You like maps? We’ve got maps! After a view of the whole world, followed by a political map of Europe, the fun begins: big, double-page spreads of each country, lavishly illustrated with folk-arty, idiosyncratic icons of flora, fauna, geographical features, local customs and historical figures, food and native dress. The drawings are the most distinctive feature, as most atlases are illustrated largely with photos. Here, everything is hand-drawn, even the maps themselves. The large size (11” x 15”) allows for an explosion of detail on every page, including the birds of the air and the fish of the sea and all that swim in the paths of the sea. Originally published in Poland, the orientation is secular—no Moses in Egypt, no Calvin in Switzerland, no Luther in Germany. In basic form, the human figures resemble bobble-head dolls, so there’s no Stalin or Hitler either. You might want to also watch out for the anatomically-correct David (Michelangelo statue) in Italy. But the overall mood is joyful in the best religious sense. Hours of fun for the geographically-minded.
The collage-style illustrations are a little creepy (to me) and the evolutionary bias pops up occasionally, but this is a useful introduction to the peculiar nature of human language. “Science” can’t say how humans are the only member of the animal kingdom to develop language, but this book makes clear that animal communication is fundamentally different and humans are amazingly gifted in this way. Syntax (subject-verb and subject-verb-object sentence construction), etymology (word origins), writing, signing, invented languages (Klingon, anyone?), and endangered languages all get a turn, along with oddities like “crash blossoms” (you’ll have to find out what that is for yourself!). since human language is a subject s not often addressed for this age of reader, Chitchat is a welcome addition to any non-fiction lineup.
Iguiaca! is their cry. When you look up you might see their bright green plumage and flashes of blue from their flight feathers. It’s the Puerto Rican parrot, and if they’re a bit hard to spot it’s because they almost didn’t make it into the twentieth century. Natural predators and imported species like the pearly-eyed thrasher cut into the population, but what really whittled them down (from almost one million to about 13) was the loss of their nesting space to logging. I appreciate that the narrative (which also serves as a capsule history of Puerto Rico) doesn’t beat up on mankind like a lot of environmental books do. In fact, it documents how the parrot population is growing again, thanks to the dedicated efforts of mankind in the form of zoologists and volunteers. Parrots over Puerto Rico came to my attention–and I’m glad it did–after winning the ALA’s Silbert award for outstanding informational picture books. The vertical format (you have to hold it sideways) is striking though a bit awkward for reading aloud, but independent readers will enjoy poring over the paper-and-fabric collages, which are intriguing and extremely colorful. What the illustrations lack in depth they make up in cleverness: notice how she creates a waterfall and a hurricane. You might want to try it yourself! The appendices include more information about the parrots, predators, and Puerto Rico.
Alex the Parrot: No Ordinary Bird, by Stephanie Spinner, illustrated by Meilo So. Knopf, 2012, 40 pages. Age/interest level: 6-12.
This picture book doesn’t exactly fit with an around-the-world theme, but I haven’t had a place to put it to so far and it’s an interesting tie-in to the subject of language—and birds. “One June day in 1977, a young woman walked into a pet store looking for an African Grey parrot.” That’s how Irene Pepperberg began her long relationship with Alex (Avian Learning Experiment) who in time would become the most famous bird in the world. He was a prodigy who learned hundreds of words, could identify people by name, sort objects by color, shape, and material, express his wants with perfect articulation and display human-like emotions of joy, anger, boredom, and affection. It wasn’t until Irene had been working with him for several years that she began to be taken seriously—and Alex became a celebrity. His story is told in five easy-reader chapters with a flowing narrative and plenty of human interest. Be prepared, though—the ending is sad.