Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Fastest, Fiercest, Most Surprising...: The Animal Book by Steve Jenkins

"When I was six years old, I was given a copy of Life magazine. On the cover was a remarkable illustration of a bird and a tortoise. Inside, I found an article describing Charles Darwin's 1835 voyage to the Gallapagos Islands. The illustrations of marine iguanas, giant tortoises, and blue-footed boobies were fascinating. I cut out the pictures, pasted them into a blank journal, and wrote my own captions."
-- Steve Jenkins

Since that time the happy union of a consuming interest in the animal kingdom and a unique feel for art and book design has led Steve Jenkins to create many benchmark volumes about animals, from his early Caldecott book What Do You Do with a Tail Like This?, kid-magnet books such as What Do You Do When Something Wants To Eat You? or Biggest, Strongest, Fastest, and his eye-popping, mind-bending Actual Size.

Now comes Jenkins magnum opus, The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest--and Most Surprising--Animals on Earth (Houghton Mifflin, 2013), which focuses on those superlative examples of the animal world and which  will call forth all the verbal superlatives that reviewers can render--stunning, engrossing, dazzling, endlessly absorbing--all well-earned by Jenkins and co-author Robin Page.  Both a wow-inspiring browsing book for animal enthusiasts, endowed with jewel-like torn-paper collage illustrations of great delicacy and accuracy, and a well-organized reference which can serve students from primary to secondary grades, Jenkin's large format pages show and tell about those "most surprising" animals, from the long-lived tube worm (170 years) and giant barrel sponge (2,300 years!) to the most deadly poisonous sea krait snake, the cone snail, and box jellyfish, to the variety in size, from the extinct megladon shark to the tiny rotifer, half the size of this period.

Jenkins divides the book into discrete chapters--Animals (classification), Family (Reproduction), Animal Senses, Predators, Defenses, Animal Extremes, and The Story of Life--all concluding in a "Facts" section, which feature assorted informational graphics such as time lines, bar graphs, tables, and often use an iconic human to show scale. An extensive appendix, "More Animal Facts," includes thumbnail illustrations and descriptions of the more than 300 animals featured, from African bee to yellow tang, a very inclusive glossary and bibliography, and Jenkins' unique addition for young artists, "Making a Book," which covers the creative process and manufacture of his books.

Those are the facts about the book, but the real impact comes from paging through the book itself, being face to face with a snarling tiger, eyeballs to eyeball (it has only one) with the colossal squid, the world's largest invertebrate, a life-sized Goliath tarantula, or the hand of the gorilla, the largest primate, holding the pygmy lemur, the smallest primate.  Depending upon what he features, Jenkins shows insects as specimens, dorsal-side up,  some animals in profile, some in three-quarters profile, and some, particularly the mammals, in full-face, looking back at us with uncanny scrutiny. Scrupulously arranged in logical sections, with brief captions which capture each animal's uniqueness, The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest--and Most Surprising--Animals on Earth is a book that is more than the sum of its parts, one which leaves the reader with the same awe of the wonder that is the animal kingdom which first inspired the six-year-old author.

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