July 14, 2016


Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World’s Brightest Bird. By Pamela S. Turner. Photographs by Andy Comins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.

Prissy & Pop: Big Day Out. By Melissa Nicholson. Harper. $17.99.

Otter Goes to School. By Sam Garton. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Pete the Cat’s Got Class. By James Dean. Harper. $9.99.

     Animal learning, and animals – real or imaginary – as guides to learning, can make education much more interesting for children. The excellent “Scientists in the Field” series focuses directly on the learning experience in Pamela S. Turner’s fascinating Crow Smarts, which looks specifically at the crows of the South Pacific island group known as New Caledonia. These crows have made remarkable adaptations to their environment, using tools that they make themselves to dig grubs, a favorite food, out of the wood in which the grubs hide. The crows practice genuine learning, not merely instinctive behavior, as the scientists who study them learn through a series of amazingly revelatory experiments. Andy Comins’ photos show some of what those experiments involve, but in this book, unlike many others in this series, the pictures are less impressive than the text, which details just how the crows learn to make tools from native vegetation and just how scientists have figured out that the crows’ behavior is a combination of “nature” and “nurture” – the birds seem to have an instinct to perform some of the toolmaking acts, but appear to need instruction from other crows in order to do the rest of them. Where the photos do excel is in showing the differences among the tools the crows make, the most remarkable of which is a hooked piece of pandanus leaf whose hook the crows create on their own – they do not simply accept a pointy end, but twist it until it forms a hook that can be used to extract a grub. In doing this, the crows become one of only two species known to make hooked tools – humans being the other. The intelligence of these crows is at times difficult to believe: in one test involving dropping objects into water to raise the water level and get a treat, “the New Caledonian crows outperformed seven-year-old children who were given the same test.” Crow Smarts does contain a few annoying errors that undermine its many fascinations, such as the comment, regarding exploration of New Caledonia, that “Captain James Cook visited in 1174 [sic]” and the explanation that in scientific research, “A paper tells (often in mind-numbing detail) what the scientists did and what results were found, and discuss [sic] what the results might mean.” But most of the book is excellent. Gavin Hunt, the primary scientist profiled in Crow Smarts, offers a lot of insight into how New Caledonian crows shape and are shaped by their environment, and Turner’s explanations of ways in which crows demonstrate intelligence are nicely complemented by easy-to-follow tables (such as one explaining that only five species make multiple kinds of tools – humans, chimpanzees, orangutans, capuchin monkeys, and New Caledonian crows – while, as noted, only humans and crows make hooked tools). There is also some useful art by Guido De Filippo, a graduate student involved in crow study, including a particularly revelatory page illustrating how crows manage complex thought even though they lack a neocortex, the part of the brain used by mammals to do such thinking. Crow Smarts raises as many questions as it answers, and from it, young readers will learn not to accept what “everyone knows” as fact, such as the notion that “birdbrained” inevitably means “not very intelligent at all.”

     Pigs are reasonably intelligent animals, too, although not at the level of New Caledonian crows. But the mini pigs named Priscilla (Prissy) and Poppleton (Pop) contribute to education in their own way. They are the class pets of the first-grade class taught by Melissa Nicholson in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida – and they are, not surprisingly in view of their adorableness, Internet stars, with a big following on Instagram. Prissy & Pop: Big Day Out is a very simple, pleasantly imaginative story in which the two pigs star as buddies heading for the beach – if they can get their different personalities to work together. Pop is beach-focused, but Prissy has all sorts of other things she wants to do before going there and even while on the way. Eventually they arrive and have a good time – which is not the point of the book at all. What matters here is the chance to see Prissy and Pop pose in varying, always adorable ways. When selecting clothes for their trip, for instance, Prissy stands at a mirror and seems to be admiring her pink outfit and strand of pearls; Pop, meanwhile, is inside a dresser drawer of clothing, apparently trying to figure out what to put on. In another picture, in which the pigs are about to eat breakfast, Prissy leans cutely toward a stack of small pancakes while Pop, open-mouthed, seems to be marveling at the banquet laid out for the two pigs. There is a precious getting-into-a-toy-car picture, a Prissy-at-the-playground series (with Pop acting impatient), and a cute little walking-on-the-sand photo in which the pigs are seen from behind, heading toward the water. It would be stretching things to say that there is anything remotely educational about Prissy & Pop: Big Day Out. But there is surely an educational experience to be had in Nicholson’s classroom from interacting day in and day out with these two unusual companion animals – and this book, along with the Internet, is about as close to that experience as most people are ever likely to get.

