July 11, 2019


Look Again: Secrets of Animal Camouflage. By Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

     There is a constant arms race within the animal kingdom, in which an adaptation that protects prey animals favors predators that happen to be able to see through the adaptation – so they can still catch prey. Then prey animals with a different adaptation become more successful, until predators that happen to be able to see through that adaptation have a higher success rate. And so it goes in the eternal food web – in which prey and predators alike sometime use the same adaptation. That is the case with camouflage, which – just as humans have discovered in warfare – can be used both to stay concealed from enemies and to make it difficult for potential victims to know that a predator is lurking.

     Steve Jenkins and Robin Page explore both sides of this prey-predator camouflage match in Look Again, and they do so with a cleverness made possible by their very careful creation of illustrations consisting of collages made from cut and torn paper, seen against digitally created backgrounds. In truth, photographs of real animals in real settings would also show just how effective camouflage can be for concealment or as a weapon, but by accentuating its workings through their art, Jenkins and Page make their points about how camouflage functions crystal-clear. They create their scenes so carefully that even after a young reader knows exactly where to look, it can be hard to see the camouflaged creatures.

     Jenkins and Page accomplish this by first presenting scenes in which animals are shown against backgrounds that make them almost invisible, and then – on the following pages – showing the animals in identical positions but without the digital backgrounds. Thus, readers can look at the size and shape of the animals, then turn back to the previous page and see, or try to see, where the animals are. The whole book becomes a puzzle; and even though matters are somewhat different in the real world – where, for example, coral reefs and their denizens are in constant motion, not static as they must be in a book’s pages – Look Again does an excellent job of showing as well as explaining how various creatures’ appearances keep them safe or make them hard for their prey to spot.

     The coral-reef environment is well-known as a camouflage spot. Here, Jenkins and Page highlight such denizens as the whip coral shrimp, which really looks like coral, and the trumpet fish, a long and thin predator that hovers with mouth facing down so it looks like a harmless frond. Even more interesting are the environments that are all around the book’s readers but not usually thought of as camouflage “hot spots,” including trees and their roots, flowers and plants, leaves and vines. The creatures shown in these settings have some truly remarkable ways of blending in: “The wings of the leaf-mimic katydid resemble decaying leaves, right down to their veins and dark spots,” for example. And: “The tulip-tree beauty moth almost disappears on a lichen-covered tree trunk.”

     Jenkins and Page also explore places where camouflage would seem to be difficult, if not impossible, including the vast white expanse of the Arctic and locations that are mostly rocks. Here too they find amazing adaptations, such as the wrybill, a wading bird that lays its eggs on rocky riverbanks – with the eggs being the size and color of the rocks amid which they lie.

     Most creatures in Look Again will be unfamiliar to readers, and Jenkins and Page help give a sense of them not only by their accurately created representations but also by showing a human hand or adult human body next to each illustration, to provide a sense of scale. The fact that animals of many sizes use camouflage as a protective or hunting technique makes Look Again all the more remarkable – for instance, both the two-inch-long Namibian stone grasshopper and the five-foot-long marine iguana have ways of remaining unseen in the very different rocky areas where they live.

     At the back of the book, Jenkins and Page provide four pages of additional information on every creature they have shown, plus a list of books and Web sites where readers can get more information – and even (a nice touch) a set of “useful Internet search terms” for those who would like to explore further on their own. Jenkins and Page are experts at showing young readers fascinating aspects of the world around us, and Look Again is another case in which they have produced a book worth looking at again and again.

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