May 09, 2019


Ninita’s Big World: The True Story of a Deaf Pygmy Marmoset. By Sarah Glenn Marsh. Illustrations by Stephanie Fizer Coleman. Clarion. $17.99.

Piranhas Don’t Eat Bananas. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $14.99.

     A heartwarmer of a real-life story, Ninita’s Big World is about a real resident of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation in Loxahatchee, Florida. As the book’s subtitle explains, Ninita is a pygmy marmoset – a member of the smallest species of monkey – and was born completely deaf in the conservatory’s captive-breeding program. Abandoned at the age of three weeks by her parents, who could not figure out what to do with an infant that did not respond to the sounds they made or to environmental noises, Ninita would surely have died if she had been born in the wild: nature is not kind to ill-adapted babies of any species, and Ninita was smaller than a human’s thumb at birth. But because she was born in captivity, Ninita became a subject for study and special care instead of being left to perish. Sarah Glenn Marsh tells her story straightforwardly but anthropomorphically: “Ninita was scared. …Ninita felt so alone.” Stephanie Fizer Coleman contributes illustrations that make Ninita even more wide-eyed than pygmy marmosets really are, and that show her smiling and having other very human expressions – some of which these little monkeys actually do display – as people at the conservatory find ways to help her. It is a bit of an overstatement to say that “Ninita didn’t need to hear the voices of her human friends to know she was safe now,” but surely the little marmoset had some sense of comfort and safety as people groomed, fed and cared for her. Ninita is adorable, and that is no exaggeration: to humans, huge-eyed, playful, highly interactive pygmy marmosets are adorable. The scenes of Ninita being groomed with a toothbrush and fed by hand (actually by finger) – she gets treats such as “smooth yogurt and lumpy rice pudding” – are especially sweet. Then, in another element of Marsh’s anthropomorphic approach, readers are told that “Ninita wished she had a marmoset friend to share in her adventures. But she couldn’t hear the other marmosets inviting her to play.” Well, whatever Ninita wished or did not wish, it is certainly true that pygmy marmosets are social creatures, and the humans at the conservatory, aware of this, chose for her a companion named Mr. Big. Ninita’s Big World shows the two marmosets bonding even though Ninita cannot hear the noises that Mr. Big makes – and this is in fact what happened at the conservatory, where Ninita and Mr. Big still live. This is a lovely little real-world tale that offers young readers exposure to an animal with which they are unlikely to be familiar. Even though pygmy marmosets, which are native to the Amazon rainforest, are not endangered, the conservatory’s captive-breeding program is intended to ensure the long-term survival of the species, and the books and links provided at the end of Ninita’s Big World offer interested children a number of ways to explore these fascinating animals in greater depth.

     In the depths of South American rivers lives a creature very different from the pygmy marmosets climbing the trees high above: the piranha. However, this toothy and much-feared fish gets a far lighter treatment from Aaron Blabey than Ninita gets in Ninita’s Big World. Blabey has a thing about piranhas, having made one of them a central character in his The Bad Guys series of comic-book novels. In Piranhas Don’t Eat Bananas, he again (or still) plays the fish for amusement, drawing piranhas with hugely bulging eyes and numerous teeth that stick out above their underbite. Blabey will stop at nothing, including pronunciation, to get laughs. The word “piranha” is pronounced either “pih-RAH-nuh” or “pih-RAN-ya,” but neither of those rhymes with “banana,” so Blabey clearly wants readers to pronounce it “pih-RAN-uh” for purposes of his rhyme scheme. In fact, the rhyme scheme is about the only purpose this book has, other than fun. One piranha (however you choose to pronounce it), named Brian, insists on offering pieces of fruit – starting with the titular banana – to the other piranhas. They repeatedly turn down his recommendations, of course: “We don’t eat apples! We don’t eat beans! We don’t eat veggies! We don’t eat greens! We don’t eat melons! We don’t eat bananas! And the reason is simple, pal. We are PIRANHAS!” Brian, however, insists that “fruit is the best,” and eventually gets the other piranhas to try some – resulting in a feeding frenzy that Blabey shows in a circle, with three piranhas toothily chomping on produce as bits fly messily everywhere. Satisfied to have gotten the group engaged, Brian asks the other piranhas if fruits and vegetables are “yucky or yum.” But he does not get the answer he wants, being told at the book’s end that “we still prefer BUM” – as the piranhas start grabbing the bathing suit of a hapless human being who happens to be standing in the water. Piranhas Don’t Eat Bananas was originally published in 2015 in Australia, which has many unusual animals, but no piranhas in its rivers. Now available for North American, um, consumption, the book offers plenty of chuckles and some really silly drawings – a Blabey specialty – along with no accuracy whatsoever in its portrayal of Brian and his bum-eating buddies.

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