Tuesday, May 5, 2015

2016 Contenders: Historical Animals, by Julia Moberg

Books that pair poetry with nonfiction facts seem to be in vogue as of late. It's a structure that I associate most with Joyce Sidman, but Historical Animals is the second non-Sidman book we've reviewed this year (Random Body Parts is the other) that also utilizes this format.

However, if Random Body Parts was no Winter Bees or Dark Emperor, Historical Animals is no Random Body Parts. The brief poems, each of which describes a famous animal from history, possess some of the most awkward meter I've read in a long time, and are filled with rhymes that are forced, or that are noticeably approximate. I can't immediately think of another volume of modern children's poetry I've read that is as technically inexpert.

The nonfiction sections are, if anything else, even more difficult to deal with. The facts are often presented with little context, to the point of being shorn of meaning. We're told, for instance, that the poet Virgil spent 800,000 sesterces on a funeral for his housefly, but not what a sesterce was, or how much one was worth. This problem is compounded by the fact that the book contains no source list, no suggestions for further reading, and no glossary.

The book also suffers from sloppy editing. Errors include writing BCE for CE (pg. 22); spelling the name of the country as "Chili" (pg. 26); and stating that Florence Nightingale wrote a book in 1959 on the same page that lists her date of death as 1910 (pg. 40). Historical Animals also features awkward constructions ("Tortoises have the same life span as humans. Some can live from ninety to one hundred and fifty years old."), disconcerting word choices ("Dolly was named after the performance artist Dolly Parton."), and questionable taste (claiming that South American penguins like "life as Latinos"). 

Even the layout and illustrations seem subpar. I couldn't understand the logic by which some of the headings carried the names of the animals themselves, while others listed the name of the person who owned them. The cartoonish pictures, credited to Jeff Albrecht Studios, may attract the eyes of younger readers, but also make errors such as giving the famed rescue dog Barry der Menschenretter the incorrect colors.

Obviously, I don't think Historical Animals should or will win anything. Charlesbridge usually puts out much better titles, and I do expect that other books that they produce will be of higher quality than this one.

Published in February by Charlesbridge / Imagine!

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