February 16, 2017


Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Unicorn Training. By Jackson Pearce and Maggie Stiefvater. Illustrations by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic. $9.99.

The Tapir Scientist: Saving South America’s Largest Mammal. By Sy Montgomery. Photographs by Nic Bishop. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $9.99.

     Fresh from the unicorn stampede and the plague of Fuzzles with which she dealt in Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures, the intrepid protagonist of the title is back in Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Unicorn Training, still unique in her ability to understand and speak to magical creatures and still accompanied by her best friend, Tomas Ramirez, who is allergic to pretty much everything in the world, including magical things – which cause him to have magical allergic reactions, such as one in which he hiccups multicolored bubbles. This time, Jackson Pearce and Maggie Stiefvater plunk the two preteens – as well as Pip’s irritating, stars-in-her-eyes 13-year-old cousin, Callie – down at a unicorn competition, where the terrified-of-absolutely-everything Regent Maximus needs somehow to be calmed down enough to make an effort to become the “show unicorn” he is supposed to be by birthright and lineage. Stiefvater, as illustrator of the jointly written novel, offers another set of pictures that ostensibly come from Jeffrey Higgleston’s Guide to Magical Creatures, the book that Pip uses as a guide for almost everything – and that invariably comes up short just when Pip needs guidance the most, which is why Pip is always taking her own notes and thinking about what she would write about the creatures for which Higgleston’s descriptions are at best incomplete. Meanwhile, Tomas is discovering something extraordinary: there is one magical creature that he really, really likes, and to which, to the astonishment of everyone including Tomas, he is not allergic. It is the dullest magical creature of all, a brownish-gray or grayish-brown sheeplike thing called a Rockshine, which constantly says “hey” (rather than “baa”) and has eyes that point in different directions – and which becomes invisible when frightened. Tomas takes to Rockshines to such a degree that, at one crucial point of the book, he controls an entire herd of them – to the amazement of several police officers, who ask, “Is he a wizard?” The police officers are on hand because someone has been cutting off unicorn tails – a horrible bit of vandalism that turns out to have a complex motivation tied into ecological matters and magical-species extinction. Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Unicorn Training is amusing enough, complex enough, adventurous enough and simply enjoyable enough so it will be hard for young readers to put down – this is one series that deserves to go on and on. Or at least it would deserve that if Pearce and Stiefvater could be a little more careful to keep the text and pictures in accord. The problem with that here relates to a magical creature used by the police in their investigations because of its extraordinary sense of smell. It is a kind of slug that can rearrange its body parts at will. And it is called – well, that’s the issue. The illustration’s headline and text repeatedly refer to it as “wimpleling,” but throughout the text of the actual narrative, it is called “wimpeling,” losing one “l” somewhere along the line – or gaining it, depending on how you look at things. This barely diminishes the story but does take a little of the magic out of it.

     The Tapir Scientist, originally published in 2013 and now available in paperback, is entirely factual, but some elements of it are strange enough so they could almost be made up. For one thing, most people living where the tapir does – in and near the Pantanal, a huge freshwater wetland in Brazil – have never seen one. Although the tapir is the largest mammal in South America, as the book’s subtitle says, it is hard to find; and although it is known to be endangered, its very elusiveness makes it difficult to save. Sy Montgomery’s prose does a first-rate job of capturing the inherent difficulties and periodic successes of the scientists’ work. And Nic Bishop’s superb photographs not only showcase the lives of the researchers who work with and on behalf of tapirs but also show amazing views of the animals themselves – such as one picture that includes a typically dull-colored adult female with her adorable striped and spotted infant. The book’s title is a trifle misleading in speaking of a scientist, singular, because in fact there is a “tapir team” here, a five-member, mostly Brazilian group that searches for tapirs and works to preserve the Pantanal, which is 10 times the size of the Florida Everglades. The tapir itself is strange enough to be a magical creature: it is an animal largely unchanged for 12 million years, distantly related to rhinoceroses and horses but looking like a sort of elephant-hippopotamus. In addition to information on tapirs, the book includes slices of life in the areas where the animals live, with discussions of the drinking of maté tea from a cow’s horn, a close-up view of the deadly fer-de-lance snake, and a look at a caiman that especially enjoys snacking on piranhas. Many of the sidelights of this science story are as fascinating as the main one, such as a discussion of the ticks that infest tapirs and why it is important to study them, and one about the very-little-understood giant armadillo. These animals, although not fictional, all deserve to be called exotic, but that does not mean they fade into unimportance – they are, in fact, crucial to the ecosystem in which they live; and The Tapir Scientist explains why their preservation is important on multiple levels. Many matters in this book are as strange as anything that Pip Bartlett encounters among her magical beasts, and the fact that the information in The Tapir Scientist is real makes the book all the more intriguing.

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