November 29, 2018


Insta Graphics: A Visual Guide to Your Universe. By Dan Green. Scholastic. $9.99.

What if You Had T. rex Teeth!? And Other Dinosaur Parts. By Sandra Markle. Illustrated by Howard McWilliam. Scholastic. $4.99.

     The place of the written word in our highly visual age is increasingly difficult to determine. One approach to preserving writing while accepting the apparently unending fascination with visuals is to create books in which the words are adjuncts to pictures – even when it is the words, not the pictures, that contain virtually all the information. That is Dan Green’s approach in Insta Graphics: A Visual Guide to Your Universe, whose title doubly emphasizes what people will see (“visual” and “graphics”) but whose actual content, much of it quite fascinating, lies in the verbiage that the title downplays to the point of omission. This is a six-section, visually striking book that, despite the title, is scarcely universal in any sense: it is a compendium of miscellaneous facts, a kind of “trivial pursuit” of reality, a book whose many pleasures of discovery are almost incidental to the way the highly visual, photographically rich pages look. This is not a “reference book” in any traditional sense, since the facts it presents are random, organized only in very general terms in sections called “Wacky World,” “To the Max,” “Super Senses,” “Pig Out,” “Supertech,” and “Dangerous and Deadly.” Nevertheless, many of the facts here are fascinating. Young readers may already know that the vast majority of Earth’s surface is covered by liquid water (71%), but are unlikely to be aware that temperature rises one degree Fahrenheit for every 70 feet of depth inside our planet. The fact that Everest is the world’s highest mountain is well-known, but the fact that the highest mountain in Europe is Elbrus is much less familiar. Readers aware that the blue whale is the largest animal on Earth, and indeed believed to be the largest animal that has ever lived, may not know that the strongest creature on the planet is the horned dung beetle, which can lift 1,141 times its own body weight. This is the way the entire book proceeds, mixing comparatively familiar information with decidedly abstruse facts. For example, the male silkworm moth can pick up the scent of a female a mile away; a mollusk called the West Indian fuzzy chiton has eye lenses made of limestone; muscles represent 31.56% of a human’s body weight, skin 7.81%, and the digestive tract 2.07%; worker bees travel the equivalent of two to three times around the world for each pound of honey they make; what is believed to have been the largest volcanic eruption of all time occurred under what is now Yellowstone Park; the most toxic natural substance is botulinum, made by bacteria – and used in Botox injections. There is a great deal more than this in Insta Graphics, with those pages that do not have bright and prominent photos having bright and prominent geometric shapes within which the information is presented in very short paragraphs. In one sense, the book represents a capitulation of words to pictures: certainly its basic appearance is a strongly visual one. In another sense, though, it represents a well-meaning attempt to continue to present and transmit information to young readers at a time when screens, smartphones and such have become their dominant method of perceiving and interacting with the world.

     There is also a strongly visual element to the long-running What if You Had… series by Sandra Markle and Howard McWilliam. Here too there is interesting information accompanying the visuals that dominate the individual pages and the overall appearance of the books. The main attraction of these volumes, though, is not what they explain but how McWilliam creates fascinating and often bizarre hybrid creatures by visually attaching animal parts to children. The bizarre element is especially strong in the latest series entry, which also has the most-complicated title to date. All the earlier books refer to an animal something-or-other (feet, ears, nose, tail, etc.); ask What if You Had… the body part; and follow the question with both an exclamation point and a question mark. This time, though, the word “animal” is missing from the title, and the book does not simply substitute “dinosaur” to create What if You Had Dinosaur Parts!? Instead, apparently going for grossness, the title focuses on the always-reliable attraction of Tyrannosaurus rex, shows a huge-toothed hybrid boy-dinosaur with wide-open mouth on the cover, and throws in the after-title phrase And Other Dinosaur Parts to indicate that this is not simply a tooth or T. rex book. The whole thing is a bit awkward, and so is the book itself. A lot of the fun of these books involves showing how the possession of animals’ parts would simplify (or at least change) everyday childhood activities, but the mixture does not work here as well as in earlier volumes. For instance, one entry is about the vicious Velociraptor and the frightening sharp toes and serrated teeth it used to catch and devour prey – that is the informational part of the entry. On the facing page, the notion of a girl using those “sickle-tipped toes” for the innocent and mundane purpose of opening birthday presents seems just a bit too far over-the-top. Similarly, a page on the head crest of Parasaurolophus, apparently used to amplify sounds so they could be heard at long distances, is informationally interesting; but the facing page, suggesting that such a crest would somehow help a girl “lead the school marching band,” is weak. The hybrid drawings are even odder here than in earlier series entries, and the factual material is presented as simply and straightforwardly as always – and both those elements of the book are pluses. But the imaginary way that dinosaur parts would enhance children’s daily lives today are just not as interesting as are the imagined uses of animal eyes, ears, tails and so forth in other books from this series. Still, kids who have enjoyed earlier Markle/McWilliam creations will find things somewhat amusing as well as somewhat informative here. And certainly the book provides further evidence, if any is needed, about the emphasis on strictly visual elements in books that try to interest today’s young readers in the material that is contained in the words.

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