October 25, 2012


Wild Horse Scientists. By Kay Frydenborg. Houghton Mifflin. $18.99.

A Strange Place to Call Home: The World’s Most Dangerous Habitats & the Animals That Call Them Home. By Marilyn Singer. Illustrations by Ed Young. Chronicle Books. $16.99.

Growing Up Muslim: Understanding the Beliefs and Practices of Islam. By Sumbul Ali-Karamali. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

      The scientists who study the wild horses of Assateague Island, which lies between Maryland and Virginia on the Atlantic coast, are certainly less prominent in the public’s mind than those who study, say, Mars. But even though the geography of Assateague is more fully understood than that of the next planet out from the sun, the lives of the horses were not for many years. Wildlife reproductive physiologist Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick has devoted decades to the horses, for a reason that readers may be surprised to learn: the animals are protected under federal law, but reproduce so quickly that without some form of management, they would quickly overwhelm their fragile environment. Dr. Kirkpatrick’s search for humane equine birth control, and the careful charting of the horses’ lives by his colleague, Dr. Ron Keiper, are the heart of Kay Frydenborg’s Wild Horse Scientists, an unusual and fascinating study of the men who have spent decades learning about these horses – and of course about the animals themselves. With pauses in the narrative for discussions of horse color, size and hormones, the book takes readers through the unusual and fascinating details of life and death on the fragile island, including a whole series of marvelous photos: one shows a horse carrying a whole flock of birds, which eat the biting insects that otherwise torment the herd; some show fights between wild stallions; one shows just how close Assateague is to the tourist attractions of Ocean City, Maryland; one shows a helicopter hovering above mounted cowboys rounding up wild mustangs; and there are many others. Watching the horses interact with humans who come to see them is interesting in itself: some of the horses are quite at home wandering among car bumpers in a parking lot. Assateague is not idyllic – the weather runs to extremes and the insects can be brutal – but the horses (112 as of January 2011) have found ways to cope with their unusual life circumstances and location, and the study of how humans have helped them do so is an intriguing one from start to finish.

      Assateague Island is a harsh environment for life, but it is ease itself compared with some of the places where animals live and flourish. A Strange Place to Call Home visits some of the most difficult places for life on Earth, and discusses the animals that survive and even thrive in them – and does so in a very unusual way, through the poetry of Marilyn Singer and wonderful collage illustrations of Ed Young. This is an informative book with exceptional entertainment potential as well – quite a combination. Some of the difficult environments discussed here will not be a big surprise to young readers, since the animals themselves are familiar: mountain goats on mountain tops and camels in the desert, for example. But then there are less-known creatures that live in very harsh circumstances indeed: ice worms that survive “beneath the glacial ice,/ helped by their own antifreeze,” for example, and blind cave fish: “Who needs vision/ as long as this world remains/ so wet/ so dark?” The tube worms that thrive near deep-sea hydrothermal vents are here, and so is the humble limpet that clings to life where tides rise and fall: “In other words, its thing/ is mightily to cling.”  Then there are environments that seem ordinary enough to humans but can be quite challenging to animals: mangrove trees, where strange fish called mudskippers climb out of the water onto roots and rocks; and cities, where urban foxes “find it/ full of plenty – but plentiful/ in risk.” There are even petroleum flies, which hatch in pools of oil. To make the book still more interesting, Singer creates her poems in multiple formats, from haiku to sonnet to villanelle, and explains at the book’s end which poems are written in which forms (she also refers readers to a Web site with further explanations – a nice touch). A Strange Place to Call Home is quite an amazing book, a highly creative mixture of text and illustrations that showcases a variety of unusual environments and the animals that inhabit them – while also drawing attention to how the author writes about the subject!

      A very different sort of explanatory book, Growing Up Muslim deals with a wholly human issue, religion, as Sumbul Ali-Karamali, who holds a graduate degree in Islamic law from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African studies and has taught there, tries to present the basic tenets of her faith to young Americans.  Ali-Karamali – who would not be permitted to study, much less teach, in some Muslim societies – repeatedly goes out of her way to show that Islam is much like other religions: “Most of what Muslims should do or not do is the same as what people of other religions (or no religion) should do or not do. The rules of behavior in Islam have much in common with universal ideas of right and wrong.” She specifically discusses the ways in which Islam is similar to Judaism and Christianity, and offers a variety of old stories to explain differences such as differing holidays, prayer requirements and dietary restrictions.  She personalizes whenever possible, as when she mentions that Milad an-Nabi “celebrates the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. I never realized it was a holiday when I was growing up.” She makes passing reference to issues that divide Muslims from others, as when she explains that it makes sense for non-Muslims to be prohibited from visiting Mecca or Medina because “in order to keep the crowds down, while allowing as many Muslims to perform Umrah [a pilgrimage] as possible, it does make practical sense (though it seems unfair) to exclude the people who do not need to be there for their religion and are coming only for tourism.” However, she carefully ignores the fact that this explanation is not put forth by the authorities that ban non-Muslim “infidels” from these cities. Everything in Growing Up Muslim is reasoned, careful, certainly non-threatening to those of other faiths. Ali-Karamali, who is from India, comments that Islam, “like most traditional religions, disapproves of physical relations between unmarried people,” and says that limiting opposite-sex contact is perfectly reasonable “to prevent men from taking advantage of women (and vice versa).” She says she never went to a school dance when growing up, and met her husband “at my summer job one year while I was in law school” – a place where, under many Muslim governments, she would not have been allowed to be (a fact she does not mention). “Islam itself has no rules saying that men and women can never interact,” Ali-Karamali asserts, but she ignores the power structures in many nations and portions of nations where such rules are not only made but also enforced in violent, grotesque and frequently gruesome ways.  Except for an occasional aside (“in Saudi Arabia an extreme interpretation of Islam is implemented, one that’s not the norm in other Muslim countries,” “some Muslim extremists isolate the ‘fighting’ verses [of the Qur’an] and ignore both the ‘peace’ verses and the historical context, all so that they can justify warfare”), Ali-Karamali makes Islam out to be a reasonable, thoughtful, mainstream religion whose followers readily coexist with people of other faiths or of no faith at all. It is a very pleasant picture – but one very much at odds with the daily realities of the real world in the 21st century. Growing Up Muslim gets a (+++) rating: it answers many questions, but it evades and avoids many others, and will likely leave thoughtful young readers intrigued but deeply unsatisfied by all the things it does not say.

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