11 September 2010


The last two shortlisted titles for last year’s Cybils Award for Non-Fiction Picture Books make an interesting pair.

Both Down, Down, Down: A Journey to the Bottom of the Sea, by Steve Jenkins, and Life-Size Zoo, by Teruyuki Komiya, director of the Tokyo Ueno Zoo, with photographs by Toyofumi Fukuda, introduce readers to various animals. But the two books approach their topics in opposite ways, and each one’s strengths are the other’s weaknesses.

Life-Size Zoo was originally published in Japan, which probably accounts for its attention to pooping and peeing. As its title promises, it offers life-size photographs of a variety of mammals found in many zoos. The book is 10.5" x 14.5", which is oversized to begin with. Some pages are designed to be tilted, and double foldouts accommodate the head of a giraffe and most of the heads of an adult elephant and a rhinoceros.

Although each page spread provides background facts about the animal in simple text and drawings, the photos are the main attraction. The detail is amazing, from the hairs on a zebra’s muzzle to the teeth in a tiger’s mouth. One spread shows images of a hedgehog and an armadillo, each rolled up against predators. The animals all stand out from a blank white background in the old Dorling Kindersley style, and they all look life-size, creating the illusion of being even closer than we can get in zoos.

In contrast, Down, Down, Down uses cut-paper illustrations (with some drawing and painting) to introduce readers to various forms of underwater life. Its page spreads are arranged according to depth, with a scale along the right margin to show how far beneath the ocean surface one has traveled.

Which brings me to the two books’ complementary strengths. Life-Size Zoo is all about scale, showing us exactly how large each animal is. In Down, Down, Down creatures that live at the same depth all appear on a spread with no clue about how large they are relative to each other. Only in the back can one figure out the scale. Thus, on one spread the oarfish takes up about the same space as the snipe eel, the nautilus, and the goblin shark. The back pages tell us that the eel and nautilus are comparable in size to an adult human's hand, but the shark is the size of that human, and the oarfish up to 36 feet long.

Down, Down, Down is all about habitat, and the unfamiliar forms of life that have evolved to live at different depths. Life-Size Zoo devotes only a few quick lines to the animals’ habitats. It’s not unlike an antiquated zoo, seeing beasts in concrete cages.

Down, Down, Down highlights creatures we rarely see, and may even have trouble imagining. Life-Size Zoo features very familiar and appealing animals (charismatic megafauna, in zoologists’ terms). We know them well enough that we can fill in their bodies from a look at their giant heads.

Steve Jenkins’s cut-paper pictures represent each species, but he doesn’t put them forward as exact representations. Toyofumi Fukuda’s photographs are precise portraits of individual animals. And the text doesn’t tell us how typical they are. For example, Kometaro the aardvark “lost part of one ear before he got to the zoo.” Is this common? Do aardvarks fight, or was Kemotaro attacked by a predator? There’s no further explanation.

Both books succeed at what they set out to do (as do all the Cybils shortlisted titles). Of this pair, I give an edge to Life-Size Zoo because it does something I hadn’t seen in other picture books. It’s a stunt (which has been duplicated in two sequels), but a very impressive one.

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