July 26, 2018


The Ugly Five. By Julia Donaldson. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler. Scholastic. $17.99.

Sea Creatures. By Seymour Simon. Harper. $17.99.

     The human conception of beauty certainly gets in the way of our understanding and appreciation of animals – some animals, anyway. We impose our human-centric notion of what is attractive on creatures that have evolved in ways very different from ours and that live very different lives – and we then recoil from those creatures’ “ugliness” instead of appreciating how well-adapted they are to their own particular way of life. Julia Donaldson strikes a blow for these under-appreciated animals in a singularly delightful picture book based on her own experiences during an African safari. The Ugly Five is about creatures that are decidedly not beautiful in the eye of the beholder, if that beholder is a human being, and decidedly not the ones that people journey to Africa to see: the warthog, spotted hyena, lappet-faced vulture, wildebeest and marabou stork. Donaldson – abetted by Axel Scheffler illustrations that suitably emphasize the creatures’ ugliness from the human viewpoint – introduces the animals one at a time and has them parade along through the entire book, celebrating their supposed repulsiveness. The rollicking rhymes make the animals’ (and readers’) journey fun: “But here’s someone uglier even than me!/ Who can this strange-looking specimen be?” And the animals make no attempt to play down their appearance, as when Donaldson has the vulture remark, “I have flaps on my face that are wrinkled and pink,/ My beak is gigantic and, what’s more, I stink./ At mealtimes my habits are really quite vile:/ I much prefer food that’s been dead for a while.” How can young readers not find something attractive in this parade of unappealing-to-humans critters, especially when Donaldson and Scheffler literally turn it into a parade, with each animal joining the previous ones until all five are marching along together? What then makes the book so successful in bridging the ugliness gap (so to speak) is that The Ugly Five eventually come to an area filled with babies of their species – young ones that accept and love the full-grown creatures and do not find them ugly at all. And these small creatures thoroughly appreciate their parents: “You clean us and preen us and pick out the nits,/ And we want you to know that we love you to bits.” And young human readers of The Ugly Five will be quite able to relate to those sentiments, even if they do not end up deciding that these five African denizens are truly attractive. Donaldson and Scheffler add a pleasant postscript, too, with notes on and pictures of various creatures potentially seen on safari, including not only the “ugly five” but also the “big five” (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, buffalo, elephant – the animals that people on safari always want to see); the “little five” (buffalo weaver, leopard tortoise, ant lion, rhinoceros beetle, elephant shrew – with names similar to those of the “big five” but very different appearances and ways of living); and the “shy five” (aardvark, porcupine, aardwolf, meerkat and bat-eared fox – nocturnal and rarely seen creatures). The Ugly Five may not lead kids or their parents to redefine “ugly,” but it can certainly lead readers to understand that ugliness by human standards has nothing essential to do with the beautiful adaptation of animals to their environment.

     And speaking of ugliness, there is plenty of it – and plenty of weirdness, too – to be found in Seymour Simon’s Sea Creatures. Simon, however, does not use the word “ugly” (or, for that matter, the word “weird”) when discussing any of the ocean dwellers described in his usual matter-of-fact text and shown in the usual high-quality photos that bedeck all his science-for-young-people books. By human standards, there is certainly beauty to be seen here, as in the photo of a sea anemone with tentacles extended; and there is peculiarity, as in a picture of an Atlantic bay scallop that clearly shows the scallop’s tiny blue eyes (up to 40 of them) ringing its shell; and there is grotesquerie, of course by human standards, in the photo of the frogfish, which has blending-in colors and bits of plantlike skin sticking out all over its body, the better to conceal it in the sargassum weeds where it lives. Real ugliness, though, shows up in the photos of deep-sea creatures such as the huge-eyed, frowning-faced lantern fish; the gigantic-toothed (for its size) fangtooth fish; and the distinctly pillbug-like giant isopod. But Simon, always a careful guide to science and nature, simply describes these fish as “strange,” which they are – by the standards of land-dwellers such as human beings. As usual in his books, Simon gives an overview of his topic and then goes into a variety of specific elements of it. In Sea Creatures, that means first discussing the sea itself and the many different ecological niches to be found in it (for instance, the upper waters, where sunlight is a significant factor, and the lower ones, into which light never comes). Then Simon discusses some of the vast variety of sea life; how the various creatures live, feed and reproduce; and how the food web of the waters incorporates everything from microscopic single-celled diatoms to apex predators such as the great white shark. The ways sea animals hunt, the ways they avoid being hunted, the ways some of them enter into mutually beneficial partnerships (symbiosis) while others tag along with but do not help their hosts, and the many different ways in which sea animals have adapted to their particular living areas and their particular ways of life are all mentioned – in brief, of course, but with enough accuracy and sufficiently intriguing facts to tempt young readers to go beyond this introductory book and get more information elsewhere (Simon suggests a couple of places to do just that). It may be impossible to prevent humans from looking at some of the life in Sea Creatures without thinking of the adjective “ugly,” but hopefully Simon’s easy-to-follow explanations and discussions will at least lead to the addition of another adjective: “fascinating.”

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