Come for the freaky pictures, stay for the entertaining text. Boy, if I could give aspiring nonfiction writers one piece of advice, it would be - try to make a book that I can recommend to kids using that sentence. Although I guess it doesn't work for like, presidential biographies. Freaky pictures of presidents are rarely appropriate for kids.
Anyway. Michael Hearst, the author of Unusual Creatures: A Mostly Accurate Account of Some of Earth's Strangest Animals, seems to have figured that magic sentence out all by himself in this, his first nonfiction book for kids.
Freaky pictures: check. That's an axolotl on the cover, an animal that is both pink and smiling and which nevertheless is unsettlingly creepy. This illustrator, Jelmer Noordeman, pulls no punches. His humpback anglerfish, for example, looks a lot like my great-aunt Betty, and Betty just scared the crap out of us when we were kids.
Entertaining text: check. Did you know that "baby anteaters line up the stripes on their fur exactly with their mother's stripes" while riding on their mother's back? Or that the DoD funded a researcher from VA Tech to go to Asia to figure out how flying snakes fly? Yup.
And not just entertaining - no. This book makes it all the way to witty: "Humans can easily approach Weddell seals. The hard part is getting to Antarctica." And in an otherwise flawlessly factual entry on the hammer-headed bat: "Hammer-headed bats are closely related to hammer-headed sharks. Both animals take pride in their ability to easily remove old, rusty nails from lumber."
Now, if all this obscurantism and deadpan humor gives you just the slightest Flaming Lips-slash-They Might be Giants superquirky nerd chic prickle through the downy hairs on the back of your neck, there's a reason for that.
Michael Hearst is also a musician in New York. A musician who plays instruments like the theremin and the toy piano and that little synthesizer with the stylus that you can buy from ThinkGeek. We have one, I can't remember what it's called. People whose music veers really close to performance art savor the challenges of playing on toys like these.
Like, you google this guy and Google thinks maybe you'll also be interested in Paul Auster's sexy daughter Sophie or Claudia Gonson of The Magnetic Fields (see also: Stephin Merritt, who as a side job composed the music for the audiobook editions of A Series of Unfortunate Events) (god I love those songs). Frankly, it's kind of awesome and refreshing when a person with this kind of hipster pedigree and smirky-sincere resume (Songs for Ice Cream Trucks?) turns out to be legitimately witty and not... um... insufferable.
(Hm. Did I live in Brooklyn maybe just a shade too long? Maybe so. I may have lived in Brooklyn about 6 months past reaching my Cool Kid Tolerance Quota. In those years in Brooklyn, everyone you knew used to be Tibor Kalman's assistant, or programmed the big digital sign at BAM, or was Max Protetch's housesitter. Or was secretly Jonathan Lethem. At a minimum, everyone you knew had at least one story about having been horribly mistreated by John Lurie. They had not, however, all started designing furniture made from reclaimed skateboard decks yet, and for that I am grateful.)
But let me get off this bitchy sidetrack and get back onto praising this book. Look at that layout. That's a cool layout - with that declarative, retro design style that sort of started with McSweeney's/826 and then surged through boutique stores from San Francisco to Smith Street.
Look at that monstrous little creature. That's a tardigrade, familiar to readers of The Search for WondLa as Eva 9's massive friend Otto but otherwise not super well-known, and Michael Hearst is doing all of us a favor by showing him off. Tardigrades live everywhere. "Tardigrade" is a terrific word. Tardigrades can survive extremes of temperature, radiation, and even the vacuum of space.
The tardigrade is so butch that when his little world really starts going to hell, he can squeeze himself into a ball, dehydrate, and essentially be dead for almost a decade until the situation improves. In our species, only Warren Buffett and Tori Amos can do that.
Here, take Michael Hearst's True/False quiz about the tardigrade:
- Tardigrades can grow up to 23 feet in length.
- The tardigrade was first discovered in 1773.
- If a tardigrade enters your ear, it is likely to whisper gibberish, which over time can lessen your intelligence.
- Tardigrades come in a variety of colors, including white, read, orange, yellow, green, purple, black and transparent.
- Haribo plans to release a line of gummy tardigrades. It is speculated that the chewables will also be able to survive extreme levels of heat, cold, and radiation.
I also am going to find myself praising the straight-faced science-carnival songs that Hearst has composed to go along with the book. You can preview a couple on the Unusual Creatures website, and more are available in iTunes. I'm going to have to spring for the tardigrade one - I am a sucker for that circusy, rolling klezmer gait.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST. We had a variety of kids over our house yesterday, and one happens to be kind of a weird-animal aficionado. Naturally, I slung this book at her, and naturally, she leafed through it, reading the coolest parts out loud to everyone. INTERESTINGLY enough, she also started spontaneously composing songs about some of the animals.
Which I believe makes the Jesus Christ lizard one of the only members of the basilisk family to have inspired two songs (and of course also a band name, but while The Jesus Lizard wrote songs about monkeys and pigs and even had an album called Goat, they never ever wrote about lizards).