April 19, 2012


On the Day You Were Born. By Debra Frasier. Harcourt. $17.99.

The Beetle Book. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin. $16.99.

      Choose your beauty.  There is nothing as gorgeous as a newborn child, and one of the traditional gifts for the parents of newborns, for the past 20 years, has been Debra Frasier’s On the Day You Were Born.  The book is as lovely and sentimental now as it has been since 1991, and the new edition includes Frasier herself reading the work on a CD, which also contains music by Matthew Smith and singing by Sara Brown.  The enhancement is a bow to changing tastes and technologies but is not really necessary: this celebration of a new human life, in which Frasier imagines the whole world acknowledging a baby’s birth and conceives of the world as literally moving around the newborn little one, is as wonderful as ever even without the disc.  The prose throughout rocks gently: “While you waited in darkness,/ tiny knees curled to chin,/ the Earth and her creatures/ with the Sun and the Moon/ all moved in their places,/ each ready to greet you/ the very first moment/ of the very first day you arrived.”  The remarkable thing about Frasier’s book is that parents know it is written for the mass market, just as they know that there are many, many babies born every day, yet the book seems as individual and personal as does their very own precious new arrival.  The atmospheric cut-paper collage illustrations add to the feeling that this is both a fairy tale and a special story of the real world, with a spectacular impression of the Sun’s “towering flames” taking up most of one page and, on another, a flying kite lending an up-close view of the process by which “air rushed in and blew about,/ invisibly protecting you/ and all living things on Earth.”  In fact, On the Day You Were Born is as much a celebration of Earth as it is of every special child upon it – and it is a book that grows as children do, with the final pages of “More about the World around You” offering information that babies will appreciate as they grow…while the personal entries that many parents make in their copies of the book (and which Frasier encourages) guarantee that On the Day You Were Born will become a family heirloom for those who want to turn it into one.

      Heirloom status is less likely for The Beetle Book, but there are beauty and a celebration of Earth in Steve Jenkins’ work as well.  Although this book is not for parents who are squeamish about small six-legged creatures, it will be fascinating for everyone else: “Line up every kind of plant and animal on Earth,” Jenkins explains, “and one of every four will be a beetle.”  Using the same paper-collage technique employed by Frasier, but in a very different way, Jenkins creates gorgeous, oversize models of many, many kinds of beetles, from the ordinary-looking clown beetle to the huge-jawed giant longhorn beetle to the bizarre Indonesian beetle with its long, tubelike snout.  One page explains how beetles interact with the world; another shows their parts and explains that all “are constructed on the same basic blueprint” even though they look very different from each other; another shows the ways in which various beetles have adapted to specific environments.  The colors are absolutely wonderful here – actually, beetles’ iridescence can even exceed what Jenkins shows, but his contrasts between the orange-and-black forest fire beetle and blue-and-yellow African jewel beetle are certainly impressive.  The way beetles fit into the environment is clearly explained, whether the insects are pests like the cotton-attacking boll weevil or helpful creatures like the aphid-eating ladybird (ladybug) and the dung beetle, without which “the world’s grasslands would soon be buried in animal droppings.”  Familiar insects, such as the firefly, are shown along with peculiar ones, such as the giraffe weevil – which has a long neck with a joint in the middle.  Colors, disguises, habits, size, motion – all are here.  The Beetle Book will scarcely make fans of people who dislike bugs of all kinds, but it can be a wonderful introduction to an important part of Earth’s web of life for children who have not yet been taught to fear the creatures that make up so large a part of the world we share.

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