November 02, 2017


Who Am I? An Animal Guessing Game. By Steve Jenkins & Robin Page. Illustrations by Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.

Just a Second: A Different Way to Look at Time. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Museum Trip. By Barbara Lehman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

     The weird poking-up eyes visible through holes in the cover make it clear from the start, in fact even before the start, that something is unusual about Who Am I? The latest book by the husband-and-wife team of Steve Jenkins and Robin Page looks at animals bit by bit – and asks young readers to put the bits together. In most cases, this is not very difficult: something that has “a sticky, pink tongue” plus “bumpy green skin” and “ten webbed toes,” and eats flies, is pretty clearly going to be a frog – and sure enough, putting the parts together after they are displayed on two pages brings the exclamation on the next two, “I’m a frog!” Other quizzes are a bit more difficult, including the one that goes with those strange eyes peeking through the cover and described as “two stalky eyes,” which go with “a big pinchy claw,” “eight scuttling legs” and other characteristics – all adding up to, “I’m a crab!” Steve Jenkins’ collage illustrations are, here as elsewhere, a major attraction: they simplify creatures’ parts and overall appearance, but do so in a way that renders everything portrayed with great clarity. Also, some of the coauthors’ text is especially clever: one page asks “Whoooo am I?” – and that form of the question is itself a clue to the answer being “an owl.” By the time they have seen the parts of all seven animals, birds and insects here and identified everything correctly, kids will likely be ready for a little more information, and that is provided at the end, on pages showing how big the various creatures are and where they live. There is also “an interesting fact” about each of them – for instance, for the flamingo, “I turn my head and beak upside down to filter food from the water.” This book is a guessing game that manages to be enjoyable, educational, and presented in an attractive as well as easy-to-read package.

     Steve Jenkins is solo author of Just a Second, originally published in 2011 and now available in paperback – and this too is a highly intriguing way to look at an apparently straightforward subject. Although animals pervade the book, here the real topic is time – the animals are used to show how many or how few things can happen in a given time interval. As the title indicates, the book starts with reference to the one-second time frame, during which, for example, “a hummingbird beats its wings 50 times” and “a rattlesnake shakes its tail in warning 60 times.” The statistics are pretty remarkable: in that same single second, “a very fast human can run 39 feet,” but “a dragonfly in flight cruises 50 feet” and “a peregrine falcon in a dive, or stoop, plunges more than 300 feet.” Several pages of one-second fascinations – further enlivened by more of Jenkins’ collage illustrations – soon give way to notes about what happens in one minute: “A giant tortoise lumbers about 15 feet” and “a common snail glides about one foot,” while “a charging grizzly bear gallops one half-mile.” The amazing animal facts about one minute (“a very chilly crocodile’s heart may slow to just one beat”) are complemented by non-animal matters: “People around the world drink the equivalent of 2,600,000 twelve-ounce soft drinks” and “2,200,000 pounds of rice are harvested.” And so Jenkins’ book continues to matters of one hour, then one day, one week, one month and one year. For the last of these, “If all of the offspring of our original pair of mice survived and mated, the two rodents would now have more than 1,000,000 living descendants.” And then Jenkins offers a few pages simply labeled “very quick” and “very long.” On the speedy side, “The trap-jaw ant snaps its jaws shut in 1/800 of a second – the fastest movement in the animal world.” For lengthy matters, “Counting one number every second, it would take more than 31,000 years to count to one trillion.” The last few pages of this short but information-packed book offer a timeline showing how long plants and animals live, and then a table of a “history of time and timekeeping” – which includes such notable events as the sundial being developed in ancient Egypt and Einstein producing the Special Theory of Relativity. It does not take much time to read Just a Second, but it is time very well spent – and it is worth the time to return repeatedly to the book to pick up other timely tidbits from time to time.

     There is also considerable cleverness, albeit of a different sort, in Barbara Lehman’s Museum Trip, originally published in 2006 and now available in paperback. This is an entirely wordless book that draws readers in and captivates them as surely as it draws in and captivates the red-jacketed boy who is its protagonist. On a class trip to a museum, the boy falls behind the line of other students when he stops to tie his shoelace – Lehman shows the lace untied even before he walks into the museum, past a man who is apparently the museum director. When the boy finishes tying his shoe, the class has moved on, and he is alone in a hallway that seems infinitely long and that branches out into exhibits that include art, statuary, animals and many more interesting objects. Along one wall the boy finds an arched cutout shape that turns out, when he pushes it, to be a door – and when he walks through it, he finds a display case showing all sorts of tiny mazes. Suddenly he is at the entrance to one of them, walking around and around and finally finding his way out – then going into another maze, in fact several others, before finding himself in one at whose center is a tower that looks as if it comes from a castle. Walking into the tower through another arched doorway, the boy finds himself facing someone – readers see the “someone” only in part, through a keyhole – who bestows a gold medal on the boy, hanging it around his neck. And then the boy, now full-size again, is again looking into the display case; then he goes out through the same arched doorway through which he entered the maze-display room; and finally he leaves the museum with his class – and, yes, is wearing his gold medal. And it turns out that the museum director is now wearing one, too. Did he bestow the medal on the boy? Was it all a dream? What really did happen? Lehman offers no answers – only the same sense of wonder and fascination that is entirely appropriate when visiting museums, which are, after all, real-world places of magic.

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