     Authors who create fictional, anthropomorphic animals can, of course, more easily use them to give human children lessons. But there has to be plenty of fun there, too, to keep kids involved. There is nothing special to be found out from Sam Garton’s Otter Goes to School except that, in a very general sense, learning is fun. Otter – companion animal to a man known as Otter Keeper – decides one day to start a school for her friends, the toys, after Otter keeper explains that “when he was little he went to a super-fun place called school” where “you learn a lot and get really clever.” Otter Keeper goes off to work, and Otter piles the toys into his toy car and races off to “school,” dropping off the “children” and then dressing up as “the best teacher ever” to introduce herself to the class. What follows is a series of mildly amusing misadventures. For math, Otter writes down lots of numbers and then cannot decide what to do with them, so she and the toys “took turns holding the calculator,” and Otter decides that Giraffe (on whose back the calculator balances neatly) should get gold stars for being good at math. Then Otter and the toys are seen on the piano bench, and Otter declares that Pig has a beautiful singing voice and should get gold stars for music. Then, for story time, Otter reads a book to the toys and decides that she herself should get gold stars for reading so well. And so the day goes – except that Otter cannot decide what one toy, Teddy, is good at, and that makes Otter sad: Garton’s picture of Otter looking downcast next to Teddy is both sweet and hilarious. When Otter Keeper comes home, Otter explains that Teddy is not good at anything and that she herself is not a very good teacher. To perk things up, everyone has an art class before dinner, and Otter Keeper makes sure that “Teddy” draws “the best picture ever,” one showing Otter as “My Favorite Teacher.” So, with silly certitude and a nod toward the notion that everybody is good at something, Otter Goes to School ends with everyone happy.

     The lessons are more explicit for human readers in James Dean’s Pete the Cat’s Got Class. This is one of those “multimedia” books, including a dozen flash cards, a fold-out poster, and a page of stickers: school bus, poster saying “Meow Math,” pencil, guitar with the words “Math Rocks,” lunch box, “Numbers Are Groovy” sign, and so on. As the stickers indicate, the story itself is about – what else? – math. Pete loves it, but his friend, Tom, has trouble with it. So Pete decides to “help Tom become awesome at math,” explaining that Tom does not really hate it: “You just don’t love it yet.” At Tom’s house, Pete finds Tom unwilling to do “boring” math problems – until Pete gets the idea of using Tom’s race cars, which he loves, to create number problems. Soon enough, Tom gets the idea that adding and subtracting can be done with cars or simply with numbers, and everything goes well – until the class takes a math test and Pete and Tom both get one question wrong: the same one. The teacher, Mr. G, suspects that some copying is going on, so Pete gets Tom to bring the race cars to school and shows Mr. G why Tom can now do math and did not need to copy from Pete in order to get a good test grade. The final words of the book are, “Math is neat!” And while that may not be the sentiment of all kids who read Pete the Cat’s Got Class, it is a feeling that can better be evoked by teachers who take the time to find ways to connect an abstract subject such as math with students’ everyday lives, through race cars or anything else. Parents can learn that lesson, too, and use it if they find that their own children come home from class at some point complaining that they hate math or find it boring. The approach might not work for calculus, but it is a pretty good one for basic arithmetic.

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