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Book Reviews

What’s That Bug? Everyday Insects and Their Really Cool Cousins

by Nan Froman, Julian Mulock, illus.

Have You Seen Dogs?

by Joanne Oppenheim, Susan Gardos, illus.

When C.S. Lewis was a child he had an insect phobia. He says that their “angular limbs, their jerky movements, their dry, metallic noises” suggested to him “either machines that have come to live or life degenerating into mechanism.” In his teens Lewis developed a scientific interest in insects that reduced his phobia. In What’s That Bug? author Nan Froman and illustrator Julian Mulock walk the fine line between revulsion and fascination that characterizes our human relationship with insects. On the revulsion side are illustrations such as the ominously coloured, oversized, looming painting of the hercules beetle and such descriptions as the hunting methods of the masked assassin bug: “It surprises its victims with a painful bite, grabs them with its powerful front legs, then sucks out their body fluids.” On the fascination side are the gardening habits of termites (they create fungus gardens in their mounds where they grow mushrooms) and a gallery of treehopper portraits from around the world (they look like futuristic aircraft complete with logos.)
What’s That Bug? thus seems well designed to appeal both to the reader on a quest for gore and mayhem and to the young bug-fancier in the making. The latter will appreciate the overall structure of the book – by insect classification – which is itself a good introduction to how science works. At the opening of the book we meet Carolus Linnaeus, the 18th-century Swedish naturalist who devised the basis of our system of insect classification. The elegance of his classification accompanies us through the world of bloodsuckers and stink bombers, and entymology meets etymology as we learn the origin of “Hemiptera” and “Lepidoptera,” classifications based on wing type. We are also given a sense of this field growing and changing as plans are underway for a reclassification of cockroaches. (I’d suggest “yuckptera” because not even this engaging book could fully wrest me from my revulsion of certain insects.)
Madison Press is known for its snazzy productions and What’s That Bug? has that characteristic buffed appearance. But it is not just good looks. Page design is lively but not at the expense of continuity. Froman and Mulock have largely avoided the ubiquitous tendency of information books to gather facts-on-a-string and show isolated objects against a white background. They give the reader enough continuous text and enough illustrations in a context to provide real information about the relationships of insects to their environments, and their relationship to other species, including us.
If the challenge for a book on insects lies in dealing with the ick factor, the challenge for a book on dogs is just the opposite – avoidance of sentimentality. In Have You Seen Dogs? writer Joanne Oppenheim applies her poetic sensibility, previously seen in Have You Seen Birds? and Have You Seen Bugs?, to the world of dogs. Oppenheim’s texts are an illustrator’s dream. They are filled with movement, emotion, playfulness, and almost no specific details about setting or character. Her first two books inspired illustrators to wild fancies of composition and media – Barbara Reid’s delicious Plasticine birds and Ron Broda’s surreal bugs in collage.
Have You Seen Dogs? employs a more straightforward illustrative approach with realistic paintings by Susan Gardos. The juvenile dog fancier will pore over this book looking to see if the family Airedale or Golden Retriever is included and the dogs are certainly lovingly and accurately portrayed, but the total effect of the book is pedestrian.Gardos creates a couple of scenes that expand the text. One shows a Great Dane being pulled in a wagon by a little terrier. Another shows a Border Collie holding a bottle for a lamb. But most scenes simply replicate the words. For the dancing lines “Happy leap-and-greet dog, begging-for-a-treat dog, wagging-tail-and-lick dog, run-and-fetch-a-stick dog, going-for-a-ride dog, always-at-your-side dog,” I wanted something more imaginative than vignettes of cute generic dogs engaging in those activities. For “Wants-to-be-a-lap dog, always-needs-a-nap dog, shedding-everywhere dog, curled-up-in-a-chair dog” we could have used a little exasperation and chaos. The picture of puppies chewing a shoe does not suggest that they are actually doing any damage. For the child who is using the book primarily as a field guide or as ammunition in the battle for a family pet, I wanted an appendix with a list of breeds. The problem here might be that dogs are too easy a sell and those big liquid eyes substitute for the need to capture an original artistic vision.When an illustrator is stretched to make us somehow connect with a spittlebug, the results are more creative.
Both these titles ask us a question. Direct questions to the reader are a mainstay of juvenile creative non-fiction, a way of pulling us into the subject. These two questions also imply the promise that I’m going to emerge from the book with a new way of looking at the world. Have I seen dogs? Not with a new perspective. What’s that bug? In
this case, yes, I am looking at the ladybug, a coleoptera, on my window with fresh eyes.