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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Lizards: Weird and Wonderful by Margery Facklam; illus. by Alan Male
Little, 2003 32p
ISBN 0-316-17346-0 $15.95
Gr. 3-7

What do you know? Lizards really are weird and wonderful, as Facklam makes clear in this delightful, accessible, and scaly nonfiction entry that introduces readers to a reptilian baker's dozen. There are lizards here to coo over (the gecko really is pretty cute), lizards here to gross out your little sister (the full frontal portrait of a Gila monster consuming a kangaroo rat may even get a reading kid banned from the dinner table if judiciously revealed), and lizards to marvel at (the birdlike basilisks can actually run across the top of the water), plus general lizard information that will give youngsters a bit more context for that next zoo visit or woodshed run-in.

The recent growth of nonfiction for young people has been a boon, since there have been more and more excellent titles exploring the world's factual wonders; sometimes, though, such titles have succumbed to increasing employment of bells and whistles rather than relying on faith in the interest value of the subject itself. This book doesn't make that mistake; in fact, it's a rather unassuming volume in layout, focusing not on its production values but on, thank heavens, lizards, making it better conceived than some fancier titles. There's also a well-chosen lizard cast, which includes big famous lizards such as the Komodo dragon, smaller famous lizards such as the chameleon, undeservedly obscure lizards such as the glass snake (which might be better known were it not pretending to belong to another biological suborder), and others who could each make absorbing single-title subjects in their own right. Facklam, however, never turns this into a hasty encyclopediac compendium: this is more like attending a lizard party with a fond hostess who offers enticing gossip by way of introducing her guests and their connections. Her witty overviews are rich with just the kind of information kids want to know (the popularity of our gentle cover lizard, the chuckwalla, as a main dish because of its flowery diet, or the study of the mysterious sticking power of gecko toes), even down to the final chart explaining "how to tell the difference-or try to" between snakes, lizards, and salamanders. The occasional anecdote adds further spice and suggests a warm appreciation for the subject and writings thereon (the author has a good eye for piquant quotes), and details and implications about biology, ecology, geography, and a few other subjects add depth to the entries.

Male's art offers lizards worthy of the text. His occasional backgrounded human figures are stiff and almost deliberately inferior, as if trying not to upstage the magnificent reptiles, which are the really important characters in these spreads. His lizards often evince an astonishing photorealism: there's an almost three-dimensional articulation to the scales of the basilisk, the moth-eaten shedding skin of the marine iguana, and the glossy beading on the Gila monster. These are no taxidermized images, however-he displays a wildlife photographer's instinct for strong compositions, with lizards spilling across the pages, sometimes directing the visual flow with their lanky bodies. The illustrations also evince a pleasing taste for drama; aside from the show-stopping Gila monster, there are several other lizards involved in the delicate act of acquiring dinner, including a chameleon with his tongue tidily unfurled to retrieve a grasshopper.

This is the kind of title that's blessedly useful in a multitude of directions. The action and unpatronizing humor will appeal to a broad range of readers, from precocious youngsters to reluctant middle-schoolers; the lively text and dramatic images would make it an effective change-of-pace readaloud (especially if there's a class lizard present or arriving); its plethora of information allows it to slip neatly into various curricular units. Even kids cold-blooded about reptiles will find something to interest them here.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

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Cover illustration by Alan Male from Lizards: Weird and Wonderful 2003. Used by permission of Little, Brown and Company.

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This page was last updated on April 1, 2003.