Here’s a puzzler for you. See what you think. There’s been a lot of talk lately about nonfiction for kids and the importance of highlighting those books that adhere strictly to the truth. That means no invented dialog in biographies and no invented facts. If you conflate facts, you start getting into a murky, sticky area. As Walter de la Mare is reported to have said (and no, I’m not blind to the irony of not knowing if he actually said it), “only the rarest kind of best in anything can be good enough for the young.” That goes for our nonfiction too. If we can’t trust them with reality (albeit selective reality) what can we trust them with? So with all this in mind, a stanch staid steady trust in the real world at hand, what are we to make of books where the facts are all true (insofar as we know) but the illustrations are fanciful? No one is ever going to say that the Jesse Goossens book Jumping Penguins is anything but one-of-a-kind. The real question is whether or not you think its delightful flights of fancy help or hurt the material at hand.
Without so much as a howdy-do, Jumping Penguins leaps into the thick of it right from the start. Turn the page and here we have a rather delightful turtle birthday party looking at us. The turtle of the hour is wearing a party hat that reads “150” while before him (her?) other turtles pile on top of one another, Yertle-style. As your eye wanders to the text on the far right you start reading startling and interesting facts. There are 33 species of turtles. The largest weighs as much as a small car. The oldest tortoise of all time was 225 years old when it died. Flipping through the book you are struck by the variety of facts. Sometimes these can be incredibly short (including the near non sequitur “A polar bear is left-handed, as are most artists.”) while others fill out the page from top to bottom. Fun, original pictures filling near two-page spreads continue throughout the book. There’s no particular order to the animals, but by the end you feel you’ve seen a wide variety. An index appears at the end of the book.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you end a book. Jumping Penguins is memorable for many things, but it’s hard not really love the fact that the very last words you will read mere moments before closing the cover are, “Panther: A black panther is not a panther at all – it is a leopard that happens to be black.” Pithy and to the point. There is, however, a downside to Goossens’ cleverness. It’s a downside that probably does not exist in The Netherlands where this book (under the title “Springende pinguins en lachende hyena’s”, in case you’re curious) was originally published. The trouble is that aside from the Index, there is no backmatter to explain where exactly Ms. Goossens is getting her facts. We’re sort of taking it on faith that if you drop alcohol on a scorpion it will go crazy and sting itself to death. This would probably pose more of a problem if I could envision any way in the world in which this book could be integrated into a school curriculum. Fact of the matter is that it’s just a really fun, and rather beautiful, collection of animal facts. No more. No less. So while I wouldn’t necessarily go spouting these off without doing the most rudimentary of checks, I think we’re okay overall.
Not to say there aren’t some moments of confusion. In the seahorse section I already knew that the daddy seahorse is the one who actually lugs about the baby seahorses for long periods of time in his pouch. However, since Goossens doesn’t mention that the females really do give birth to the eggs in the first place, statements like “He gets pregnant again within a few days” can prove more than a little confusing. Alternately, I rather liked the longer words and vocabulary terms that are spotted throughout the text. The casual understanding that the reader is familiar with words like “vertebrae”, “defecate”, and “nocturnal” gives the child reader the benefit of the doubt. I’m rather partial to that.
Clearly illustrator Marije Tolman is supposed to be the main draw here. How else to explain the fact that ONLY her name appears on the spine of the book (the cover doesn’t sport any words at all, so there you go there)? Certainly the art here offers a whole second way of reading the book. What Tolman has done that’s so neat is to illustrate each section with this silly, upbeat style while at the same time including lots of little elements that tie directly into the descriptive text. The Scorpion section, for example, contains about five different little drawn vignettes of various scorpions. It takes a careful reading of the text to realize what they’re getting at. The scorpion wearing three pairs of sunglasses? Well, that connects to the line “Scorpions have six eyes and some even have twelve but they cannot see well”. Slowly you can pair up each picture with the statement, but what becomes clear is that the illustrations in this book will not make any sense unless you do more than skim the pretty pics. Fortunately those same pics are also funny as well as occasionally quite beautiful (I’m personally rather fond of the Giant Octopus).
What Jumping Penguins does better than anything else is simply set up an appreciation for the natural world by way of its modest peculiarities. I mean, what exactly are we supposed to do with the information that “A giraffe has no vocal cords. It has as many vertebrae as you do”? There is no practical application for the knowledge you will find here. And that, I would argue, is actually its strength. Without relying on a specific hook (or precedent, for that matter) the combined efforts of Goossens and Tolman present you with something that looks, at first glance, like a picture book. Linger with it long and it’s rapidly clear that the overwhelming sense at the end is that the natural world is an awesome place. How many other animal fact books can say so much? Read this and you’ll find yourself amazed that you never knew half these facts. This is a book to inspire that most impossible of feelings: Wonder.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Orangutans Are Ticklish: Fun Facts from An Animal Photographer by Steve Grubman
- Never Smile at a Monkey: And 17 Other Important Things to Remember by Steve Jenkins
Other Blog Reviews:
Misc: Happy Nonfiction Monday to you! The roundup of the day is at NC Teacher Stuff. Head on over there to see everything that everyone is linking to today.