Monkey Business

“Have you ever wondered why monkeys have such a reputation for being mischievous?  Well, quite frankly, it is a title well deserved…

Monkeys lie to each other.  When searching for food, monkeys often travel in groups with a leader at the front.  If this leader has a dishonest streak and discovers a delicious treat, sometimes they will tell their fellow monkeys that they’ve seen a predator.  All of the other monkeys will scatter to safety whilst the leader casually gobbles the treat alone.  Sneaky little devils!”
One of the challenging things about reading with children is that they expect you to have all the answers to their questions.  But in Mad About Monkeys, written and illustrated by Owen Davey, questions are answered before they even think them up.   This gorgeous and informative book is a delight from cover to cover. 
Fantastic and simple way to understand that humans are primates but not monkeys
The book defines monkeys, when they evolved, their habitats and what they eat. 
Davey’s writing style is engaging and conversational as he explains the differences between Old and New World monkeys, how monkeys socialize, their size and peculiarities.  He gives a brief look at monkeys in mythology. 
He ends with a sobering but hopeful look at the shrinking habitat of monkeys due to deforestation. 
Davey even answers questions kids might be too embarrassed to ask, such as “Why such colorful bums?”  In my case, the question lead to much hilarity in discussing the difference between American and British English and the many words there are for bottoms.
The stylized illustrations are warm and detailed.  Text and pictures are interwoven, so it’s easy to get immersed in the page.  My scans do them no justice, you really must see them live — luckily that’s as easy as going to your bookstore or library.  This book would be a wonderful gift for a reluctant or avid reader — it works on many levels.
It’s published by Flying Eye, so the design is exceptional, with compelling end papers and title page.
End paper

Title Page
On his website, Davey says:
“I am an award-winning Freelance Illustrator, living & working in Leicester, UK. I have a First Class BA(Hons) Degree in Illustration from Falmouth University. I am the illustrator for the fiendishly addictive puzzle game TwoDots which has been #1 in over 70 countries. I was also the illustrator for Tinybop’s brilliantly fun Robot Factory app. My work has been published in every continent except Antarctica, including picture books in UK, America, Australia, Germany, France, The Netherlands, Portugal, China & South Korea…. In my spare time, I write and play in a band called LOM, bake cakes & quickly consume them, swim & run, play nerdy computer games, read books intended for teenagers or children, and watch a variety of HBO programmes in my pyjamas.”

I recently bought the book Build A Robot: Build 3 Wind-up Robots That Walk, Wiggle and Wave, by Steve Parker, that Davey illustrated and designed cardboard robots for.  Published by Templar books in 2014, it was a great hit with one of my video game addicted 10 year old friends.  The book has history of robots, integrates the illustrations with the text  and it has the excellent interactive element.  So far, my friend and I have built two of the robots and he’s totally sold on the idea of interactive books – since when you finish the challenge of building the robot, it’s something real that you can play with even when your mom won’t let you have any more screen time.  And the designs are fantastic. 
From monkeys to robots, Owen Davey is definitely an illustrator and writer to look out for. 

Delta Jewels Review

I fell in love with the book Delta Jewels from the moment I saw the cover, the sweet face of Mrs. Annyce P. Campbell, age 90, staring out at me with an expression both welcoming and reserved, with both sorrow and joy in her eyes. 
Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom – Portraits and Interviews with My Eldersby Alysia Burton Steele, (Center Street Books, 2015) is a deep warm look at elder women of the Mississippi Delta. 
I lived in Memphis for the first 46 years of my life.  Memphis is really more North Mississippi than Tennessee.  I’ve never driven, so I rode the bus a lot.  It always amazed me that it was the elder Black women on a crowded bus, who, seeing my limp, would quickly give up their seats for me.  I told them I was fine, but they kindly and firmly insisted I sit myself down.  
There’s something in Mrs. Campbell’s face gazing from the book that reminded me of those kind women who showed great dignity in everything they did.
Steele says
“My paternal grandmother died in 1994.  Although I’ve taken photos since I was fifteen years old, I never thought about taking Gram’s photo or recording her voice.  Those were the days before cell phone cameras!  I thought there would be more time, but instead I took her for granted.  I’ve missed her increasingly over the years.  Time didn’t stop my brain from trying to remember, having regrets, wondering what I could have done to preserve every single thing about her, before she became a shadow of a memory.

