Monday, September 24, 2012

An inordinate fondness

You have met my daughter Maureen on this blog, the paleoclimatologist. My other daughter Margaret is a children's book editor at Houghton Mifflin. She has done her bit for science too, by publishing the wonderful picture books by Steve Jenkins.

Jenkins is an artist with a profound respect for science, and a conviction that real empirical knowledge of the natural world can excite and fulfill a child's sense of wonder. His illustrations are paper collages. You can see how the books are made by following the "Making Books" link on his website, www.stevejenkinsbooks.com. While you are there, read his superb statement about "Science." Ah, if only every child had a teacher like Jenkins.

What inspires this notice now is Jenkins' latest book, The Beetle Book, to my mind his best and most beautiful yet. I read it cover to cover with delight, not only for the endlessly-interesting world of beetles, but also for the ingenuity and beauty of presentation.

"Jewel beetles, tortoise beetles, giraffe beetles, forest fire beetles, flower beetles. Beetles that stink, beetles that bite, beetles that sprint, beetles that walk on water. Beetles that squeak and beetles that glow." (I quote from the flap.)

Variations, anatomy, senses, mating, life cycle, diets, communication, chemical warfare, disguise, movement, size. Beetles as small as the period at the end of this sentence, and beetles as large as your hand. Beetles as familiar as a firefly or ladybug, and beetles that will astound.

This is a book that treats a child's intellect with respect, that doesn't condescend. It will appeal to and enlighten the adult who reads it with a child as much as it will expand the horizons of a child's world.

Back in 1990, Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology mounted an exhibit called Beetlemania!, thousands of specimens from the museum's vast collection of 3.5 million beetles, representing 100,000 species. Jenkins would have been delighted. As I was. I wrote about the exhibit for the Boston Globe. I'll share some of what I had to say tomorrow.