August 31, 2017


Fly Guy Presents: Why, Fly Guy? A BIG Question & Answer Book. By Tedd Arnold. Scholastic. $14.99.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Out of This World Edition 2018. Scholastic. $16.99.

     Although the Internet has made more information available to more people than ever before, there are a lot of inconveniences in using it – not the least of which is that the sheer volume of material can be overwhelming, and the results of searches for facts do not always produce understandable or age-appropriate responses. Go to Google and search “why do balloons float,” for instance, and you will get 557,000 results in a fraction of a second – or enter “why do feet smell” and you will get 4,790,000 results. The material will be accurate, comprehensive, scientifically literate, and potentially very confusing, especially to younger Internet users. Besides, it will be presented as words, and in our hyper-visual age, many people find it easier to absorb information with a visual component. A touch of entertainment helps, too. The result is that a known and amusing character such as Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy can be a very effective spokesperson, or spokesfly, for a cross-section of material in which many young readers are likely to be interested. The Fly Guy Presents series has been using the big-eyed fly this way for some time, with focuses on topics such as weather, sharks, castles, dinosaurs and, unsurprisingly, insects. Now Fly Guy and Buzz, the boy who keeps Fly Guy as a pet, explore a wider variety of concepts in an oversize hardcover book that is more visually striking and will likely be much more durable than the small-size paperbacks previously released. Fly Guy Presents: Why, Fly Guy? A BIG Question & Answer Book actually covers some of the same material that the smaller books do, but there is plenty new here as well, and each of the book’s four sections includes a science project and an end-of-section activity for kids to do. The why-balloons-float question, for example, gets an explanation both of why helium-filled ones rise in the air and why ones that you blow into do not. And the why-feet-smell question is explained by discussing bacteria that feed on human sweat and the way closed shoes trap the resulting odor. Actually, the bacteria issue is a weakness in the book, since the word “bacteria” is used properly as a plural (the singular is bacterium) some of the time – but not all the time, as in a comment that “bacteria in your stomach breaks [sic] down food to make gas.” Still, this is a fairly minor matter in a book whose bright and amusing illustrations and simple but accurate explanations of everyday phenomena make it fun to dip into to learn a variety of things. The book’s sections deal with the human body, “bees and other animals,” plants and nature, and miscellany – ranging from why wheels are round to why stop signs have eight sides. This last section has a particularly intriguing science project: make glue from milk. But the whole book contains interesting information, including some that even parents may find surprising: “No one knows for sure exactly why people sleep.” Buzz makes comments throughout the book, and “If Fly Guy Could Talk” panels let Fly Guy take part in the narration, too. Fly Guy Presents: Why, Fly Guy? A BIG Question & Answer Book is scarcely comprehensive, but for the topics it does cover, it is a very enjoyable way to learn a variety of basic scientific facts. And kids who want to go beyond the book’s material can, of course, always turn to the Internet.

      One thing the Internet does not do particularly well is allow random searches for items of interest: focused searches for specific material are its strength. So kids (and adults) who are simply interested in learning some strange things, without any particular organization or purpose, can still enjoy the Believe It or Not books that continue the oddity-gathering traditions of Robert Ripley (1890-1949). A great deal of the material that Ripley himself collected and showed in newspaper panels would no longer be allowable today – it would be considered culturally insensitive and politically incorrect. So the nature of Believe It or Not has changed quite a bit, and books such as Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Out of This World Edition 2018 now include many entries focusing on people and organizations that want to be considered outré and bizarre. The 2018 book is divided into sections called “Peculiar Planet,” “Unreal Animals,” “Larger Than Life,” and “Trending Stories.” The first includes items such as a house decorated with over a million shells and an Australian tourist attraction that lets visitors get close to dangerous saltwater crocodiles. The second contains photos of a pet emu and a pet alpaca, a pink grasshopper, and a cat that likes to ride a surfboard. The third section has lots of pay-attention-to-me elements, such as a two-page spread on singer Taylor Swift and a look at a Russian barber who gives haircuts in extreme locations. The fourth part of the book is also full of attention-seeking, including an artist who makes portraits from hair and one who makes them from food, a collector of The Simpsons memorabilia, and an ice-cream shop that makes black ice cream that includes activated charcoal. Because of the preponderance of attention-seekers in the new Believe It or Not collections, including the 2018 book, these are (+++) volumes that contain much less of the genuinely unusual and unexpected material than older Believe It or Not books included. The books have largely become showcases for people with products to sell (such as California plant breeders who have created grapes that taste like cotton candy) or ones seeking to advance a cause (such as a Paralympic athlete who was born without legs). Therefore, these volumes are no longer collections of real oddities (although the Believe It or Not building in Niagara Falls, Ontario, is still called the “Odditorium”) but are largely means for commercial establishments and nonprofit causes to get their messages out in a venue that goes beyond traditional advertising. There is nothing particularly wrong with this, but it does make the Believe It or Not books less intriguing – especially at a time when there is such a surfeit of advertising, clickbait and look-at-me pictures and videos competing for people’s time online.

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