July 13, 2017
(++++) FACTS FOR FUN
Animal Planet Chapter Book #3: Bugs! By James Buckley, Jr. Liberty Street. $14.99.
Animal Planet Chapter Book #4: Snakes! By James Buckley, Jr. Liberty Street. $14.99.
There is no shortage of factual books combining brief lessons in animal appearance and behavior with illustrations and photos that make the information visually appealing. But James Buckley, Jr.’s considerations of bugs and snakes stand out in this crowded field. The reason is that these books do not devolve into visually striking but informationally vapid “factoid” volumes in which the pictures overwhelm the text and the amount of material communicated is comparatively small. Buckley actually provides narrative chapters about the creatures that, although visually attractive (the books are nicely designed and sized well for small hands), really do focus mostly on content. Thus, one chapter in Bugs! begins, “Dragonflies have lived on Earth for more than 300 million years. Over that time, they have not changed much. …Dragonflies have four wings. Each wing can move on its own.” And so on. The start-of-chapter illustration is not just thrown in, either: it shows a dragonfly that seems to be doing a handstand, with the caption explaining that “that’s how it cools off when it gets too warm.” Certainly there are plenty of “factoid” sections as well as narratives, but at least there are narratives. A “factoid” entry here, for instance, is a “Fact File” dubbed (rather irritatingly) “Rockin’ Roaches.” Here Buckley explains that “while many say ‘Eww!’ about cockroaches, we should also say ‘Thanks’” because cockroaches are helpful ecologically as “recyclers” that “pass nutrients from the [dead] animals they eat into the soil and plants when they poop.” Cockroaches, this section points out, are even sold as food for people in Asia: they “are inexpensive and high in protein.” The balance of explanatory chapters with facts-at-a-glance entries is quite well handled here. So is the context. Buckley does not just comment that the loudest insect is the African cicada but also notes that the cicada’s noise level of 106.7 decibels is “louder than a motorcycle.” And he points out that the smallest known insect, the parasitoid wasp, is 6/1000 of an inch long, which is “smaller than a poppy seed.” The placing of statistics within context this way is not always done in Bugs! But when it is, it makes the information easier to understand. Buckley also includes some questions that encourage young readers to think about the answers, asking, for example, how many parts an insect leg has (five, all of which are explained) and whether insects can see color (some can; an experiment that proved this is briefly described). Although Bugs! is by definition a once-over-lightly book, it is not quite as light as other introductory books about the natural world, and as a result makes a better introduction to its topic than do similar books that focus far more on visual impact than on communicating information.
The strengths are the same in Snakes! These creatures are endlessly fascinating to children and adults alike, even though, when you think about it, they simply “look like a tube,” as Buckley says. Snakes look so different from most other animals that there are nearly endless ways of showing what is special about them – for instance, while humans have 33 vertebrae and 24 ribs, “snakes have as many as 585 vertebrae” and “the longer the snake, the more vertebrae it has,” with internal organs that “are long and thin to fit its tubelike shape.” Buckley offers the usual reassurances about snakes not being interested in harming people, notes that “only about 20% of the snakes in the world are dangerous to humans,” and adds that “more people are hurt by insect stings than by snakebites.” The book nevertheless has quite a few photos of venomous snakes – many of which have unusual, even spectacular appearances that make them far more interesting to look at than the majority of non-venomous, often very plain-looking snakes. An especially interesting chapter here, “Moving Around,” discusses the different ways snakes are able to go places despite their lack of limbs: the familiar serpentine or slithering movement, rectilinear motion (using belly muscles so the body stays almost in a straight line while moving), concertina (using a series of curves to move forward), and sidewinding. There is also information on how snakes swim and, in a few cases, are able to glide by flattening their bodies to catch updrafts as they move from branch to branch in trees. What snakes eat – and how they eat – is always a fascinating topic, and is nicely handled here, complete with photos of one snake wrapped around lizard prey and one that has just swallowed an egg that is more than twice the width of its body. There is even an amazing photo of a large Indian python swallowing a deer. Buckley does a good job of including some scientific terminology and explaining it straightforwardly – for instance, that the shedding of skin by snakes is called sloughing and the single scale that protects snakes’ always-open eyes is known as a brill. The way snakes’ forked tongues work, the special senses that snakes have, the location of heat pits in snakes that have them – all these things and more are nicely explained here. And there are some fascinating photos, such as one showing a pile of corn snakes of many different colors (“morphs”) that encapsulates both the variety of snake colors and the animals’ striking and often beautiful appearance. Like Buckley's book on bugs, the one on snakes makes a fine introduction to its topic and manages to be meatier and more appealingly written than many others that handle the same information in ways that focus primarily on visual elements to the detriment of their factual content.