Kids and animals: a magic mix

This trio of picture books featuring animals captivates younger readers

We cracked opened Mixed Beasts to an illustration of The Rhinoserotrich and both my children laughed out loud, bodies vibrating as they cackled. With Professor Julius Duckworth O'Hare Esq. as our guide, we continued through Wallace Edwards' fantastical illustrations of hybrid creatures like "The Hippopotamustang" and "The Bumblebeaver."

Next up was Zoopa: An Animal Alphabet by Gianna Marino. With each successive page, alphabet letters were introduced along with the animals whose names start with each letter. Expressively charactered animals frolicking in and around a soup bowl (zoo + soup = Zoopa) held my kids' interest right through to an ebullient Zebra.

Central to A Grand Old Tree by Mary Newell DePalma is the idea that many animals make their homes in a tree during its life cycle. After studies with scholarly Professor O'Hare and a review session with "alphanimal" soup, my kids aced the mini biology lesson in "A Grand Old Tree," calling out the names of mammals and insects as they appeared.

Maybe it's a kinship born when a prelanguage infant's world revolves around sounds and sights, but in any event, kids and animals flock together like birds of a feather, whether it's a baby chewing on an animal board book or a pretoddler's legs waggling in excitement while viewing a live cow. Biologist Jane Goodall often mentions that a visit to a farm at age 4 - including hours spent in a chicken coop trying to figure out where the eggs come from - sparked her interest in animals.

Experiences like plucking eggs from the coop at their aunt and uncle's farm, along with hours spent perusing books have cemented in my kids a fondness for animals. That's why this trio of volumes has been such a hit.

"Mixed Beasts" is modern day illustrator Wallace Edwards' take on Kenyon Cox's 1904 original. Cox's rhyming verses are included. My kids bypassed these poems as they raced to giggle over the next fantastic creature. (At one point, my daughter created her own Mixed Beast by putting a glove on top of my head and announcing that I was a "GlovePerson.")

Accompanying each large central image - such as The Kangarooster (top half fowl, bottom half marsupial) - is a series of visual animal puns. A horned and hooved amphibian becomes a Bullfrog, for example. A violin with claws - think! - forms a Fiddler Crab. The kids delighted in finding and then figuring out each biologically incorrect puzzle. When they imagined that the antlers topping a cup of Chocolate Moose were those of a reindeer, they broke into rousing song about Rudolph.

Finely detailed and brightly colored, the animals in "Zoopa" are vibrant, with expressions from mischievous to silly to joyful. There are no words, just letters. However, many mini visual story lines play out as the animals aggregate to a group of 26.

"A Grand Old Tree" is rife with connections: The splay of underground roots mimics dendrite-like treetop branches. Birds sow the tree's fruit-encased seeds far and wide. The tree finally decomposes and merges with the earth. The animals find homes in its nooks and crannies.

After I read the line, "The grand old tree flowered," my daughter - looking at the flowery image with bees abuzzing - cooed "pretty." The page depicting squirrels munching on the tree's fruit evoked a "yum."

These are but a few recent offerings of animal picture books for children. "Mixed Beasts" - "my favorite book," announced my daughter - was the most captivating.

Like Graham Baese's "Animalia" and the "I Spy" series by Jean Marzollo and Walter Wick, "Mixed Beasts" challenges kids to look beyond the obvious to discover meaning and connections.

Now that's learning.

John Nordell is on the Monitor staff.

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