Peggy Larson COLUMN
Books show nature’s ‘human’ side
By PEGGY LARSON
For the Tucson Citizen
Improbable but intriguing animals star in three new books for young readers. A bear enjoys being read to, a whale skeleton is discovered in the Great Plains, and a group of wolves bears a striking resemblance to human society.
Books lead to friendship when a woman reads “A Story for Bear” (Dennis Haseley. Illustrated by Jim La Marche, Harcourt, Inc., 2002, $16). In this beautifully illustrated book, a woman on vacation sits outside her mountain cabin with a stack of books. While she reads, she is watched from a distance by a curious bear. Each day he returns, and each day he comes closer.
“When he grew near to her – but not so near that he couldn’t run – he lay down and looked up at her . . . . Then she carefully opened the book, and softly began to speak.”
Bear does not understand the words, but the sound of her voice makes him happy.
“Sometimes her voice was soothing and the bear grew peaceful, and sometimes she sounded excited or scared and his hair bristled and he gave a low growl.”
All summer, bear comes to hear stories read by his friend. In the fall when the woman must return home, she leaves her books stacked outside by her chair with a note, “For my bear.” One by one, bear carries the books in his mouth to his cave bed.
“And all that winter, before she came back in the spring, whenever he put his nose to the pages or touched the covers with his claws, she was there.”
An 11-year-old boy who’s going on 40 relates the tale of his discovery of “The Great Whale of Kansas” (Richard W. Jennings, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001, $15, grades four through six).
The book is filled with interesting characters: the narrator who likes being by himself and digging holes; somewhat bumbling parents who generally stay in the background and allow him to pursue his own interests; Miss Whistle, a pretty school teacher he idolizes; Miss Whistle’s Native American boyfriend and the boy’s mentor, Tom White Cloud; and a gaggle of local relatives known as Quattelbaums.
The protagonist sets out to dig a hole for a small pond in his back yard but discovers fossilized bones. This leads him to dig, dig and dig, finally creating mountains of dirt ringing a gigantic excavation. Revealed is a humongous fossilized whale skeleton, which science insists is impossible in that location.
Unfortunately, the whale’s head extends beyond the family’s yard into an adjoining park and an obnoxious female paleontologist claims the fossil as the property of the state of Kansas. That is, until the rumor spreads that the whole thing is a hoax perpetrated on the gullible Kansas public by the boy.
There are threats of a theme park, the boy ends up in court defended by his inept lawyer aunt, he has to make speeches, which scares him silly, and he gets so excited and distracted that he finds himself in public in his underwear.
Finally he wonders, “Was I wrong to dig up the fossil in the first place?”
With the help of Tom White Cloud, he decides that the fossil should be reburied with a traditional native ceremony. The resulting four-day, four-night affair draws “Native Americans from all across Kansas” and everybody who is anybody in Melville, Kan., including the mayor, school principal, obnoxious fossil expert and Judge Quattlebaum.
All ends well. Everyone is a little wiser and kinder. Life in Melville returns to normal, and the boy digs a pond, which, of course, was his original intent.
This is a funny book (of which there are too few) filled with humor as dry as the Kansas prairie. It would make a good story to share in a class or as a family read-aloud.
For advanced readers, David Clement-Davies has written a lengthy tale of a wolf society that retains aspects of animal behavior but in may ways mirrors the best and worst of human society.
Larka and certain other wolves have “the sight,” both a curse and a blessing, for it allows them to catch glimpses of both the past and the future (Dutton, 2001, $21.99, grades 9 through adult).
Mogra, a lone wolf filled with hate, also has the sight. She uses it to influence Wolfbane, who is the ultimate evil, and ghost wolves brought from the dead.
This story is a classic battle between evil and good, dark and light. It is set in Transylvania and the Balkans and draws on folklore and superstition, from Dracula to Romulus and Remus. One of the basic themes explores the chasm that separates wolf and man. So well written is the book that the reader is sometimes brought up short realizing that the two – wolves and men – in many ways are really not so different, and that the behavior of one bears striking similarities to that of the other.