Reviewers usually notice only the most recent books. We participate in a group delusion that book lovers all read very, very quickly and have already been through everything ever published. We must not bore you. Also, we want to help our beloved bookshops. But books are not perishable goods. If you haven't read an older one, it's new to you.
Today we have two less-than-new environmental science picture books that landed on the Read to Me bookshelf during the column's sad hiatus.
"So You Want to Be a Frog" written by Jane Porter, illustrated by Neil Clark (Candlewick Press, April), ages 5-9, 32 pages, $18.99.
I will now say something I have wanted to say for years. Something controversial. First, I need you to look above this column to the word "opinion," OK? I can have opinions. Here we go:
Picture books designed to impress children with the diverse specificity of animal lifeforms should not use digital cartoons to represent, say, a roster of frogs of the world. They should use photographs or finely detailed, naturalistic art.
There. I have said it. A page of cartoon frogs, however cleverly drawn as the frog cartoons are here, is not so informative.
But cartoons are helpful for anthropomorphizing animals when the goal isn't a comparison of anatomies. "So You Want to Be a Frog" crackles with cheerfully simplified frog facts and an engaging pretext.
Our narrator, Fabio Frog, proposes to coach the reader to be froglike. He praises us for human abilities that might match those of frogs, encouraging kids to try physical skills, like leaping. Unless they can leap the length of two school buses, they aren't ready to be frogs, but, he says, keep trying.
It's breezy and unpredictable and would not annoy adults who aren't overly familiar with the biological sciences.
A few oversimplified factoids did bug me, and if you have one of those precociously pedantic kids, that kid will complain. For instance, Fabio says humans won't have to cut off their hair to be frogs because some frogs have hair. Well, no, they don't. A few species -- including the hairy frog -- have dermal papillae containing arteries.
I can almost hear the outrage of my long ago fourth-grader: "If hair had arteries, haircuts would bleed!"
I could also complain that the world's smallest frog looks too big, but I have nit-picked enough. It's a fun read.
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"The Lodge That Beaver Built," written by Randi Sonenshine, illustrated by Anne Hunter (Candlewick Press, September 2022), ages 4-8, 32 pages, $18.99.
In vivid contrast, this quiet storybook demonstrates the virtue of illustrations over photographs for encouraging a child's interest in a certain species.
It tells the story of a beaver lodge, from construction to destruction, in singsong verses that echo the cadence of "This Is the House That Jack Built" without following the nursery rhyme's cumulative pattern.
A companion to Sonenshine's well received "This Is the Nest That Wren Built," the beaver story uses similarly deft diction.
"This is the crunch in the darkening wood
of teeth against bark where the willow once stood
on the shore near the lodge that Beaver built."
The stream that was blocked when Beaver built a house had "slid through the woods like a silvery seam." A goose that plucks a frond from the dam to cushion its nest has a "silky black crest"; a moose has "rippled brown flanks" and munches on waterweed close to the banks.
Hunter's ink and colored pencil drawings place the beavers in context with other woodland animals and convey that beavers work at night. We see the muskrats that squat in the lodge and a coyote trying but failing to paw its way in.
Hunter renders a rather peaceful flood, easing the distressing impact of Sonenshine's "flood that blasts through the dam, pounding the pond like a battering ram." Turn the page from the doubletruck vision of a beaver family abandoning its lodge and you'll find another striking doubletruck showing the beavers from above as fuzzy brown exclamation points sliding up the winding stream to a new neighborhood.
Their lodge-building begins again in the darkening wood, reassuring us the beaver family will be OK. Four informative pages of text, with a glossary and website links follow the end of the story.
Evocative illustrations meet gently naturalistic poetry. I'm looking forward to the release in 2024 of "The Den That Octopus Built."
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