March 16, 2017


Frankie. By Mary Sullivan. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $12.99.

Shell, Beak, Tusk: Shared Traits and the Wonders of Adaptation. By Bridget Heos. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.

     Frankie is the story of a real dog, more or less: it starts with an adoption from an animal shelter and is dedicated by Mary Sullivan “to Sue, Leslie, Cali, and Barkley, for adopting Frankie.” But the story is told with cartoon drawings and Frankie’s imaginary thoughts as she moves to her new home and settles in there, not without some difficulty – so it is not 100% real. Nevertheless, every bit of the story is quite clearly recognizable to anyone who has ever brought a dog home, in particular anyone who has ever brought a second dog home. It is the first dog, here named Nico rather than Barkley, who is Frankie’s main problem. Frankie is an adorable black-and-white bundle of enthusiasm, perhaps a Jack Russell terrier or JRT mix, with stand-up-straight ears as big as her entire head; Nico is larger, mostly brown, and with a perpetual scowl. Unfailingly upbeat, Frankie explores her new home and tries to find things to call her own: “Frankie’s ball?” she wonders as she looks at a red-and-white polka-dotted ball, and “Frankie’s bone?” for a teething bone, and so on. But every single time, Nico shows up, takes the item away, and asserts, “No. Nico’s ball” and “No. Nico’s bone.” And so on. Frankie becomes increasingly downcast until she sees yet another possible toy for her; then she is every bit as enthusiastic as the previous time. But Nico is totally unaccepting of this intruder, yanking a blanket from under her and flopping on top of her in the dog bed. “Poor Frankie,” writes Sullivan, showing all the things Frankie wants but cannot have. “No nothing,” laments Frankie. But then, in all capital letters, “FRANKIE’S IDEA!” And off streaks Frankie around the house to assemble her own pile of objects: a ball of yarn, a bone-shaped toilet-tissue roll from the trash, a sock for a rope toy, even a cardboard box for her very own bed. Frankie and Nico find themselves on opposite sides of the room, protecting their turf and glaring at each other – until there comes a cry of “FRANKIE!” and the hyper-happy new dog in the house goes running toward it. And there stands Frankie’s human companion (only her legs are visible) with all sorts of non-makeshift things just for Frankie – everything with a tag reading “Frankie” on it, and everything looking so desirable that now Nico walks over with a slight smile, gazing at one of the toys and saying, “Nico’s frog?” And Frankie’s answer? The last page has Nico playing with the frog and Frankie playing with the red-and-white polka-dotted ball, each acknowledging the other in a heart-shaped thought balloon. This is clearly the beginning of a beautiful friendship – and a realistic-yet-amusing way of showing how dogs adapt to each other. And to top off the story, the back cover of the book jacket shows the real-life Frankie on whom the book is based – and notes that, yes, Frankie was fostered by Sullivan, who does indeed have a dog named Nico. The line between reality and almost-reality gets mighty thin here.

     The animals in Bridget Heos’ Shell, Beak, Tusk are entirely of the real world, and the photos of them (by a variety of photographers) show their distinguishing characteristics quite clearly. Certain of those characteristics are what the book is all about: Heos here discusses convergent evolution, in which unrelated animals may over time develop very similar characteristics because they have similar needs regarding food gathering or self-protection. The result, for example, is that both anteaters and aardvarks have long, super-sticky tongues that they use to slurp up insects – even though anteaters live in South America and are related to sloths, while aardvarks live in Africa and are related to elephants. Some of Heos’ chosen comparisons are unexpected and fascinating: although readers will not be surprised to learn how strong a parrot’s beak is, the opposite page surprisingly shows an octopus – which has a parrot-like beak that is “the only hard part of its body.” Heos explains that both creatures need the beak to get food: the parrot to crush nuts and seeds, the octopus to break the shells of crabs and mollusks. Unfortunately, Heos also here commits one of several narrative missteps when she points out that the parrot’s bite is “five times stronger than the bite of a deadly python.” Pythons are not “deadly” in the sense readers would usually expect – they are non-venomous constrictors – and, in fact, certain pythons are often kept as pets. The snakes are certainly deadly to the animals they eat, but that is not the way Heos means this; she could have chosen a better comparison. At another point, Heos confusingly writes that “the mole cricket got its name because its forelegs look like a mole’s, which it uses to dig underground just like its namesake.” To be clearly understandable, that would better have read, “…look like a mole’s. And like a mole, this cricket uses its forelegs to dig…” But if Heos’ writing is not always of the best, the book’s topic and the way the photos show how convergent evolution works in a wide variety of creatures and circumstances are uniformly intriguing. The book is short and discusses only 10 paired examples, but those are more than engrossing enough to arouse young readers’ curiosity and inspire them to learn more about convergent evolution elsewhere.

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