: The True Story of an Amazing Rescue. By Juliana Hatkoff, Isabella Hatkoff, and Craig Hatkoff. Scholastic. $17.99.

Lizards. By Nic Bishop. Scholastic. $17.99.

101 Freaky Animals. By Melvin & Gilda Berger. Scholastic. $8.99.

Imogene’s Antlers. By David Small. Crown. $16.99.

The Carnival of the Animals. Verses by Jack Prelutsky. Illustrated by Mary GrandPré. Knopf. $19.99.

     From true stories and chances just to look at animals in exceptional detail, to tales in which animals are there to make a point rather than for their own sake, these books will inform, educate, amuse and entertain readers as young as kindergartners. Leo the Snow Leopard is the latest Hatkoff family effort to tell a story of a rescued animal. Like their earlier books about Owen the hippo and Mzee the tortoise, the mountain gorilla Miza, and the polar bear Knut, this book features an adorable animal that would be very unlikely to survive in the wild without human intervention – in this case, an orphaned snow-leopard cub found by a goat herder in Pakistan. The story, told simply and directly, explains how and where the cub was found and how he was helped by members of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). But as in the other Hatkoff books, it is the pictures that are the real attraction here. Pakistan is constantly in the news because of terrorism and weather disasters such as widespread flooding, but there is no reference here to any of that. There are, however, amazing photos of the avalanche that blocked the road the WCS jeep was on and of the rugged beauty of the Himalayas in which Leo was born. And there are many, many pictures of Leo himself, both alone and with a snow leopard named Shelby who eventually helped Leo learn how to interact with others of his species, not just with humans. A call for conservation as well as a fascinating tale in its own right, Leo the Snow Leopard ends with four pages for adults on snow leopards, conservation issues, and the WCS (formerly the New York Zoological Society), which operates the Bronx Zoo – where Leo now lives.

     The photos are the main attraction in Lizards as well. Nic Bishop’s book shows wonderful closeups of lizards in all their habitats, from deserts to islands. The lizards’ true sizes are indicated by explanations of how much bigger the photos are than the animals – a very important touch, since it prevents readers from thinking that the small shield-tailed gecko (shown four times actual size) is anywhere close in size to the enormous Komodo dragon, no matter how their photos look on these pages. A lot of the information in the book is pretty basic, such as the fact that lizards are ectotherms (using external sources for warmth instead of generating their heat internally, as mammals do). Other information is moderately familiar, such as the fact that the Komodo dragon is the world’s largest venomous animal. But there is plenty to learn here from the less-familiar facts: shingleback skinks poke out bright blue tongues and hiss to scare enemies; the green-blooded skink has green bones and lays green eggs; flying dragons glide from tree to tree and come to the ground only to lay eggs; the sandfish swims through desert sand, then attacks its prey from below. The colors and shapes of lizards are quite amazing – they are by no means all similar to each other – and the text does an excellent job of explaining what lizards have in common while also detailing different species’ distinct habitats and habits.

     A few lizards also show up in 101 Freaky Animals, whose title is a bit of an overstatement: these are simply unusual-looking animals and/or ones with habits that, by human standards, are peculiar. For example, one lizard mentioned here, the thorny devil of Australia, gets water after dew forms at night among the thorns on its back, then flows into its mouth. Reptiles are by no means in the majority in Melvin and Gilda Berger’s book, though. Other animals included are komondor dog, whose coat consists of bulky cords that hang down and drag along the ground; the flounder, one of whose eyes migrates as it ages so that the fish ends up with both eyes on the same side of its face; the axolotl, an amphibian that remains in its immature state throughout life, never becoming an adult; the cuttlefish, which is not a fish but a relative of squid, and which has eyes shaped like the letter W; the giraffe weevil, which has an exceptionally long neck that lets it eat the leaves of some small trees; and so on. The explanations of what makes each animal “freaky” are brief and clear, and the photos are detailed, highly colorful and fascinating to see.

     But for something really freaky, it helps to turn to books that involve animals only peripherally – such as Imogene’s Antlers. David Small’s offbeat story, originally published in 1985 and now reissued in a 25th-anniversary edition, explores a day in the life of a young girl named Imogene. It is a Thursday – and a day on which she wakes up with an enormous set of antlers. There is no explanation; it just happens. And Imogene has to cope, despite the complexities of getting dressed and even getting through the door of her room. She actually does pretty well, taking most of her difficulties in stride; and most of those around her handle the situation well, too (the exception is Imogene’s mother, who keeps fainting). Imogene, a helpful girl, dries towels on her antlers, lets the cook put doughnuts on them so Imogene can walk outside and feed the birds, and keeps candles on the antlers so she can see better while practicing the piano. The day passes with a combination of hilarity and matter-of-fact elements of life – a contrast that Small shows delightfully in his illustrations – until Imogene wakes up without the antlers the next morning. By now, readers are going to say, “Awwww.” But Small, and Imogene, have one final surprise in store – and it’s a wonderfully amusing one.

     “Wonderfully amusing” is also a fine description of Camille Saint-Saëns’ suite, The Carnival of the Animals, which has inspired everyone from the musicians who perform it to the Warner Brothers animators who turned it into a contest between Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. A CD of the whole suite is included with the new book from Knopf – and that is not all. The CD first features, one by one, readings of the book’s 15 poems, each followed by the music to which it refers. And then comes the entire suite as originally written – a great way of getting from words to words-plus-music to music. The poems are by prolific poet Jack Prelutsky, and they feature his usual wordplay and verbal gameplay: “An elephant never forgets to remember/ The things he remembers to never forget.” “Fossils, you entirely lack/ The basic knack of coming back.” Furthermore, the book includes a feature that does not appear on the CD at all: excellent illustrations by Mary GrandPré, best known for her work on J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Here she shows a marvelous mixture of reality and fantasy: a real-looking rooster whose tail is a hand pointing at his head; a turtle (more like a tortoise, actually) with realistic-looking head and feet but a house-shaped shell with a prettily curtained window on the side; kangaroos with stripes, spots or in pajamas; and so on. All the cleverness of Prelutsky and GrandPré complements and adds to the original cleverness of Saint-Saëns, resulting in a book that has nothing whatsoever to do with real animals (Saint-Saëns created the suite to showcase the animal-like characteristics of some humans, which is why one section is called “Pianists”), but at the same time has everything to do with animals as we humans like to imagine and enjoy them.

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