I could honor – and perhaps recapture – her memory by recording stories from other women of her generation, I thought, so I began to interview and photograph grandmothers in Mississippi, my new home state. 

From Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area and Delta Center for Culture and Learning 
These Delta Jewels are matriarchs of their families, like my grandmother.  They are church women, female elders, living witnesses to history.  They are ordinary women, who have lived extraordinary lives as they courageously faced the injustices of the Jim Crow era and experienced the hard-won changes and victories of the Civil Rights Movement.

I now have more than fifty grandmothers who have revealed to me the significance of being a woman – child, daughter, sister, wife, mother and grandmother.  They’ve helped me — a biracial woman born to an interracial couple – embrace and understand more of my black identity.  These Delta Jewels, photographed and portrayed here in their own words, provided me with wisdom and strength to engage the world with power and to encourage the next generation.”

Steele weaves her own story through the book and so it becomes and odyssey of identity as a well as a tribute to grandmothers.  Steele’s writing is lively, personal, and gracious.  She doesn’t keep a detached distance from the women she interviews.  

The voices and history of elderly Black women in the Mississippi Delta are particularly poignant and important.  As we still struggle to become a nation that respects every American, it’s vital to capture the history of people whose voices have largely been ignored.  
These are endangered stories that need to be preserved so that we can see where we came from and what the future might hold for us.  These women have shown grit, determination, and faith.  They’ve faced turbulence all their lives, without the blinders we have now that we are saturated by technology.  We’re a richer nation because of them. Take the story of Mrs. Delcia Davis.  You can click the pictures to enlarge them:
I love the black and white photography and the presentation of each jewel’s story.  Some of the photographs are full page, some are tucked into corners of the text — it’s a lovely and elegant book. Here’s a video trailer where you can hear and see more: 
Alysia Burton Steeleis an award-winning photographer and author.  In 2006 she won a Pulitzer Prize as part of the picture editing team with The Dallas Morning News for their coverage of Hurricane Katrina.  Steele is currently an assistant professor for The Meek School of Journalism and New Media at The University of Mississippi.  Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, she now resides in Oxford, Mississippi.

You can read more about her and the Delta Jewels on her website by clicking here.
Love & history are powerful things


I frequently visit a shop here in Portland, Oregon, called Paxton Gate, “a store known for its magical mix of neo-Victorian delights, eclectic animal and plant ephemera, taxidermy, exotic plants—including the carnivorous variety—framed and mounted insects, jewelry, unique gardening tools, affordable art, vintage scientific instruments and more.”  
from Paxton Gate Website
I love looking at the shells, insect specimens, plants, fossils and rocks.  They also have a collection of animal taxidermy.  I’ve asked about them and found that they are part of modern ecological ethics and taxidermists use reclamation from institutions and zoos as a way of keeping dead creatures around for study and aesthetic pleasure.  I’m not drawn to it, but I was glad to hear that there are standards for such things.
I took some friends there once to show them the great collection of plants, science toys, and weird art — they have knitted dissected frogs and animal skeletons in Victorian dress.  I think of this as typical Portland weirdness, but they also have splendid scientific prints, books, inks and journals. 
Both of my friends expressed some distress at the taxidermy.  They thought I was naïve to think that the taxidermy didn’t come from thoughtless killing of animals. 
So I was much relieved, when I got the beautiful book Biophilia, the art of Christopher Marley, published this year by Abrams Books, to find a few page dedicated to “Reclamation and the Pursuit of Karma-Friendly Taxidermic Experience.”   His father was a breeder of Australian parrots.  He began to use specimens from his father’s collection that had died of natural causes.  Then:
“I suddenly realized that my dilemma of wanting desperately to work with organisms of all kinds but not being willing to kill them had found a limited solution….After months of methodically working through all of my years of accumulated contacts, I was over joyed to find that there were other individuals and institutions, breeders, aviaries, aquariums, sanctuaries, and zoos that had similar practices.  The opportunity to preserve rare and exotic birds, reptiles, and other vertebrates was suddenly becoming a reality.  I was ecstatic.”

From Christopher Marley’s website:
“Specimens are reclaimed, bred or harvested from dozens of countries on every inhabited continent. Our vertebrates are always reclaimed organisms that come from institutions and breeders here in the U.S. after they die of natural or incidental causes.   My work preserves for generations what would otherwise be discarded and lost forever.  The invertebrates are sustainably collected in their various countries of origin – offering local catchers a powerful financial incentive to protect and guard their habitats to ensure the continued survival of the very species they collect.”

