Ants. Just the word, for me, cues up Sharkey's Day. You know, that dry, surreal, scritchy-scratchy Laurie Anderson song: "Sharkey says: All of life comes from some strange lagoon. It rises up, it bucks up to its full height from a boggy swamp on a foggy night. It creeps into your house. It's life!"
Ants are that kind of strange, that kind of miraculous.
Amos Latteier, a Toronto-based performing and installation artist, seems to see them this way too. Who would not? The facts about ants will blow your mind. 22,000 species! Biomass comparable to humans!
There are ants that function as soft-serve machines, ants that squeeze goo out of their larvae in order to stick leaves together, ants that farm, ants that herd, ants whose sting feels like getting shot (see "bullet ant," above). Ant queens can live decades. Ant sperm can live decades! Heck, the little black ants that live in your yard can dig nests five feet deep!
I could go on half the day about the weirdness of ants. Don't you wish I would? No?
But I kind of wish that Amos Latteier had.
The Strange & Wonderful World of Ants serves up information in an artistic way that is entirely, kind of eerily, consonant with the sort of altered state of mind that ants inspire. Quiet and a bit mesmerizing, it gets all of the sensory stimuli just right.
The app is set up as a sidescrolling picture book. The text is available in three different reading levels - a nice feature that I haven't seen before - and at the lowest reading level a calm male voice reads the words aloud. A little black ant named E.O. runs toward your finger when you tap the page, and if you catch him, he'll expand upon each page's text from an ant's point of view.
Music is nonintrusive and appropriately abstract. And when I say that the illustrations are extremely good, I mean that they hew to the rules of scientific illustration - show what is there, do not show what is not there - while maintaining a delicate style that draws the reader in. Curiously, tapping on a word does not give the reader a pop-up definition, phonetic spelling, or audio - although this is getting to be a standard in iPad apps for kids.
Page transitions are particularly artistic, shuffling the app's muted colors, abstract shapes and each page's illustration so that the page appears to build itself like the shifting layers of a kaleidoscope.
But all of this artistry and attention results in an app that barely scratches the surface of the formicid world, and leaves me wanting more. It's a computer app - if there's one thing you can do in an app that you can't do in a book, it's pack in a WHOOOOLE lot of content. A list of representative species, diagrams of nests, examples of the biggest, the smallest, the most ferocious ants... once a kid's appetite for information is truly whetted, you just cannot underestimate how much they want to know.
Also. Towards the end, the descriptions of ant behavior and morphology give way to a bit of preaching:
We think selfishness is universal. Capitalism and evolution highlight this belief. Ants show us that it's possible to build societies not based on individual self-interest. Ants are inspirational!
Birds inspired people to fly. So too we can learn new ways of building, communicating, and cooperating from the strange and wonderful ants. What exciting ways can you think of to live more like ants?
I think that this is out of place, and even a bit puzzling. Also, most ant species are relentless colonizers, devoted to the expansion of their territory and unambiguously hostile to any ant not from their immediate family. Mindless instinct seems an unlikely trait to aspire to.
But despite this flawed ending, there are enough fascinating facts and excellent illustrations to whet the appetite of any young science-minded kid. A short but high-quality resource list will point that kid toward books and websites, including the Japanese Ant Image Database and Trailhead, a wonderful short story by E.O. Wilson from the New Yorker. I cannot recommend that Wilson story highly enough - it manages to be riveting reading even while hewing to the strict standards of scientific description.
Now that's something to aspire to.