May 30, 2019
(++++) UNLIKELY BUT LIKABLE
Just Like Us! Birds. By Bridget Heos. Illustrated by David Clark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
Just Like Us! Plants. By Bridget Heos. Illustrated by David Clark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
Just Like Us! Fish. By Bridget Heos. Illustrated by David Clark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
Just Like Us! Cats. By Bridget Heos. Illustrated by David Clark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
The predictable unpredictability of the continuing Just Like Us! series by Bridget Heos and David Clark is one of its major pleasures. These short factual paperbacks all begin the same way, by choosing an animal (or, in one book, plants) and stating all the ways the chosen subject is obviously not like us at all. But maybe it is like us…hmm…let’s find out. That is always Heos’ setup – and the mixture of Clark’s cartoon illustrations with photographic material is the same time after time as well. And all the books are enjoyable as well as informative, thanks to the simple reality that they engage young readers in finding ways in which so many living things, however different they may be, also have so much in common.
Sometimes Heos and Clark use anecdotes to make their points. There is a famous one in the book on birds, about Mozart adopting a pet bird that he heard whistling a theme from one of his piano concertos – a work not yet revealed to the public. This is a small and appealing mystery in Mozart’s life – probably he hummed the tune on an earlier visit to the shop and the bird overheard it and imitated it, but no one really knows – and it neatly makes the point that birds and humans (even humans who are not genius composers) have some musical things in common. This book also includes information on how bird parents (some of them, anyway) care for their young in ways similar to those used by human parents, and how parent birds have to clean up the avian equivalent of dirty diapers when their babies are small. Clark’s illustration here, which includes a real bird removing a fecal sac from a birdhouse but is dominated by a tired-looking cartoon bird carrying a basket of just-washed diaper-like items to be dried on a clothesline, is a particularly good example of the blending of reality and fantasy that makes all these books both fun and useful.
The book on plants stands out because it is about, well, plants – not animals. Even here, though, Heos and Clark find ways to relate plant life to human life. One page is headlined, “Be Sure to Drink Eight Thousand Glasses of Water a Day,” and explains, “An NBA player produces more sweat than a kid shooting hoops, and the bigger the tree, the more it ‘sweats’ too.” This is a bit of a stretch, but a clever way to explain that tall trees can lose hundreds of gallons of water per day and must constantly replenish their supply from underground. The overall narrative here helps young readers think of things in ways that they probably haven’t: “With the right mix of sunlight, water, and nutrition, plants grow up and have babies – just like people. A plant baby is a seed!” That is both accurate and interesting, as are a great many items here. For instance, one page focuses on the durian, a fruit whose “smell has been compared to that of pig poop, rotten onions, and dead people,” but nevertheless attracts animals that eat its flesh and eventually deposit its seeds so new plants can grow. In addition to showing a photo of a chimpanzee enjoying a durian, this page features Clark’s drawing of a super-happy cartoon pig joyfully hugging the fruit as flies swarm everywhere and a bird on a nearby branch wears a clothespin on its beak. The pages on how plants, like humans, defend themselves, and how they, also like humans, sometimes wage war on other plants, are also fine mixtures of real-world and cartoon illustrations, all in the service of sort-of-like-us facts.
Fish do not appear to be much more like people than plants are, but Heos and Clark make this case effectively, too. Of course they talk about fish schools, explaining that these large groups protect small fish in two ways: by providing many eyes to watch for predators and by making it hard for most predators to focus on a single fish to attack and consume. They also explain that both people and fish need oxygen – we just have different ways of obtaining it. There is an interesting explanation of the biology of the mudskipper, which “spends up to 90 percent of its time on shore” rather than in the water and can do this even though it “doesn’t have a tiny fish scuba mask” – the sort of thing people would need to spend a lot of time in water – but instead “fills pouches in its cheeks with water” so its gills can absorb oxygen from the stored liquid. There is information here on fish that, like humans involved in warfare, use armor, such as the porcupine fish’s spines, which are not only sharp but also contain poison. And Heos observes, “People dress to impress, and so do fish,” explaining that 25% of ocean species visit coral reefs at some point and often sport “bright colors and bold patterns” to stand out and attract mates. There are also examples of fish that, like human parents, care for their babies – many do not, but seahorses and cichlids do, although not in human-like ways (seahorse fathers have a front pouch to contain babies, while cichlids hold their young in their mouths). The point is not to make fish seem much like people, but to show some ways in which they resemble humans, despite the obvious differences.
The book on cats may seem to have easier points to make, since many people do share their homes with cats and some sort of resemblance therefore seems logical. But cats are not pack animals like dogs, and even house cats retain a great deal of the wild, efficient-hunter predation instincts that lions, tigers and other big cats possess. In fact, as Heos points out, cats are “the world’s most effective carnivores,” and a lot of feline life in the wild is brutal, with cats “ruthlessly conquering other lands” just as humans sometimes do – with invading males overthrowing others and killing their cubs so as to mate with the former ruler’s females. The behavior of wild, big cats certainly has a lot in common with that of house cats, including plenty of sleep (up to 20 hours a day) and lots of playtime-by-wrestling by cubs (babies of big cats) as well as kittens (babies of small cats). There is information here not only on ways cats are similar to humans but also on ways they are quite different – for example, because they “lack the gene that allows other mammals to taste sweetness,” which means they have little interest in any human food that has even a slight hint of sugar. On the other hand, just as humans enjoy swimming, so do some cats – such as jaguars, which actually hunt underwater and are good distance swimmers.
The point of all these pleasant, easy-to-read nonfiction books is that humans are similar in a number of ways to pretty much all the denizens of the planet that we all share – one earlier volume in the series even dealt with ants. Although Heos and Clark certainly stretch the narrative and illustrations a great deal of the time in order to make the parallels with humans seem more significant than they really are, the concept here is worthwhile: to tell and show young readers just how much we do have in common with the natural world around us, and in so doing, hopefully, to give them more respect for other residents of Earth and a greater inclination to treat the environment with care and concern.