I don’t read enough non-fiction. There. I admitted it. I’m trying to rectify it, having received the requisite lecture after lecture in graduate school about its importance. And now I’m here to say I’ve read a great non-fiction title in the realm of children’s lit — Extreme Animals: The Toughest Creatures on Earth by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Neal Layton. Is this, technically, a picture book? I don’t know (it’s well over the standard 32-pages), but I don’t care. Where ever it gets categorized, it’s one rockin’ piece of non-fiction.
The book works on every level. First, I love love love me some Neal Layton. As far as the text goes, Davies manages to make it informative and interesting at the same time — a must for any children’s non-fiction title. Davies and Layton are a nice pair; this is the duo that brought us 2004’s Poop: A Natural History of the Unmentionable.
You know the intermediate-aged readers at which this book is aimed will chuckle a “heh” when they read the opening line: “We humans are such a bunch of wimps!” We can’t take the cold, Davies goes on to explain, and we can’t take the heat — to mention just a few of the ways in which we excel at wimpdom. “Luckily, not all life is so fragile. All over the planet there are animals (and plants) that relish the sort of conditions that would kill a human quicker than you could say ‘coffin,’” she adds. Thus we begin our journey to learn about the body temperatures of hummingbirds, learn what exactly a “frogsicle” is, learn how roadrunners warm themselves up, learn how long a spider can go without food, and learn that water bears, or tardigrades, are the Truly Toughest Extreme Animals (and why, of course) — plus much, much more. Layton has a sharp wit, and his photo-collage illustrations — done in ink and then digitally colored and sometimes in the format of cartoon panels — are funny and possess a seemingly unpolished, refreshing sort of nonchalance and spontaneity (particularly in the form of his sometimes scribbling and scratching-out of letters).
It’s perfect reading for the budding naturalist/zoologist. And you know you wanna know the longest a spider’s ever gone without food or water. I’m not tellin’. Zipit.com. My lips are sealed. No emails please. Gotta pick up the book yourself to find out. (You’ll be glad you did) . . .