Whether I’m naïve or not, the artwork of Marley is exquisite and inviting, it honors nature in a way I’ve never seen before.  He uses actual specimens, preserves their structure and color, arranges them, frames them and brings them back to life in a way that only art can.  Though he is working with their bodies, he captures their spirit.  And like when I spend time at a natural history museum, or in a garden, I always come away from his art wanting to draw.  
Biophilia means love of life, “an instinctive kinship with the rest of the living, breathing world.”  Marley says: 
“As human beings, we are at the top of the food chain in every ecosystem that we inhabit, yet we retain an innate affection for the rest of creation.  I have never met – indeed, I cannot imagine – a person who does not derive stimulation and fulfillment from some form of life apart from our own species, one who cannot and does not appreciate a single plant or single nonhuman animal species.”

I like that he works with bugs, spiders, and reptiles, because so many of us find them creepy.  We’re afraid of them.  In Marley’s art, they are presented like jewels and a sense of awe over takes fear.  He has work that combines the colors of insects with the colors of minerals and gems.  I realize how fear interferes with our ability to see the beauty around us. 
I think as we teeter toward our own extinction, we’re learning that we’re part of a larger ecosystem and even these humble creatures like beetles and urchins are a part of the health of our planet, the health of each of us.  We need ways of being less fearful.  In Biophilia, Marley frames a new way for us to see beyond fear and find wonder.
Christopher Marley is an artist, designer and photographer.  His first book, Pheromone, focused on his artwork with insects.  He maintains design studios in Oregon and Kuala Lumpur.  You can see more of Marley’s work at his website:
You can see more about Paxton Gate by clicking here;
You can see more of Abrams wonderful books here: 
And remember, as Bill Waterson said, “There’s treasure everywhere.” 

Beetle Planet

One of the 10 year old boys in my neighborhood came over for an art lesson recently.  He was a little glum.  At first he said he was fine but then he said he’d had a fight with his older brother and lost.  He really just wanted to play on his game device.  I asked if he’d like to see the new book I got first, The Book of Beetles.  Then he could play on his game device if he wanted.
Much to my delight, we spent the next hour looking at beetles and marveling at their strange shapes and beautiful colors.   
I remember seeing such collections at the natural history museum when I was a child
Did you know that one out of every five creatures on earth is a beetle?  There are over 400,000 known species and it’s estimated that there millions more to be identified.  The Book of Beetles, edited by Patrice Bouchard, published by the University of Chicago Press, presents 600 beetles in all their glory.  The beetle family, Coleoptera, includes all sorts of bugs, from the firefly to the aptly named Goliath beetle. 
Each entry features a distribution map, basic biology and information on the cultural significance of each beetle.  Crisp, beautiful photographs show the actual size of the beetles and enlargements show the exquisite details.
This book isn’t written for children, it’s for anyone who is interested in beetles, science, and the natural world.   It’s a beautiful book, with care taken with the binding.  
The title page
Front of the book, under the jacket
Back of the book

I know not every child is going to choose browsing through such a book to a video game, but for some, at a certain age, a book like this can open eyes to the wonders and dramas of the natural world. It’s a good book to have around the house for just such a day.  And for me, it’s a reminder of the strange beauty that exists on this planet.  We are finding out more and more that all species are interconnected.  Developing a respect and understanding of insects is important in understanding the complex web of life.   

On the University of Chicago Press website, they say:
When renowned British geneticist J. B. S. Haldane was asked what could be inferred about God from a study of his works, Haldane replied, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.”

You may find yourself with this same inordinate fondness, too, after reading this amazing book.  My young friend and I are both now hoping to one day see the Western banded glow worm and we’re keeping our eyes open for any interesting beetle that may scurry through our lives. 
Patrice Bouchard is research scientist and curator of Coleoptera at the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids, and Nematodes. He is the coauthor of Family-Group Names in Coleoptera and the award-winning Tenebrionid Beetles of Australia. Bouchard serves on the editorial boards of The Canadian Entomologist, ZooKeys, and Zoological Bibliography.
The University of Chicago Press is printing a wide variety of great books.  You can read more about them here.

Thanks for reading my blog.  Keep your eyes open. There’s wonder all around.
Beautiful endpapers, too.