September 15, 2016


I See a Kookaburra! Discovering Animal Habitats around the World. By Steve Jenkins & Robin Page. Illustrations by Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Wild & Wacky Edition 2017. Scholastic. $16.99.

     Originally published in 2005 and now available in paperback, Steve Jenkins’ and Robin Page’s I See a Kookaburra! is a kind of real-life Where’s Waldo? – but with a distinct educational purpose and some fascinating information packed inside. The setup is quite simple: the book shows six different parts of the world, each including eight animals plus one ant (since ants live just about everywhere). It is the execution of the design that makes the book special: only parts of the animals are visible, which means that just as it is difficult to see animals in their natural habitat, so it is difficult to pick all of them out and identify them here. Finding the ants is by no means easy, either. Each two-page spread of a habitat is followed by two pages showing the animals against a plain white background, in the same positions and poses used when showing them in their habitat – so kids can go back and find any they missed, and also get an even better sense of where each animal lives in the wild. Three different tails stick out of the surroundings in a desert in the American Southwest, for example. It turns out that one belongs to a kangaroo rat, one to a Gila monster and one to a rattlesnake. And what looks like a fourth tail is actually a cactus flower. Elsewhere, an African savanna contains a rhinoceros that is fairly easy to see, a dung beetle that is not, and a giraffe antelope that is hard to recognize even when it is spotted. In an Australian forest are a cassowary (only one eye visible), a barely noticeable koala asleep in a tree, and an almost perfectly camouflaged dingo. And so on for more habitats and more animals throughout the book. The final five pages show small pictures of each of the animals and give considerably more information about them in compressed (one-paragraph) form. Jenkins and Page do an excellent job of making that information interesting: they explain why the frilled lizard is also called the bicycle lizard, discuss the unique social environment of the naked mole rat (the only mammal that lives in ant-like colonies), explain why dung beetles are so important, and talk about a six-inch-long insect (the rhinoceros beetle). There is a lot more than a kookaburra to see in I See a Kookaburra! And everything in the book is very much worth seeing.

     The pleasures of seeing the people and things in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Wild & Wacky Edition 2017 are decidedly more mixed. The successors to Robert Ripley can no longer roam the world looking for naturally occurring human and animal oddities or “freaks,” as Ripley himself did – that would be politically incorrect. So more and more of the Ripley legacy depends on showing readers things that people who want to draw attention to themselves have done for the explicit purpose of getting noticed. The result is a sort of still-photo reality television with, unfortunately, just as great a propensity for catering to celebrity worship (the new book shows a sculpture of Angelina Jolie made from crayons and one of Niki Minaj made from toast, for instance). This 2017 compendium of attention-getters includes a nine-year-old girl who invented a healthful lollipop; a watermelon-flavored bagel sold in Japan; a man who ran across the United States to raise money for charity; a race in which competitors ride ostriches; a playground made from snow and ice in Sweden; a sinkhole in Guatemala; a man in Japan who takes his 150-pound tortoise on walks into town; a giraffe with a crooked neck that was broken in a fight; a vending machine that dispenses live crabs in a part of China where they are considered a delicacy; and more. A few human beings who would previously have been put on display still appear in the book, but only in the context of being heroic and worthy of admiration: a wheelchair-bound man who can do cliff diving; a professional bass fisherman born without legs or a left arm and only part of a right arm; a woman who in 2008 became the first armless person to become a licensed pilot; and so on. Certainly Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Wild & Wacky Edition 2017 is more humane and uplifting than long-ago entries featuring exhibits from the old-style Ripley’s “odditorium” (that was the name of the museum Ripley opened in 1933). But the new Ripley’s is simply not as interesting or involving as the old Ripley’s used to be, partly because so many odd things are so visible so often on the Internet – and partly because Robert Ripley’s successors bend over so far backwards to avoid potentially upsetting or offending anyone with their displays. There is enough of interest in this book to give it a (+++) rating, but it is neither as wild nor as wacky as its title would have readers believe it to be.

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