This illustrated book for children offers nine stories about animals that combine fact, fancy, and life lessons.
An elderly tortoise (“at least 130 years old”) named Ezra tells Sally Scott, a young girl, several stories, beginning with his own. He offers facts about his shell and how he wound up in the Virginia area when “White humans were just beginning to build their many towns.” (If the book is set in the present day, this would make him much older than 130.) The tales that follow often teach a moral or underscore virtues, such as cooperation and courage. In “The Funky Monkey,” for example, Melton, a monkey, is called “Smelly Melly” by his troop because he hates keeping clean; the smell isn’t just unpleasant, it also creates a potential target for predators, so his troop exiles him. Melton falls into the river, which cleanses him, and then he saves his troop by pelting a stalking jaguar with mangoes. He’s welcomed back with open arms. A similar tale about Stinky, a goat, is resolved the same way: Stinky rescues friends, granting him social acceptance. These are presented as happy endings, but the message that one must be heroic to escape bullying and ostracism is a questionable one for kids. Each story is followed by a list of animal facts, including definitions of terms, and a final section includes discussion questions for each story with possible answers. In her debut, Guynn combines humorous shenanigans; an approachable, contemporary voice; and intriguing information about animals, informed by her career in wildlife conservation (she’s a former executive director of the National Conservation Leadership Institute). Her own illustrations, featuring soft black-and-white washes, are attractive and capture the animals’ personalities well. However, the stories’ anthropomorphism and selective sympathies can be misleading; although Guynn mentions the food chain, she also presents essential predators (such as jaguars or hawks) as unalloyed villains. Some of the book’s facts are also hazy—a rite of passage described as having been “recorded in history,” for example, overstates the case. The book could also have used a punctuation cleanup.
Natural history sometimes mixes uncomfortably with tall tales in these moralistic stories.