Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Majestic, Mighty Giants

They are the world's largest land mammal.  This is an amazing thought to ponder.  There is nothing bigger on this entire planet than they are.  The females live in herds and the males tend to remain alone.  Their lives can span up to seventy years.  Social bonding is nearly or as strong as it can be in humans.  Not surprisingly humans, even though their weight and height are considerably more than the average man, are their greatest threat.

We have continually encroached on their land diminishing their habitat size as we expand ours for living and resources.  Poachers still slaughter them in alarming numbers for their ivory.  African elephants are now listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (ICUN).  At the beginning of the 20th century there were millions and millions and millions of them.  They now number less than five hundred thousand.  The more we know, the more we can do to protect these giants.  In a dazzling array of art and words Katherine Roy gives us How To Be An Elephant: Growing Up in the African Wild (David Macaulay Studio, Roaring Brook Press, September 19, 2017).

WITH FLAPPING EARS and whiffling trunks, the herd quickly spreads the news.  After 22 months of growing, a new baby is on her way.

In eleven divisions, short chapters, many of them beginning with a page turn, readers are acquainted with this infant.  As she learns we learn how she will grow to become an adult member of the herd.  Of first and utmost importance is her family.

Matriarchal in nature, the members stay together forever.  Their combined knowledge will lead and guide the baby girl for the rest of her life.  They will help her balance on specially equipped feet geared for silence and speed.

Her nose, trunk, balances out her poor eye sight; food and water, family and friends and danger can be detected with a sniff of a whiff.  Her nose, having more than 100,000 muscles, functions as a tool most fabulous.  Did you know an adult elephant sucks up water in their trunk and then pours it into their mouth?  They consume up to forty gallons a day.

Both as a baby, and then as an adult, elephants have an expansive repertoire of sounds; each one used for a specific purpose.  As herbivores elephants are crunching and munching for most of their waking hours but babies have it a bit easier.  They are little recyclers.  (You'll have to read the book to find out more about this homemade baby food.)  Using ears better than air conditioning, taking mud baths, engaging in playful games to get rid of less than dangerous foes, and rumbling in the air and the ground are more lessons to learn.

The value of African elephants to the land on which they reside is intriguing and essential; a highly evolved relationship of give and take.  Their necessity for space is not only important to them but to other animals sharing the land with them.  We must adapt.  We must understand.  We have to learn.

Katherine Roy has taken her extensive research and personal experiences in Africa to write a completely riveting conversation about the lives of African elephants.  She informs us to the extent our admiration for these creatures grows as she presents particular fascinating facts.  Each chapter flows flawlessly into the next as one lesson builds on the other whether speaking about physical characteristics or behaviors.  The way Katherine Roy writes is like being a student in the best science class you ever attended.  Here is a sample passage.

REMEMBER THE LOUD, low-frequency calls that an elephant makes with her high-powered voice?  These rumbles fall below the range of human hearing and can travel much farther than higher-frequency sounds---up to 2 miles during the day and over 6 miles at night, when the air is cool.  Other elephants within range can hear the rubles as either sound waves in the air or vibrations in the ground, which they're able to detect with the tips of their trunks and the cushioned soles of their feet.

The majestic display of the African elephant mother with the baby across the matching, opened dust jacket and book case with some of the remaining herd in the background is not only breathtaking because of the subject matter but because of the masterful use of perspective.  The lines, light and shadow, color palette, and details all work to bring readers into the circumstances of what it is to be an African elephant.  On the opening endpapers it is before dawn.  Members of the herd are gathering for the birth.  On the closing endpapers we see Katherine and her guide observing from their vehicle a herd of elephants crossing a river in a line, the baby among them.

Each illustration rendered by Katherine usually spans two pages.  For those single page pictures, a smaller image or an explanatory diagram is placed on the opposite page.  These are carefully labeled to assist readers in terms they can understand.

As noticed earlier the point of view seen in these images literally bring you into the activities of the herd.  We gather when they gather, we watch in awe as many trunks reach out to touch a newborn, we quench our thirst either by kneeling and gulping or sucking water into our trunks and releasing it into our mouths, and we shelter in the heat beneath our mom with our ears flapping.  Every aspect of life is portrayed with realism and a heartfelt respect and affection is seen in every illustration.

One of my many favorite pictures spreads, without words, across two pages.  There is a golden glow to the entire scene indicting the time of day.  The entire herd is enjoying the benefits of mixing water and dirt in a water hole or along a river.  Adults are standing on the perimeter, some are lying on the bank, and the youngest, the baby, is splashing in total delight.  This visual articulates the social bonds and playful nature of African elephants.

How To Be An Elephant: Growing Up in the African Wild written and illustrated by Katherine Roy is not a book you can only read once.  You will read it repeatedly gaining insights and information.  A lengthy note from the author, selected sources, scientific articles, books, films, and websites are included at the close of this title.  Readers can further understand the extent of Katherine Roy's work by reading her acknowledgements.  This book is a must-have for all professional and personal bookshelves.

To learn more about Katherine Roy and her other work please follow the link attached to her name to access her website.  Here is a link to Katherine Roy's June Newsletter.  Katherine Roy talks about this book at School Library Journal.  At the publisher's website you can view interior images.  Author, reviewer, and blogger Julie Danielson features this title at Kirkus and her blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

Be sure to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to enjoy the titles selected by other bloggers participating in the 2017 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

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