January 30, 2014


A Baby Elephant in the Wild. By Caitlin O’Connell. Photographs by Caitlin O’Connell & Timothy Rodwell. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.

Scholastic “Discover More”: Dolphins. By Penelope Arlon and Tory Gordon-Harris. Scholastic. $7.99.

The Little Duck. By Judy Dunn. Photographs by Phoebe Dunn. Random House. $6.99.

The Little Rabbit. By Judy Dunn. Photographs by Phoebe Dunn. Random House. $6.99.

Jasper & Joop: A Perfect Pair—One Tidy, One Messy. By Olivier Dunrea. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.

     Striking photographs and straightforward text combine to provide young readers with fascinating information on such animals as elephants and dolphins – and even the more-mundane ducks and rabbits – in a variety of attractive new books. A Baby Elephant in the Wild features remarkable photos of a just-born elephant calf – remarkable because witnessing an elephant birth in the animals’ natural habitat is rare. Caitlin O’Connell, who has studied elephants for more than two decades, focuses on the new baby, Liza, using her to tell young readers what elephants are like from birth through their early life. O’Connell explains that Liza weighs 250 pounds at birth and will double in weight within three months. Then, with spare text and plenty of fascinating photos taken by herself and Timothy Rodwell, O’Connell shows how elephant herds protect and care for babies, and explains the challenges that even the largest land animal faces – from lions to poachers and deforestation. O’Connell is writing for very young children and does not delve deeply into these issues, but she also does not simplify or sugar-coat them, noting, for example, that elephants “could eat a small farmer’s whole crop in one night, leaving the farmer’s family with no food for the year. This makes sharing land with elephants difficult for farmers.” Most of the book, though, is strictly about the elephants themselves, not their relationship with humans. O’Connell includes such interesting information as the fact that elephants continue to grow throughout their lives and that their closest land relative is a small rodent called the rock dassie. Most of the book’s considerable attraction, though, comes from the chance to see elephants in their native habitat – and observe how they care for the youngest members of their herds.

     The story of dolphins in a Scholastic “Discover More” book also features photos of the animals in the wild, but this book’s structure is quite different. Like all the works in this series, it is a highly visual introduction to its topic, with tidbits of information scattered around pages dominated by multiple photos. As in O’Connell’s book, there is a lot to learn here, ranging from the fact that dolphin pods normally have 15 to 20 members to the observation that the orca, one of the greatest enemies of dolphins, is in fact the biggest dolphin of them all. There are 42 kinds of dolphins, and this book shows pictures of many of them, including river dolphins (smaller than ocean dolphins but with longer snouts – and sometimes colored pink) and the recently discovered Burrunan dolphin (found in Australian waters). As with the story of elephants, that of dolphins includes references to the animals’ relationship with humans – both positive and negative. But in this book too, the focus is on the animals rather than on people, and the fascinating photos are the best part by far, showing dolphins herding fish into a tight ball so they can pick them off more easily, using clicks and whistles to communicate, tending their calves, and playing games such as chase and catch (using a piece of seaweed). Young readers will have a new appreciation of these intelligent water-dwelling mammals after reading this book – and can learn even more from a free digital companion book available for download by entering a code found in the printed work.

     The animals are more-common ones and the photos are intended to provide an “aww” factor of cuteness rather than to communicate substantial information in two books from Random House’s “Phoebe Dunn Collection”: The Little Duck, originally published in longer form in 1976, and The Little Rabbit, which dates to 1980 and has also been abridged for this new edition. The new board-book versions of these books retain all the works’ charm. The duck is seen hatching, growing bit by bit, sitting on the family dog’s back, interacting with a chicken, rabbit and goat, and eventually encountering a girl duck and swimming happily with her in a pond. The text here is thin, trying for an anthropomorphized story about Henry the duck searching for a friend, but the toddlers at whom the book is aimed will have more fun with the photos than with the story the pictures are supposed to be illustrating. The same is true for The Little Rabbit, in which a girl named Sarah has a bunny named Buttercup that she loves – but one day in the meadow, Sarah falls asleep and Buttercup wanders away, encountering a turtle and butterfly before it starts to rain and the bunny runs for cover and becomes “stuck between some stalks.” Sarah soon rescues her and all ends happily, in a book that does not even attempt to provide as much information on a rabbit’s life as The Little Duck provides about a duckling’s – but that is every bit as warm and heartfelt.

     And speaking of warmth, Olivier Dunrea’s entirely fictional books about goslings are just as cute and sweet as anything in the “Phoebe Dunn Collection.” But they are books drawn as well as written by Dunrea – nothing photographic here. Jasper & Joop: A Perfect Pair—One Tidy, One Messy, originally published last year, is just as much fun now that it is available in board-book form. The simple story of two best-friend goslings, one “who likes to be tidy” and one “who likes to be messy,” features predictable minor mishaps with puddles, piglets, mud, chicks and, eventually, a beehive, into which Joop just has to poke his bill – resulting in a madcap chase, through which Jasper learns that being messy is sometimes necessary and not really so bad, while Joop finds out that getting cleaned up is also no big deal. The goslings have so much fun together that it is easy to see why they are best friends despite their differing personalities – which is, of course, exactly the point that Dunrea is making in this gentle, amusing little fable, with which parents will have a fine time entertaining infants and children up to around age three.

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