Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Creatures Big and Small, Old and New

I am such a fan of Karen Patkau's work and I've had two of her books on my desk for awhile now, just waiting for a moment to blog. Karen is an illustrator and author from Toronto and she's published several books, including the natural history gems I have here: Creatures Great and Small and Creatures Yesterday and Today.

It's often the simplest of concepts that work so well. In Creatures Great and Small, Patkau explores animals of the world, but focusses on the large and small (although not always the largest and smallest) in each category. So, for the spread on amphibians she illustrates the Chinese Giant Salamander and the Poison Dart Frog. Four lines of text, written in the first person, give information on the animal pictured. For Chinese Giant Salamander, for instance, she writes:

I live in the mountains, among the rocks
of muddy riverbanks. Nocturnal, I am
awake at night. That is when I crawl along
the cold riverbed, searching for a meal.

Each text block reads almost like poetry to my ear. No doubt children will enjoy searching for the smallest creatures. On the spread on insects, for instance, the Feather-winged Beetle is about the half the size of a grain of rice. On the mollusk spread, a small garden snail "streaks" across the bottom of the page.

This book can be used in so many ways. Of course, children will love the bright illustrations and searching for the creatures, but parents and teachers can also use the book as a jumping off point for discussing animal classification (mammals, fish, birds, amphibians, arachnids, insects, etc.) and also units of measure. Two spreads at the end of the book help explain comparative sizes using kid-friendly terms (big, really big, small, really small), yet also have more complex ideas such as using grid squares to measure off size, and visual comparisons (e.g., actual size, 2 x actual size, etc.). This information may go over the heads of some children, but that's okay. At some point it will be useful even when they think they are too old for a picture book. (You never are, IMHO.) And I was so happy to see metric measures listed first, followed by imperial. Metric is, after all, the measure of science (not to mention Canada and most of the world; the US being the most notable hold-out).

Here's a review of Creatures Great and Small and the publisher's catalog copy.

Creatures Yesterday and Today uses the same format but introduces us to creatures now extinct, and their distant relatives alive today. This is a fabulous concept and one that I don't think is tackled often, at least not in a picture book format. The first spread (labelled Creatures Yesterday), for instance, shows the dinosaur diplodocus. The text reads:

I was a giant planting-eating dinosaur,
with a big heart and a tiny brain. My neck
was so long, I could nibble fern leaves in
the forest while standing in an open field.

The next spread (Today) shows us a skylark with the text:

As I fly, you can hear my warbling song.
Like a theropod of long ago, I have a
wishbone, scaly feet, and hard-shelled
eggs. Am I a living dinosaur?

Theropod might send the teachers (but probably not the kids, who would know) searching for a dictionary, but Patkau has thought ahead and included a glossary for words that may need explanation. (And I'm wondering if planting-eating is an error -- plant-eating would certainly have scanned better.) Shelves are groaning with books on dinosaurs, but this book fills a gaping hole in paleobiology. Patkau goes beyond "dinosaurs as prehistoric animal" and introduces young readers to a broad range of prehistoric creatures: Hylonomus, Brontoscorpio, Smilodon, the crustacean Canadaspis and more, most of which they've probably never heard of. This is such a strength of the book. There is so much more to the prehistory of animals than dinosaurs and Patkau has sent young readers down the road to exploring the fascinating world of paleobiology.

Patkau's art at first glance seems simple, but it is so subtly rendered, with wonderful textures and patterns in each figure. The illustration of the Phorusrhacos, for instance, looks as if it has been carefully cut out of 10 or so different textured papers, yet it is computer generated. Patkau's style is definitely unique, engaging and recognizable. These books are as useful in art class and they are in science or language arts.

Both books include maps as endpapers, showing the relative locations of each animal illustrated. In Creatures Yesterday and Today, two spreads show a geological timeline and gives the approximate time when each of the prehistoric creatures lived.

Here's a review and the catalog copy for Creatures Yesterday and Today.

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