August 25, 2011


Butterflies. By Seymour Simon. Collins. $17.99.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Special Edition 2012. Scholastic. $16.99.

     The redoubtable Seymour Simon does it again with Butterflies, his latest exploration of nature for ages 5-9. Simon is a master of his craft: his books are factually correct, simply but not too simply written, and illustrated with gorgeous photos that show off Earth’s natural wonders to superb effect. This is a bit easier in Butterflies than in some other books, since these insects are so gorgeous and familiar that kids in the target age range likely know and enjoy looking at them already – as opposed to, say, gorillas or spiders, the subjects of two other Simon books. One thing Simon does exceptionally well is gather unusual facts about his subjects in addition to more straightforward ones – in the case of this book, for example, the facts that butterflies taste with their feet and have eyes that can look in multiple directions at the same time. Simon also explains how to tell the difference between a butterfly and a moth (antenna shape is the best method); discusses the parts and functions of each segment of a butterfly’s body (head, thorax and abdomen); and explains that there are about 10 times as many kinds of moths as there are types of butterflies. To the information, add wonderful closeups of brilliantly colored butterflies (and one that has gorgeous colors on one side of its wings and dull ones, for camouflage, on the other), a photo sequence showing a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, extremely close views of parts of butterfly and moth bodies, a list of butterfly families whose members are commonly seen in the United States, and suggestions on how to make a “butterfly garden” to attract more of these fascinating insects, and you have a book so packed with information that it is something of a shock to realize that it is only 32 pages long. Like other Simon science books, Butterflies delivers a great deal of interesting material while showing numerous beautiful pictures. These are entry-level science books, to be sure, but they are so well done that they should entice many young readers to go looking for more in-depth information elsewhere – good places to start being the Web sites mentioned at the end of the book.

     Animals also figure in many entries in the latest annual edition in the Scholastic series of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! The interest here, though, is not scientific exploration but a mild form of tabloid-style exploitation. There is an elephant here – about to step on a woman’s back, because of an odd massage craze in Thailand. There is a dog – actually an X-ray of a dog that swallowed five pottery cats. There are cows, sheep and mice – etched on glass milk bottles by an artist in England. There is a llama – trained as a golf caddy. And of course there are plenty of human animals as well: one who backed through the seventh-floor wall of a parking garage, leaving the trunk of his car hanging precariously 80 feet above the street; one who made a life-size cardboard cutout of her deceased husband and took it to his own funeral and a friend’s wedding; one wearing a Body-Laptop Woolly Sweater that covers the head, hands and computer; two wrestling in a giant pool of chocolate; one who made a bulletproof handkerchief, to be worn in the breast pocket; one cruising around Sydney (Australia) Harbour in a giant guitar; one playing a piano made entirely of ice, and another setting fire to an old piano; and so on. “What fools these mortals be,” Puck might say, but anything Shakespearean would be a far cry indeed from this (+++) book of assorted oddments. From conjoined fruits to number games to odd facts (“more people in India have access to a cell phone than to a lavatory”), this punchy, easy-to-read, factoid-packed, brightly colored, highly pictorial compendium is fun for a while, silly for a while, and downright strange for a while. It is a read-it-once sort of book, not the type of volume to which people return again and again; but in its own oddball way, it can be amusing and enjoyable, at least for a time.

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