October 10, 2013


The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest—and Most Surprising—Animals on Earth. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin. $21.99.

What’s in the Rain Forest? A Nature Discovery Book. By Zoe Burke. Illustrations by Charley Harper. Pomegranate Kids. $14.95.

     Anyone who doubts the continued importance of reference books in our electronic age would do well to take a look at The Animal Book. With simple but not overly simple text and excellent drawings that are both realistic and designed to highlight specific animal features, Steve Jenkins presents children and adults alike with a top-notch introduction to the animal kingdom past and present, and along the way manages to explain the evolution of life on Earth and to answer a whole series of intriguing questions.  Everyone knows that the dinosaurs were the biggest animals ever, for example – right? Nope: the single biggest animal ever to live exists today – it is the blue whale. Dinosaurs were the biggest land animals ever, though. Well, everyone knows that the biggest land mammal ever is the elephant – right? Again, nope: the extinct indricotherium, four times the weight of an African elephant, holds that distinction.

     All this information is available online, of course, but not the way Jenkins presents it. His juxtapositions, his use of scale to show animal sizes, his careful emphasis of certain characteristics that would not be as clear in photographs or when found at typical Web sites, combine to create a book that is not only fact-packed but also fascinating. For example, he draws the eye of the colossal squid actual size – it takes up most of two pages – and shows the smallest known spider in its actual size (about as big as the period at the end of a sentence in the book) as well as much enlarged to make its appearance clear. The silhouette of an adult human is used to show how big a great white shark is – and how much bigger the extinct megalodon was. Elsewhere, the human silhouette helps readers comprehend the size of a manta ray, which is bigger than a grizzly bear, and an oarfish, which is larger than a hippopotamus.

     In one section, “The Story of Life,” Jenkins points out that every animal on Earth is related to every other one, since all trace their lineage back to a microscopic single-celled organism that lived billions of years ago. He then goes on to provide “a brief history of life,” and here his skill at illustration makes a major contribution as he shows animals that looked like plants, nautiloids (ancient ancestors of today’s squids and octopi), “strange segmented animals, unlike any alive today,” and many more. The Animal Book is filled with well-known animals – and also with strange ones of which readers have probably never heard, such as the tiny water bear, “the champion of extreme habitats,” which can “thrive at temperatures hundreds of degrees below zero and swim in scalding hot springs” and even survive “for days in the vacuum of space.” And then there are animal defenses: how many readers will know, before Jenkins tells them, that the slow loris is the world’s only poisonous primate and that the boxer crab defends itself by picking up poisonous anemones from the sea floor “and waving them like boxing gloves in the face of an attacker”?

     Along the way in this fascinating book, Jenkins takes time to discuss animal groups, animal extremes, the techniques of predators, and some amazing animal senses: the platypus has electricity-sensitive receptors on its bill, for example, and the naked mole rat uses the Earth’s magnetic field to find its way through its tunnels. There are surprises everywhere here, even in a pie chart showing the number of living animal species: of the 1,367,765 listed in 2011 by the World Conservation Union, 1,000,000 were insects and another 102,250 were the insect-like spiders and scorpions. The Animal Book is a reference work that families will enjoy having around for years, no matter how sophisticated Web searches become, because the book offers the thrill of unexpected discovery in a way that focused Web searches never can. And Jenkins’ well-wrought illustrations provide exceptional clarity throughout – as when, for example, he surveys and portrays the creatures that are deadliest to humans and points out that “the world’s most dangerous animal, by far, is the mosquito.” The Animal Book makes you think – and helps you discover.

     The aims are more modest and the discoveries not so all-encompassing in What’s in the Rain Forest? But that does not make this little book any less attractive – in fact, it is considerably easier to digest than Jenkins’ large and thick one. Charley Harper (1922-2007) was a well-known, highly skilled nature artist who combined accurate observation, a wonderful sense of color and shape, and skillful stylization into illustrations that make animals seem even more real than they are in reality. This book makes a fine companion to Pomegranate Kids’ previous Zoe Burke/Harper “Nature Discovery Book,” What’s in the Woods? It also stands quite well on its own. Burke’s simple text portrays each animal in amusing rhymes that nicely complement Harper’s elegantly stylized drawings: “Straight ahead, the Quetzal bird,/ His splendid feathers bright./ The avocado in his beak/ Is this bird’s favorite bite.” There are birds aplenty portrayed here, but they are scarcely the only rain-forest creatures that get Harper’s very personal treatment. One of the most intriguing illustrations is that of a very slow mammal: “A two-toed Sloth peers out at us—/ So furry and quite brown—/ Her favorite way to spend the day/ Is hanging upside down.” The sloth is a pure study in geometry, with two circles for nostrils, two slightly larger ones for eyes, a pentagonal head, and 11 absolutely straight darker vertical lines on what is visible of its tan body. Some of Harper’s pictures, such as the one of a katydid’s head, are definitely worth a double-take: the katydid looks like a child’s wheelbarrow with red wheels until you turn the page counter-clockwise and realize that the wheels are its eyes, peering from its green head, which is connected by a contrasting stripe (another of those perfect straight lines) to its white body. What’s in the Rain Forest? ends in the same clever way as What’s in the Woods? There is an invitation to find the animals once again, and a foldout shows all of them at once – followed by a key on the final pages. Harper’s art is entirely different in kind and impact from Jenkins’. Families that have both to look at will find themselves appreciating animals in a variety of different ways.

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