May 10, 2018


What if You Had an Animal Tail!? By Sandra Markle. Illustrated by Howard McWilliam. Scholastic. $4.99.

     One of the cleverest and most informative books in the long-running What if You Had… series by Sandra Markle and Howard McWilliam, What if You Had an Animal Tail!? will have young readers marveling at all the things that animals’ tails can do – and perhaps wishing for one of their own, even though the book, like all its predecessors, emphasizes at the end that people are just fine as they already are, without any additions or enhancements. That is certainly a reasonable position, but my goodness, how impressive the tails chosen for this book are! They range from the obvious (peacock’s tail, rattlesnake’s tail) to the far-from-obvious (thresher shark’s tail, whose top portion can be 20 feet long – as long as the rest of the shark’s body).

     The What if You Had… books follow their own formula, from the titles ending with both an exclamation point and a question mark to the drawings in which McWilliam imagines how kids with various animal attachments would look when doing everyday activities. For her part, Markle digs up fascinating facts even about well-known matters. For example, the peacock’s plumage will be very familiar to many readers of this book, but how many will know that “this bird sheds and regrows its tail feathers each year” and that each tail “has its own special pattern of eyespots and shimmering colors”? The fact that a rattlesnake’s tail sounds a warning to frighten intruders away may be common knowledge, but how about the fact that the snake “shakes its tail back and forth about sixty times a second”?

     A lot of the fun of these books shows the absurd situations that would become possible if kids had the animal characteristics on which each book focuses. A rattlesnake’s tail would provide “the perfect instrument to play in a band,” for example. A giraffe’s tail – the longest possessed by any land animal – would mean “you wouldn’t need a brush to paint a masterpiece,” and the illustration shows a girl using her giraffe’s tail to create Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” Thanks to a scorpion’s stinging tail, “you’d never have to wait in line,” writes Markle, and McWilliam shows a typical summertime ice-cream-truck scene with a very long line of people standing way back to let the girl with the scorpion’s tail place her order first. A beaver’s broad, flat tail would let you “make the biggest splash in the pool,” and a tokay gecko’s tail – which, like those of many lizards, breaks off if the animal is caught by a predator – would guarantee that “no one could stop you from scoring a touchdown” (at least not if you were tail-tackled from behind).

     As in all these books, the all-factual conclusion here is less interesting than the amusing imaginings earlier; but the ending does serve to bring young readers back into the real world. Here, Markle explains about the human tailbone (coccyx) and why it is “exactly what you need to sit down or stand up straight.” A simple McWilliam illustration shows where the human tailbone is located, at the bottom of the spine, and a final page of the book – which, again, is a standard feature of these volumes – explains how to take care of your tailbone. The advice includes “don’t sit sideways on just one hip,” “sit straight and tall with your shoulders back,” and “try to get up and move about every twenty minutes.” All these recommendations are good ones, but they are scarcely the reason kids will pick up this book and enjoy it. The exact potential tail uses discussed and shown here may not be the ones kids themselves would find for these animal appendages, or others. But just thinking about what it might be possible to do with a particular tail makes the underlying facts about these specific tails much easier to absorb – which, of course, is the whole purpose of the What if You Had… series in general and What if You Had an Animal Tail!? in particular.

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