April 22, 2021


Fragile World: Color Nature’s Wonders. By Kerby Rosanes. Plume. $15.

     There is not usually much to say about coloring books for adults. They tend to be harmless pastimes, generally featuring elaborate black-and-white renderings of something-or-other, with the aim of giving people a creative outlet during lockdowns and enforced isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic or other factors – or a way to share time with children (themselves possibly in lockdown and isolation) who may be doing their own coloring and other arts-and-crafts activities at the same time.

     Some of these adult coloring books, though – certainly including Kerby Rosanes’ Fragile World – aim to do more than distract and provide a small artistic opportunity. Fragile World, specifically, is a combined realistic-and-surrealistic look at threatened and endangered animals of all sorts. Thanks to the quality of Rosanes’ art and his decision to make some of the pages hyper-realistic while having others be surreal, the book comes across as much less preachy than it otherwise might. And thanks to the nine “About the Animals” pages at the back, readers/colorists can find out just what animals are shown and just what their current vulnerability status is (although there is a design irritation here: the descriptive paragraphs refer by page number to the places where the animals appear, but the pages themselves are not numbered, making it a chore to figure out just what is where).

     The illustrations are so striking and varied that it is possible to enjoy Fragile World without doing any coloring at all – although, of course, adding color to the pages is the ostensible reason-for-being of the book. Still, the full-face extreme closeup of a mandrill (described at the back of the book as “vulnerable”) and the two-page spread showing five chimpanzees (“endangered”) are enthralling in and of themselves, partly because they spark thinking about the ways in which we humans have encroached upon the lives of some of our nearest relatives. Those pages are realistic; others, by intention, go beyond strict realism, and have their own visual drama and attractiveness. The page showing rusty patched bumblebees (“endangered”), for example, shows one bee much, much larger than the others – with the huge one sporting a collection of flowers and other foliage on its back, as if bees are the foundational element of many plants (which in fact they are, so this is a particularly neat touch). Similar and even more dramatic pages highlight Ethiopian wolves (“endangered”) and addaxes (“critically endangered” Saharan antelopes): each animal gets a two-page spread in which one huge creature is integrated into and supporting an entire landscape of trees, grasslands and mountains – within which smaller versions of the same animal are seen. To put a spiritual spin on this, which may be part of Rosanes’ intent: if Ethiopian wolves and addaxes imagined the gods of their species, these pages would show those gods as well as their subjects.

     Quite a few of the animals pictured in Fragile World are well-known and have become “marquee animals” among conservation groups that are trying to raise awareness and funds for protection of vulnerable species. Mountain gorillas (“endangered”), Asian elephants (“endangered”), great white sharks (“vulnerable”), giant pandas (“vulnerable”), polar bears (“vulnerable”), and jaguars (“near threatened”), among others here, fall into this category. But Rosanes does a good job of mixing up the familiar with the less-known, showing that habitat loss and other forms of human encroachment affect many more species than the ones frequently used to tug at people’s heart strings and purse strings. Some of the book’s most interesting pages show New Zealand lesser short-tailed bats (“vulnerable”), Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterflies (“endangered”), humphead wrasses (“endangered”), Kangaroo Island dunnarts (“critically endangered”), European hamsters (“critically endangered”), and Polynesian ground doves (“critically endangered”). The differences among the descriptive words about each species’ level of danger are not clearly explained, but are reasonably clear in context and through Rosanes’ written paragraphs about each animal. Of course, coloring the pictures of these various animals will have no impact whatsoever on their survival – and realistically, some will not survive long-term, simply because there are so many humans on Earth with so many needs for food, housing and what we think of, ironically, as “creature comforts.” Nevertheless, hopefully Fragile World can have some impact on the thinking of readers/colorists simply by presenting so many different animals in such detailed and attractive drawings, and involving people in those animals’ existence – however briefly – by providing an opportunity to color the pictures and think about the animals while doing so.

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