It's a jungle out there. Sometimes we forget that we are only one of countless species flying, swimming, tunneling and scurrying on the third rock from the sun. We still have no clear notion just how many creatures are endangered by the negligent stewardship of Homo sapiens, the currently dominant species of mammal. While biologists labor to identify the unknown animals and protect the known, authors and illustrators turn this feast of information into a golden age for children's nonfiction. Never before have young people had available so many beautiful, fact-filled books about our fellow creatures. There are more good new books about animals than we can possibly do justice to here, so we'll serve up only the cream of the crop.
For Peachtree Publishers, the team of writer Cathryn Sill and illustrator John Sill is producing a beautiful series of picture books about all kinds of animals, with most titles available in hardcover for $14.95 and paperback for $7.95. So far the titles are: About Insects, About Reptiles, About Mammals, About Birds and About Amphibians.
The text expresses important concepts in clear and simple language, and the detailed watercolor illustrations are splendid. Equally beautiful and fact-filled are two new books from Dawn Publications. Salamander Rain, written and illustrated by Kristin Joy Pratt-Serafini, examines a neighborhood pond by following fictional children's studies of it, from lyrical portraits of map turtles to the children's index-card notes. Salmon Stream, written by Carol Reed-Jones and illustrated by Michael S. Maydak, employs a different narrative style, following salmon (rather than a whole ecosystem) through a season. Both are impressive.
On the theme of fine illustrations, there is A Pair of Wings, a beautiful picture book written by Marilyn Singer and illustrated by Anne Wertheim. It's a good idea for a book a look at the many ways that different creatures fly. The text is lively and filled with information without being overstuffed. The illustrations portray animals and habitats from all over the world. From pigeons to beetles, from dragonflies to bats, the creatures live their wildly varied lives. Then, in the appendix, their differing methods of flight are contrasted.
Carol Lerner, who has written and illustrated many acclaimed nature books for children, has published On the Wing: American Birds in Migration. Her simplified illustrations draw readers into the fascinating story of the vast distances many birds fly each year to winter away from home. She addresses methods and goals of migration, differences in seasonal foods and the distinctive habits of certain birds.
As these authors realize, you can't appreciate the different aspects of nature until you can identify them. But not all identification is visual. For this reason, Innovative Kids is publishing a series of Hear and There Books. In Bird Calls and Night Sounds, young children push a button to hear the sound an animal makes, pull a tab to find the creature in its environment and lift another flap to learn more about its life. The sounds are convincing, loud enough to be noticed and will undoubtedly draw young children into the illustrations and text.
Kids will find more stories about sharks in a book from venerable nature publisher Houghton Mifflin. Swimming with Hammerhead Sharks, by Kenneth Mallory, is the latest in the excellent Scientists in the Field series. These books give science a friendly human face by following and photographing particular scientists in their work among animals. They explain the need for specific information in the case of sharks, to combat the cinematic stereotypes and the methods scientists employ to study the animals. The author tells the story in first person and keeps it exciting and full of amazing discoveries. This fine series continues with Once a Wolf: How Wildlife Biologists Fought to Bring Back the Gray Wolf, by Stephen R. Swinburne. This book tells the story of almost catastrophic depredations against the gray wolf, and how biologists have helped the wolf return to some poor semblance of its former glory. Also noteworthy is Sy Montgomery's The Snake Scientist, now in paperback. These fascinating creatures are literally followed into their burrows by scientists and schoolchildren.
The Oxford First Book of Animals, by Barbara Taylor, addresses animal themes, but also covers habitats, from deserts to oceans. Sidebars titled Look Closer provide more details, and the book ends with a fun Animal Detective Quiz. Children from preschool through the first few years of school will enjoy both the preceding books.
All of these books at least imply an environmental perspective, of course, and attentive children will not miss the plea for responsible citizenship implicit in any close look at animals. However, many books address ecological issues more directly. DK is publishing a series of handsome books under the series title Protecting Our Planet. Already out are Earth Watch by David Burnie and Ocean Watch by Martyn Bramwell. The latest addition is Animal Watch by Roger Few. DK's signature all-white background, well-designed montages of photographs, surrounded by equally well-chosen bites of information, encourage happy browsing. Besides being imbued with a sense of the grandeur of biodiversity, young readers will learn about poaching, deforestation and many other crucial issues. They will follow a day in the lives of an animal customs agent and a koala doctor. Readers will also pick up ideas about how to shop wisely and live responsibly. Sidebars provide clever but simple experiments. As this particular book points out, and as all of these other fine books demonstrate, "Our own future lies in the preservation of other creatures."
Michael Sims is currently writing a natural and cultural history of the human body for Viking.