January 07, 2016
(++++) PEOPLE-ISH ANIMALS, ANIMAL-ISH PEOPLE
How Do Dinosaurs Stay Friends? By Jane Yolen. Illustrated by Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $16.99.
What if You Had Animal Ears!? By Sandra Markle. Illustrated by Howard McWilliam. Scholastic. $4.99.
Fly Guy Presents: Snakes. By Tedd Arnold. Scholastic. $3.99.
There is educational as well as amusement value to blending the characteristics of animals and humans, and Jane Yolen and Mark Teague have been taking advantage of that fact for more than 15 years in their How Do Dinosaurs… books. The latest entry, 10th in the series, is entirely typical and, as usual, entirely enjoyable. The issue this timer is conflict: it is inevitable even among friends, Yolen says, so what is important is not avoiding it but knowing what to do about it to keep the friendship alive. Of course, she does not make that comment in those words – that would be too preachy and too talky. Instead, How Do Dinosaurs Stay Friends? follows the usual narrative arc of these books, with Yolen asking whether friends do such-and-such that is clearly wrong – for example, tearing up a book, throwing a lunchbox into the lake, or writing nasty things on the school blackboard. Readers of course know the answer to these questions is always “no.” Then Yolen says what friends do do for conflict resolution, such as apologizing, sharing, and sending a note saying they do not want to fight. Simple messages, all, but enormously entertaining because Teague does his usual spectacular job of showing the feuding kids as various types of dinosaurs – drawn accurately, according to the latest scientific research regarding shape and color, and presented with their real scientific names the first time they are shown. A major one of the delights of this series is seeing a nasutoceratops angrily pointing a finger-like claw at a stamping, roaring acrocanthosaurus while four children shown as children look on, bewildered, at the swiftly escalating fight. A leptoceratops writing that a dilong is stupid, an anhanguera spying on a proceratosaurus – these are amazing visions of modern-suburban dinosaurs acting like misbehaving children having outsize temper tantrums. And that of course is the point. The inside front and back covers add to the delights of the book by showing the dinosaurs doing things they never got around to doing within the story, such as riding bikes together and flying a kite. The mixture of accuracy in the dinosaurs’ depictions and utter ridiculousness in their expressions and interactions is completely winning, and the chance to learn such dinosaur names as kaatedocus and lythronax is a bonus. The formula of turning animals into people is at its best here.
Sandra Markle and Howard McWilliam, on the other hand, turn people into animals – partially, anyway – in What if You Had Animal Ears!? The notion here, as in the creators’ previous book about animal feet, is to explain how certain aspects of animal anatomy function, then imagining what children could do if they had the same characteristics. A Eurasian red squirrel, for instance, has ear tufts that grow thicker and longer as the weather gets colder – so a child with those ears “could play in the snow without earmuffs or a hat and still have toasty, warm ears.” So says Markle – and the book offers, on the left-hand page, photos of the squirrel that clearly show its ears, with a McWilliam illustration on the right-hand page showing a girl with squirrel ears happily making a snow angel. Every animal’s aural characteristics get attached to a human here: the okapi has ears that move separately, so it can hear things coming from two directions; thus, a child with those ears could do the same thing, and “no one would ever be able to sneak up and surprise you.” The ears of the Townsend’s big-eared bat magnify the tiny sounds made by the insects it hunts, so a child with those ears – this is one of McWilliam’s best and most-amusing drawings – could “hear mosquitoes in time to catch them or swat them away.” The end pages of the book are the most overtly informative and thus, unfortunately, the least interesting: they show how human ears work and explain how to keep them healthy. The difference between this book and the Yolen/Teague one is that Yolen and Teague integrate the lessons into the narrative, while Markle and McWilliam save them for the end. The more-direct, more-focused educational portion of What if You Had Animal Ears!? is useful, but because it is so straightforward, kids may just skip it. Even then, though, they will have learned something about the special characteristics of some animals’ ears – and perhaps their curiosity about their own will kick in at a later time.
Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy is not quite a people-ish animal, or insect, but he comes close, accompanying the boy whose name he can say (“Buzz!”) on all sorts of adventures and sometimes dressing up in sunglasses, baseball caps and the like. In addition to their wholly fictional adventures, Fly Guy and Buzz go on informational quests from time to time, and in Fly Guy Presents: Snakes they head to the zoo to learn about the legless reptiles. Using this series’ typical mixture of reality and drawings – here, photos of snakes and their habitats plus cartoons of Buzz and Fly Guy – the book explains that snakes are among several types of reptiles and are ectotherms (Arnold deserves praise for not using the inaccurate term “cold-blooded,” although it would have been nice if he had explained why that word is wrong). The pictures of snakes are typically fascinating, giving close-up views of a sidewinder in motion, two snakes shedding their skin, a sea snake swimming, the heat-sensing pits that some snakes possess, snakes swallowing their prey, and more. There are a couple of imperfections in the presentation that would concern herpetologists but do not mar the enjoyment of the book. One is the statement that the largest snake alive today is the anaconda – but that is generally thought true only in terms of its weight and girth, with the reticulated python believed to grow longer. More significantly, although only 10% to 15% of snakes are venomous, half the ones shown in the book are, and this may perpetuate the unfortunate misconception that there are lots of dangerous snakes out there – a wrong belief that leads to many, many harmless snakes being killed by ill-informed people. Still, the overall approach of Fly Guy Presents: Snakes is a positive one, most of the information is presented both clearly and interestingly, and the inclusion of some correct scientific words and their pronunciations (oviparous and viviparous, for example) is a plus. Whatever human-like characteristics Fly Guy may have or not have, he and Buzz make good hosts for young readers interested in a first look at some animals that continue to be poorly understood and very much under-appreciated by far too many human beings.