Monday, May 25, 2015

Nonfiction Monday: Animal Stories: Heartwarming true tales from the animal kingdom by Jane Yolen, Heidi Stemple, Adam Stemple, and Jason Stemple, illustrated by Jui Ishida

I'm generally not one for "heartwarming true tales" about animals, but this one drew me in and I actually enjoyed reading it.

The collection starts with a brief introduction talking about how important animals are in our lives and then the stories begin.

"The sled dog who helped save the children of Nome" is a really thoughtful, nuanced look at the story of Balto, explaining how many different teams were involved in the dangerous journey to bring medicine to Nome.

"Balanchine's Elephants" tells the story of a special ballet, created by a great choreographer, but danced by elephants! I really appreciated that the text explained the characters involved simply and clearly, without assuming prior knowledge.

"Simon: Ship's Cat First Class" was a new story to me, about a cat in World War II. He died before receiving the many commendations and medals he was to be awarded, but was well-known in England during and after the war.

"Keiko, the orca movie star" was the one that I felt the most doubtful about. It's about movement to free Keiko, original star of the Free Willy movements. Although it talks about Keiko's captivity not being beneficial, it's mostly in terms of how his pool was too small. He's illustrated with the drooping fin, but it's never mentioned. Although this is a historical story and the debate over keeping killer whales captive is a more contemporary issue, I felt it should have at least been mentioned.

"Daughter of Sunshine" jumps forward to a more contemporary story. In 1996 a little boy fell into the gorilla enclosure at Brookfield Zoo and a gorilla picked him up, protected him from the other gorillas, and got him to a keeper. I had heard this story before, but somehow had never realized exactly where it had happened. I've been to Brookfield and those enclosures are high.

"Owen and Mzee: An Unlikely Pair" rehashes the now-famous story of an orphaned baby hippo and the tortoise he bonded with. The book then jumps way, way back into history with the story of "The Capitoline Geese", sacred geese who reputedly warned the Roman soldiers of attack during a siege. Then we're back to the present day with the story of "Hoover, the Talking Seal" an orphaned seal who could reputedly make human sounds.

A classic story, "Greyfriars Bobby" comes next, with a discussion of how much of the legend is true and how much is speculation. A modern story comes next, the story of conservation efforts by Lawrence Anthony, also known as "The Elephant Whisperer" and his bond with the elephants he saved. Back to another classic story, "Cher Ami, the pigeon hero" set in World War I.

A more scientific approach is used in the story of "Washoe, the hand-signing chimp" which discusses the different scientific theories about the extent to which animals can communicate with humans. Then back to the heartwarming in the viral story of "Christian the lion". A community comes together in "Saving the whales" a story of a pod of whales trapped under the ice in Alaska.

A series of famous animals show up in in the stories of "Seabiscuit, the people's horse", "Smokey, the firefighting bear", "Pale Male, Big-City Hawk", and "The Last of Lonesome George." The last story is an odd choice - it's a random story from 1998 about two pigs who escaped from a slaughterhouse in Britain, "The Tamworth Two."

Each story includes not just the basic facts but also a discussion of the historical context, broader perspectives on the story, and additional facts and similar stories. A map of the world, showing the different stories, a timeline, and a "cast of characters" briefly reviewing all the stories with thumbnail photographs are also included. Back matter concludes with an author's note about the family connections behind the writers, resources and further reading, index, and photo credits. While the bulk of the stories are set in the west, there are tales from around the world and they include local people in most of those - discussing the locals who saved Owen and Mzee despite their own tragedies, etc. However, of the few people pictured with the animals only a few, indistinct pictures show people of color. Part of this is that the stories with more close human involvement all feature white people, but there were several illustrations that could have featured more distinctly the non-white people and crowd scenes that could have been more diverse.

This is being promoted to an older audience, but I'd actually consider it a picture book collection. The book is formatted like a picture book with bold, attractive artwork. Each story is only about 6-10 pages long, with several of those being illustrations. While the stories are honest and present some controversial and sad stories, they don't emphasize the darker side of the stories and there's nothing inappropriate here.

Verdict: While I don't currently need any more animal stories for older readers, this would be an excellent collection to promote to parents who enjoy reading aloud longer stories to their kids, or for smaller kids to page through and pick out their favorites. There's a nice variety of stories and they are all told well with interesting details and age-appropriate information. Recommended.

ISBN: 9781426317255; Published 2014 by National Geographic; Borrowed from another library in my consortium

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