August 30, 2012


Snakes. By Nic Bishop. Scholastic. $17.99.

100 Deadliest Things on the Planet. By Anna Claybourne. Scholastic. $7.99.

My Turtle and Me. By Owen Bernstein. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $9.99.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Special Edition 2013. Scholastic. $16.99.

      Reptiles continue to be more fascinating to most people between book covers than in real life.  Nature photographer Nic Bishop’s latest book, simply entitled Snakes, shows why.  Bishop – whose previous volumes are about lizards, frogs, spiders, marsupials, and butterflies and moths – takes wonderful pictures that show animals’ characteristics very clearly, in extreme close-up.  From astonishing views of an egg-eating snake swallowing a meal and a hognose snake pretending to be dead to fool predators, to a foldout of a Mojave rattlesnake and a beautiful close view of an infant Honduran milk snake emerging from its egg, Bishop captures snakes’ colors and distinguishing characteristics with a precision that would make any herpetologist (a scientist who studies snakes) proud.  To increase the impact of his photos, Bishop blows almost all of them up substantially:  a rainbow boa is shown twice actual size, a feathered bush viper three times actual size, a parrot snake four times actual size – in a particularly striking pose that appears on the book’s cover as well as inside.  The book is simply beautiful to look at, and its simple recitation of facts is mostly well done, as in the remarks that snakes prefer not to be noticed by people and that even venomous ones prefer not to use their deadly weaponry.  Bishop gets details right that other authors sometimes miss, such as the fact that snakes do not hibernate but brumate (a state of being much less active than normal – but not asleep, as in hibernation).  And he mentions in the text that snakes can be beautiful, in addition to showing readers their beauty visually.  On the other hand, he describes snakes as cold-blooded rather than ectothermic (their blood is not cold; their body temperature depends on external rather than internal forces); and he shows a disproportionate number of venomous snakes, presumably because so many have such striking appearances – even though only about 11% of all snake species are venomous, and few of those have venom strong enough to harm humans.  Bishop’s Snakes is best looked at as…well, a book to look at, with striking, gorgeous photography of fascinating animals, and with just enough text to encourage young readers to get more-detailed information elsewhere.

      Snakes make appearances in 100 Deadliest Things on the Planet, too, and here of course the entire focus is on venomous ones (although the reticulated python, a constrictor, merits an entry as well).  The Indian cobra, boomslang, mamba, Russell’s viper and other venomous snakes appear in this book, with “deadly danger” ratings of two to four skull-and-crossbones graphics.  The deadliest snakes, though, are two Australian species that are little known elsewhere: both the Australian brown snake and the inland taipan get “deadly danger” ratings of five, the former because it bites so many people and the latter because it has the deadliest venom of any land snake.  But the venom of the beaked sea snake – another “five” danger rating – may be even stronger, and a single bite injects enough to kill 50 people.  Obviously 100 Deadliest Things on the Planet is not bedtime reading.  And snakes and other reptiles are not even the creatures mentioned most often here.  A “five” danger rating goes to the hippopotamus, a plant eater with a notoriously bad temper – and teeth long enough so it can bite a person in half; a “four” goes to the bull shark, which is deadlier than the great white (which gets a “three”) but not as deadly as the puffer fish, whose poison is so strong that the fish gets  a “five.”  And then there is the blue-ringed octopus (another “five”), whose venom is strong enough to kill 20 people.  Readers may be especially interested, or frightened, to learn that the deadliest creature on the planet (based on the number of people it kills each year) is the mosquito – the malaria it spreads claims a million lives annually, and is only one of the diseases it carries.  In fact, there are numerous fascinating stories here, all of them short and easy to understand, and all accompanied by excellent photographs.  One of the most curious: the castor bean plant’s seeds contain the deadliest natural poison on Earth, but castor bean plants are popular in gardens because of their beauty, and their deadly beans, properly processed, are used to make – among other things – chocolate.

      Young readers ready for some relaxation at this point will find it in an attractive board book about the reptile that most people like best.  Owen Bernstein’s My Turtle and Me is a sweet and simple story about a little boy and his pet toy turtle, who goes along with him everywhere, from the slide to the sandbox to car rides to story time to bed.  The book is cleverly designed, with a turtle-shell-shaped cutout in the upper right of each page, through which a green plastic turtle-shell light protrudes.  The shell (around which Bernstein draws the turtle’s head and limbs) lights up when pressed, so when kids read such sentences as “my turtle brightens up when we ride side by side” and “my turtle glimmers when we hug,” they can take part in the book’s action by pressing the light-up shell.  The book is based on a toy called “Twilight Turtle,” but it does not read like a product promotion or tie-in – although parents will find out on the back cover that the toy is the source of Bernstein’s turtle drawings, and they can of course buy it if their budding herpetologists decide that they want even more turtle tales.

      There are few reptiles in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Special Edition 2013, although one leopard gecko does appear by virtue of stowing away in an eBay package.  But as in each year’s edition of this book, there are plenty of other creatures, odd and surprising and weird – the weirdest, as usual, being human beings (who, come to think of it, should also appear in the 100 Deadliest Things book, but don’t).  Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Special Edition 2013 offers photos and short explanatory paragraphs in six sections, with titles from “Out of This World” to “One in a Million.”  The material tends to get repetitious after a while and is generally sort of silly, so the book gets a (+++) rating.  But taken a little bit at a time, it can be enjoyable: a woman in her 40s has dressed only in pink for 25 years and dyes her dog pink with beet juice; a duck-shaped boat contains two beds, a kitchenette and a sauna; a chimpanzee bottle-feeds tiger cubs at a zoo; a woodpecker is photographed asleep on a branch; a man pushes an orange along the ground with his nose – for a mile; scientists develop a cell phone as thin and flexible as a sheet of paper; urinals in Tokyo are linked to video-game screens; a boy born without collarbones can touch his shoulders together in front of his chest; and so on.  There are still a few black-and-white photographic holdovers from the earlier days of Believe It or Not, when the concept was closer to a written version of the old carnival sideshow or “freak show.”  But most entries for 2013 are quite recent – and quite trivial.  Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Special Edition 2013 is definitely more enjoyable in small doses than in larger ones.

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