Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Creature Features

I am absurdly proud of the fact that Frances and Gloria love nonfiction.  I know I just said that nonfiction is hard to find in our local library, and it is.  But they love to learn facts from the books we do bring home.  I rely heavily on other bloggers' recommendations for new titles.  It's often easier to have books on the hold shelf, waiting for me, instead of roaming the stacks.  And when I see a surefire hit mentioned somewhere, I reserve it right away.  That's what happened with Creature Features.  We own several other books by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page.  Gloria particularly loves to pore through these books, learning new facts as she goes.  So when I brought home Creature Features, it was read the same night.  Both Frances and Gloria listened intently, asking questions and laughing as I turned the pages.  I am most pleased, though, that they learned lots of crazy, cool facts in this one.

The subtitle of Creature Features is 25 Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do.  And that subtitle is a perfect summary of the book's concise text.  Each page contains a large illustration of an animal (in most pages it is a close-up of the face) on a solid background.  This is an incredibly effective way to make their unique features stand out.  There is a question, posed to the animal itself: "Dear giant panda: Who gave you those black eyes?"  The answer comes straight from the animal themselves: "No one.  We pandas all have them.  The dark fur around my eyes makes me look bigger and fiercer to a predator.  I hope."  It's a pretty simple concept for a book, but it helps readers learn more about animals by questioning and thinking more deeply.  The concept works so well by allowing the animals to speak for themselves.

What I think makes this book interesting to adults are the connections between the animals.  The giant panda faces a spicebush swallowtail caterpillar who uses spots on its tail to mimic a snake.  The caterpillar scares off predators in the same way the giant panda does.  Bighorn sheep use their horns to fight other males; so do babirusa who use their fierce crossed tusks instead.  These connections are subtle, most likely too subtle for a young reader to pick up on the connections themselves.  However it can serve as a way to open discussion between adults and children.  It is an invitation to look more closely, think more deeply about this book.

Another thing we enjoyed about this book was its sense of personality and humor.  The facts about the creature features aren't just a flat recitation of what makes that animal special.  In the case of the giant panda, the text reveals a little bit of insecurity and worry when he says "The dark fur around my eyes makes me look bigger and fiercer to a predator.  I hope."  The same goes for the mandrill, who confesses "My rear end is pretty colorful too, but I'd rather not talk about that."  My favorite laugh of the book is the Egyptian vulture, who, when asked "Why no feathers on your face?", says "Are you sure you want to know? Really?  Okay, I'll tell you.  I stick my face into the bodies of the dead animals I eat, and feathers would get pretty messy..." First of all, yuck! While the facts compiled here are fascinating, it was the warm humor that kept us reading.

The full-page illustrations are so realistic, which is especially impressive considering that they are pieced together with torn and cut-paper collage.  Each animal looks like they could have been photographed rather than assembled.  The solid backgrounds of the pages have the dual benefit of making the creatures' faces stand out as well as emphasizing the unique feature. The papers used give fur-like texture to the animals.  The red squirrel has thin wisps of fur on his ears to help keep his ears warm, and you can see each strand.  The blobfish is shown from two different perspectives, and when shown smushed by gravity on land, the fish is appropriately jelly-like.  It's fun to see these animals up close in the illustrations.

Finally, there's my favorite part of any nonfiction title - the back matter!  Jenkins and Page have created one of the most original pieces of back matter I have seen in a long time.  There is a black and white representation of each animal, all shown at the same scale to help provide approximate scale for readers.  The animals are labeled, along with their general location and diet.  It is a very visual piece of back matter, to go along with the book that emphasizes how creatures look.  The locations of the animals' habitats are shown with small globes, which encourages readers to compare the globes as well. There is a brief bibliography of general animal nonfiction to help start readers who are curious to learn more.  The presentation of the back matter also lends itself to additional research, as does the whole title.  You learn just enough facts about these creatures to make you want to learn more.

Creature Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do. Steve Jenkins & Robin Page.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

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