August 15, 2019
(++++) SUPERFICIAL BUT SUPER ENJOYABLE
Just Like Us! Crocs. By Bridget Heos. Illustrated by David Clark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.
Earth by the Numbers: A Book of Infographics. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.
Dinosaurs by the Numbers: A Book of Infographics. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.
No one is ever likely to accuse the long-running Just Like Us! series by Bridget Heos and David Clark of profundity. These short factual books, by combining photography with Clark’s art work, are designed to engage children in nature by pointing out ways in which various animals – and even plants – are a lot like humans, despite the many other ways in which they are quite different. The “a lot like us” concept is, of course, just a hook to get kids interested: those things can’t possibly be much like us, can they? The books’ appeal lies in a response of “you’d be surprised!” And so it is in the latest series entry, which is about crocodilians – not only crocodiles but also alligators, caimans, gharials and muggers, those last being a particular type of crocodile. With their elongated heads, big teeth, and long tails, crocodilians are excellent subjects for caricature, and Clark takes advantage of all their characteristics in his drawings, while the photos throughout the book show how these powerful reptilian water predators really look (for one thing, they are not nearly as big-eyed and bug-eyed as Clark makes them!). Heos does her usual fine job of finding things that these critters have more-or-less in common with humans: they have multiple ways to communicate with each other, from bellowing to making a slapping noise by clamping their mouths shut on the water’s surface; they protect their young, with both mothers and (sometimes) fathers taking care of the little ones; and they love spending time in the sun. The specifics of the comparisons, of course, show how different crocodilians are from humans rather than how similar they are: that sun-basking, for instance, is used by crocodilians to adjust their body heat, since these animals are “ectothermic, or cold-blooded” – kudos to Heos for using both the correct scientific term and the more-common but less-accurate popular one. Heos does her usual good job of mixing interesting facts with the compared-to-us information: again using sun-basking as an example, she points out that because crocodilians do not sweat, they keep their mouths open while sunning so the air can cool them enough to stabilize their body temperature. This neatly explains the very commonly seen pictures in which on-shore crocodilians have their mouths wide open. The lineage of crocodilians is a long one, far longer than the measly one of human beings: Heos points out that modern crocodilians are directly descended from ones that survived the worldwide catastrophe that nearly wiped out the dinosaurs. By the end of Crocs, young readers will likely conclude that crocodilians are not really very much like us after all – but the real point here is not to emphasize similarities that, to the extent that they exist, are very much surface-level. The point is to get kids interested in delving more deeply into the topic – and the fine bibliography at the back of the book provides a number of good places to start doing just that.
Steve Jenkins’ books of infographics – diagrams, charts and graphs – are no more in-depth than the Heos/Clark series, but they too communicate a good deal of interesting factual information in an appealing, easy-to-grasp form. Books such as Earth by the Numbers and Dinosaurs by the Numbers fit well into our video-focused age by being visually striking, very easy to look at (all the illustrations “pop” against plain white backgrounds), and just informative enough to provide the basics on various subjects and point children toward sources with more-in-depth material (the bibliographies of Jenkins’ books are short, but the sources are well-chosen). Earth by the Numbers contains some material that will likely be genuinely surprising both to young readers and to parents. For instance, it is well-known that most of Earth’s surface is covered by water, and Jenkins shows that visually, but his next visual shows that fresh (drinkable) water represents only a tiny, tiny portion of all the water on Earth, and the visual after that shows that of the very small amount of potable water worldwide, the vast, vast majority is either underground or frozen. Parents and children alike may pause to consider the implication of this – one of many times in Earth by the Numbers that Jenkins visually displays evidence of the fragility of our world and our place in it, without ever saying directly just how delicate our existence is. Earth by the Numbers also includes an explanation of the reason that Mount Everest is Earth’s highest mountain but not its tallest: that distinction goes to Mauna Kea in Hawaii, which is more than 4,000 feet larger in vertical measurement but which has its base deep under the ocean and is therefore highest but not tallest. There are some excellent explanations of natural processes here: “A speedy glacier moves about as fast as a snail crawls.” And there are some genuinely surprising facts: the driest place on Earth is the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, where no rain has fallen for thousands of years. (Chile’s Atacama Desert, which gets about one-twelfth of an inch annually, earns an honorable mention.) And just like Heos and Clark, Jenkins includes a timeline in Earth by the Numbers – starting with our planet’s formation in the unimaginably distant past of 4.5 billion years ago and proceeding to the comparatively recent first appearance of dinosaurs (235 million years ago) and to and beyond the time 66 million years ago when “an asteroid hits the earth and wipes out the dinosaurs.”
Jenkins’ statement on dinosaurs in Earth by the Numbers is not quite correct, though, and he is well aware of that, as shown in Dinosaurs by the Numbers, which says at the very start that “about 66 million years ago, almost all of them vanished.” That “almost” is important, not so much because crocodilians are still around – they did survive the end of the dinosaur age, but they are not dinosaurs – but because birds are everywhere today. “Birds are living dinosaurs!” exclaims Jenkins, and this is just one of the intriguing pieces of information in Dinosaurs by the Numbers – although it is one that parents and even some children may have heard already. Still, the infographics format of Jenkins’ book makes the facts visually interesting: Jenkins shows a dinosaur skeleton that looks much like the skeleton of a modern bird, and he gives a size comparison among that feathered dinosaur, a modern pigeon, and a human hand. The ability to put things in perspective – whether through timelines or illustrations – is a strength of Jenkins’ books. His creative timeline for “when did the dinosaurs live?” is made up of circles, each representing a million years, and therefore shows in a very striking way just how long the age of dinosaurs lasted and just how short the age of humans has been (humans get just two circles, and that includes going back to the very earliest forms identifiable as human, not the much-more-recent start of Homo sapiens). The scale drawings comparing dinosaurs with modern-day animals also show size in a visually compelling way, including one illustration indicating that the largest dinosaur discovered to date, Patagotitan, was a bit longer than a modern blue whale but definitely less hefty: the blue whale remains the largest animal Earth has ever seen. Dinosaurs by the Numbers includes intriguing comparisons, examples being one of the skulls of extinct and modern creatures, and one of the speed of dinosaurs and that of modern animals – with an explanation of how scientists figure such things out. A two-page “dinosaur facts” presentation after the infographics is a useful feature of Dinosaurs by the Numbers, giving more details on specific dinosaurs and showing how to pronounce the animals’ scientific names. Jenkins’ presentations in his infographics books are not always 100% accurate: the “wipes out the dinosaurs” remark in Earth by the Numbers is one example of this, and another, in Dinosaurs by the Numbers, is his definition of reptiles as “a group of egg-laying animals with scaly skin” – many reptiles give birth to live young (and some dinosaurs may have, too). Nevertheless, Jenkins’ attractively designed, easy-to-look-through books can be a fine foundation for families that want an introduction to some difficult and complex topics – and these books, like those of Heos and Clark, may well inspire parents and children alike to move on to the many more-thorough studies that can be found elsewhere.