Jumping Penguins, an international import hitting bookstore and library shelves this month, is an unusual piece of nonfiction, blending fantasy and facts in a way that says it would not like to be pigeonholed, thanks very much. Originally published in The Netherlands under a title that translated to Jumping Penguins and Laughing Hyenas, it offers up a series of totally arbitrary, bizarro facts, penned by Jesse Goossens, about 25 different creatures in the animal kingdom. The illustrations come from Marije Tolman, a Bologna Ragazzi Award winner and the creator of The Tree House and The Island.
Chaos rules here, so don’t expect order and alignment. The arrangement of the animals in the book does not follow any particular structure. Readers aren’t given the types of facts you see in typical nonfiction titles about animals (genus, phylum, diet, location, etc.). Instead, readers fall into an excessively playful world with no rhyme or reason, starting right on the first spread with a turtle’s very peculiar 150th birthday party. (Some species of turtles can live longer than 150 years, we read, and so this guy isn’t going to let his 150th go un-partied. Attaboy.)
Readers go from one animal to the next, hopping all over the world on land and in the water, following no coordinated path whatsoever. Mind you, it is not ever noted on what continent or country we’ve landed, but we go from polar bears (who live in cold climates) to giraffes (who don’t) within the span of several spreads. And to give you a sense of the reigning whimsy in this book, this is what readers learn about polar bears when we meet them: “Polar bears are left handed, as are most famous artists.”
And that’s that. (I am smitten with this sublimely weird spread.)
The illustration from Tolman here shows a bear, palette and paints in hand, having painted himself in a rather surreal and abstract manner. Therein lies the book’s primary appeal: Tolman’s curious, unpredictable paintings. She’s not afraid of a little bit of mischief: There’s some poop-throwing on the caterpillar spread. (They fling their waste as far as possible so that those pesky wasps, whose favorite snack is caterpillar, cannot smell where they are.) And she doesn’t water down for child readers the goriness that can be the vicious animal kingdom. There are cannibalistic crocodiles devouring their relatives at a bloody table (even if Tolman does paint some ketchup on the scene), as well as a ravenous wolf, blood all around him at the table, eating meat. A hungry wolf can eat up to 45 pounds of meat at once, after all, Goossens adding that this is “comparable to a ten-year-old child eating 36 pounds of steak or 140 burgers at a single meal.” In the same spread, Tolman paints a young boy in a wolf costume staring in shock at a table piled high with burgers.
It’s an off-the-wall blend of Freakish Fun Facts and Tolman’s left-of-center fantasy world, oftentimes literal interpretations of what the text states. (“The ribcage of a hippo is so huge that an average seven-year-old child could stand upright in its belly.” Sure enough, Tolman depicts a hippo with a small, sketched child, all smiles, in his stomach.)
Nonfiction purists may squirm. There are no resources noted, no Books for Further Reading, no glossaries and no map—though, oddly enough, there’s a tiny index. Or, as the Kirkus review wisely notes, this isn’t what students are likely to turn to for school reports, but anyone who reads it will likely be entertained by the fun facts. (Hey, if you’re an adult reading it, you’re a potential hit at the next cocktail party. Just be sure to go with the fact that dropping alcohol on a scorpion will make it go “completely berserk” and sting itself to death—which is utterly fascinating and simultaneously tragic—not so much the poop-throwing caterpillar fun fact. Have mercy on your fellow party-goers, that is.)
But one gets the sense that this book aims to be an uncommon hybrid that exists somewhere in between fact (the text) and fiction (the illustrations). And illustration fans, particularly those who enjoy seeing what those across the pond are doing in the way of contemporary picture books, may find much delight in this unique offering.
JUMPING PENGUINS. Text copyright © 2013 Jesse Goossens. Illustration copyright © 2013 Marije Tolman. Published by Lemniscaat, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Spread used with permission of the publisher.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.