September 28, 2017


Deadliest! 20 Dangerous Animals. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.

Trickiest! 19 Sneaky Animals. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.

Charley Harper’s What’s in the Desert? By Zoe Burke. Pomegranate Kids. $14.95.

     A distillation and repackaging of material from his many fascinating books about animals, Steve Jenkins’ new “Extreme Animals” series consists of short, highly visual, easy-to-read books focusing on specific ways in which animals of all sorts are likely to be intriguing to young readers. The exclamatory titles are, it is true, a bit overdone, but they are intended to draw attention to the animals shown in Jenkins’ colorful and anatomically accurate drawings, and they certainly do that. Sensationalizing aside, both Deadliest! and Trickiest! are nicely arranged, carefully researched books that do a good job of explaining why animals are, by human standards, deadly or tricky. For example, “hunters use fangs, venom, and other deadly weapons to catch and kill their prey,” while “other animals protect themselves with spines, poison, or a powerful kick.” When it comes to sneakiness, some animals “have tricky ways of hunting,” some “use imitation to catch their prey,” some “use a lure to attract their victims,” some “warn, distract, or confuse their enemies,” some “pretend to be something else,” and some “startle an attacker.” In other words, all the dangerous and tricky elements of animal appearance and behavior have to do with survival – with getting food and avoiding becoming food. But presenting these everyday adaptations in the form of books called Deadliest! and Trickiest! certainly does make the information seem more dramatic and involving.

     Among the animals in Deadliest! are the bull shark, which lives in both fresh and salt water and attacks without warning; the hippopotamus, which looks ungainly but can run as fast as a horse and is quick to anger; and the Brazilian wandering spider, which sometimes turns up in bunches of bananas and has large red jaws and a potentially fatal bite. For each creature in the book, Jenkins shows where it lives, what it eats, and what size it is compared to a human adult (or, for insects, a human hand). And in addition to creatures of the wild, such as the Komodo dragon and cassowary, Jenkins includes a couple of deadly animals that are commonplace and not usually thought of as being especially dangerous: dogs and mosquitoes. In fact, at the end of the book, Jenkins lists all the animals in it and shows how many human deaths they cause every year. The tiger kills 60 to 100 people annually, for instance, and the Cape buffalo about 250 – but dogs kill 55,000 people a year by spreading rabies, and the most dangerous creature of all, the mosquito, is responsible for one million human deaths every year. These statistics and explanations help young readers see animals, both exotic and well-known, in new ways. And the approach is much the same in Trickiest! Here there is a bird called the fork-tailed drongo, which “can imitate the calls of more than 50 other animals” and uses that ability to trick other creatures out of their food; there is the huge alligator snapping turtle, which has a reddish tongue portion that looks like a worm and that lures fish close enough so it can snap them up; there is the harmless wasp beetle, which looks almost exactly like a wasp but has no stinger; and there is the “satanic leaf-tailed gecko,” which sports a tail so realistic in looking like a leaf that it even has ragged edges like the ones leaves develop. The animal kingdom is full of marvels, and Jenkins spends much time and many books exploring them and explaining them, usually in somewhat greater depth than in Deadliest! and Trickiest! But these once-over-lightly books are sufficiently clear and interesting to intrigue young readers into getting more-in-depth information from Jenkins’ other books or from other sources.

     Speaking of dangerous and tricky animals, the desert has more than its share of both, although they do not appear in either new Jenkins book. However, a new book featuring the marvelous, geometrically oriented animal drawings of Charley Harper (1922-2007) gives the desert its due and is a delight to read, too. Zoe Burke strikes a whimsical note in most of her text: “Watch out for the Cactus; avoid its sharp spines./ But notice its flowers—such pretty designs!” And: “This Roadrunner flies even though he can scurry./ On two nimble legs, he takes off in a hurry!” The purpose of Burke’s rhyming text is not informational along the lines of Jenkins’ prose – rather, Burke provides a kind of singsong accompaniment to the delightful Harper portrayals of numerous desert dwellers. “A Cactus Wren’s dotted, and so is the Flicker./ I wonder when flying which one of them’s quicker!” So Burke writes – but the point is not to say which really is the faster flier; the idea is simply to let young readers see what these different desert birds look like. Harper’s mastery of the basic identifying features of animals was outstanding, allowing him to create portrayals that have a realer-than-real look. On the one hand, the art is stylized, its angles and curves more perfect and its colored more elegantly balanced than any in real life; but on the other hand, Harper shows the colors and shapes of these creatures so clearly that his art, in its own way, makes birds and other animals just as identifiable as John James Audubon’s art made birds in its way. Charley Harper’s What’s in the Desert? is scarcely a comprehensive view of desert animals, featuring mostly birds, omitting snakes altogether, and showing a few creatures only in part (e.g., the tail of a Gila monster). Harper also turns his attention to desert plants, not only cacti but also yucca and sagebrush; and to insects, including a moth and a tarantula. The book has a particularly nice touch at the end: a colorful, foldout, turn-the-page-sideways Harper picture showing every single animal, plant and insect in the book, with a black-and-white numbered key to let readers identify every Harper drawing that has been seen in larger size earlier in the book. That final all-in-one picture is enough to entice readers to go back through all the previous pages to see larger versions of Harper’s delightfully detailed drawings of dozens of desert denizens.

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