Inspiring Young Readers with Facts and Fiction
Rudyard Kipling is perhaps best known for his JUST SO STORIES, a compilation of delightful fictional explanations for why many animals are the way they are. Some of its short stories include: How the Whale Got His Throat, How the Camel Got His Hump, How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin, How the Leopard Got His Spots, and How the Elephant Got His Trunk.
Kipling deserves credit not only for his impressive creativity, but also his mastery of language and humor. Here's the glorious opening passage of How the Whale Got His Throat. “On the sea, once upon a time, O my Best Beloved, there was a Whale, and he ate fishes. He ate the starfish and the garfish, and the crab and the dab, and the plaice and the dace, and the skate and his mate, and the mackereel and the pickereel, and the really truly twirly-whirly eel. All the fishes he could find in all the sea he ate with his mouth—so! Till at last there was only one small fish left in all the sea, and he was a small 'Stute Fish, and he swam a little behind the Whale's right ear, so as to be out of harm's way. Then the Whale stood up on his tail and said, 'I'm hungry.' And the small 'Stute Fish said in a small 'stute voice, 'Noble and generous Cetacean, have you ever tasted Man?'”
I've been a fan of the JUST SO STORIES since my mom read them to me when I was a young child. I'm frequently amazed at the diversity of life on Earth. So, when I learned that two of a squid's arms were longer than the others (don't ask me why), I decided to write a picture book offering a “creative” explanation for that development. And I wanted to employ alliteration and lyrical language to evoke (and honor) Kipling.
The second influence in the writing of my book was one of my all-time favorites – the immensely talented Jon Klassen's Caldecott-winning picture book, THIS IS NOT MY HAT, in which a little fish steals a big fish's hat, and gets his comeuppance in the end. I liked the theme of “do unto others”, and I especially loved the irony of the unreliable narrator. To me, few things ring so true and are as funny as people's ability to deceive themselves. Thus, with an admiring mashup of Kipling and Klassen, HOW THE SQUID GOT TWO LONG ARMS was, er, spawned.
Now, Kipling's comic premise, the idea that an animal's features that are modified after is birth (e.g., clipping a bird's feathers) could somehow be genetically passed to its offspring has been discredited by Mendelian genetics. Although it did gain its own label: Larmarkism, after Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Your immediate response should be: “Who cares? These are FICTIONAL tales.” And you'd be right. But I'd add that fact can be stranger than fiction. Here are a few crazy animal traits that evolved over time. These critters clearly all deserve their own Just So Story too. Go home Darwin, you're drunk! :)
The Star-Nosed Mole (Condylura cristata)
With impressive digging claws and a face only a mother could love, the star-nosed mole's claim to fame is the 22 appendages surrounding its nose. They are not olfactory, but rather touch organs that help the functionally blind mole find food. The journal Nature rates it the fastest-eating mammal, taking as little as 120 milliseconds to detect something, decide if it's edible, and eat it. That is even faster than I can eat Boston crème pie.
The Leafy Seadragon (Phycodurus eques)
This master of disguise looks like something right out of a high fantasy novel. When not simply drifting, movement is achieved by the small, nearly transparent pectoral and dorsal fins. Its leafy protrusions do not aid in propulsion. Their only purpose is camouflage. It's built for stealth, not speed. As if that's not enough, they can change color to further blend in with seaweed. Now you see me, now you don't.
The Giant Anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla)
This seven-foot long, 90-lb. pin-stripped mammal is a walking vacuum cleaner. While it's huge bushy tail is impressive, its foot-long snout is what makes it a fuzzy terror to ants and termites alike. Technically, it's the tongue that shoots 18 inches out of the snout that gives insects nightmares. The anteater has poor eyesight, but a sense of smell 40 times more powerful than humans. That, combined with huge digging claws make mincemeat out of anthills or termite mounds. Adding insult to injury, the anteater doesn't even produce its own stomach acid. Its digestion is aided by the formic acid provided by its prey. Now, that's just lazy.
Mother Nature gives us authors so much material with which to work. I hope these wonders of the natural world with exaggerated features increase your appetite for how fiction and non-fiction are both terrific ways to entertain kids and inspire them to learn.
About the author:
Henry Herz writes fantasy and science fiction for children. He is represented by Deborah Warren of East/West Literary Agency. He wrote MONSTER GOOSE NURSERY RHYMES (Pelican, 2015; Best Picture Book at SoCal SCBWI Editor’s Day), WHEN YOU GIVE AN IMP A PENNY (Pelican, 2016), MABEL AND THE QUEEN OF DREAMS (Schiffer, 2016; Finalist, Foreword Indies Best Picture Book), LITTLE RED CUTTLEFISH (Pelican, 2016), CAP’N REX & HIS CLEVER CREW (Sterling, 2017), GOOD EGG & BAD APPLE (Schiffer, 2018), HOW THE SQUID GOT TWO LONG ARMS (Pelican, 2018), ALICE’S MAGIC GARDEN (Familius, 2018), TWO PIRATES + ONE ROBOT (Kane Miller, 2019), and SHERLOCK CHICK & BUNNY WATSON (Pelican, 2019).
Henry and his sons have also indie-published four children’s books. NIMPENTOAD reached #1 in Kindle Best Sellers large print sci-fi & fantasy. BEYOND THE PALE featured short stories by award-winning and NY Times bestselling authors Saladin Ahmed, Peter S. Beagle, Heather Brewer, Jim Butcher, Rachel Caine, Kami Garcia, Nancy Holder, Gillian Philip & Jane Yolen, and reached #2 in Amazon Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy > Anthologies.
Henry is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI). He participates in literature panels at a variety of conventions, including San Diego Comic-Con and WonderCon. Henry reviews children’s books for the San Francisco Book Review and the San Diego Book Review.