This book, part of the Scholastic Early Science series, raises the often vexing question of how to introduce the unsentimental laws of the natural world through a soft, friendship-driven narrative. In this case, the book uses the game of hide and seek to describe how the creatures of the forest camouflage themselves. The analogy is perfect and yet what is a game of fun for children in a playground is a deadly serious exercise among creatures in the natural world. How does one explain the intention behind camouflage to a young reader? Does it have to be explained at all?
The fictional narrative in this book tells us how Little Snake plays hide and seek with her forest friends, the turtle, the crab, the parakeet, the squirrel, the frog and the butterfly. Each creature hides itself in its own way, but Little Snake discovers them rather quickly, within a few lines of text. The narrative is entirely predictable, with not even a moment of suspense in searching out someone. Curiously, Little Snake’s friends seem to think that she would not be able to find them because she has neither feet nor fins nor feathers. Why this initial focus on a snake’s mode of travel, which is also part of the blurb, is un-understandable. Surely, in a game of hide and seek, the ‘seeker’ or the ‘den’ needs a keen sense of sight, sound and smell, rather than the ability to run or swim or fly! One also could not understand why towards the end of the game, a grasshopper and a baby tiger are brought in. Human children, in the middle of a game, usually do not like to include those who were not present at the beginning of play. Of course, this is a book of fiction and it can be argued that one must allow for the suspension of disbelief. However, even the most fantastical narrative must have its internal logic strong and clear. And those who spend time with children will know how ruthless a child’s sense of reasoning can be.
The most distressing feature of the book is that chunks of scientific observations on the different ways of camouflage in the natural world have been placed alongside the fictional narrative. What is a child reader to understand of the following line that seems to be part of the story? “Another kind of camouflage is mimesis or imitation where animals pretend to be other things.” Could these bits of undigested information not have been formatted differently, put into a box, or better still, printed on the last page of the book where a grown-up could explain the concepts and perhaps discuss them?
The illustrations in this ‘science’ picture book are even less deserving of praise. The forest with its blotches of unnatural colours and strangely juxtaposed landscape and vegetation seems to have been lifted out of Disneyland. The forest creatures, though slightly more realistic, are not drawn to scale. When the natural world is itself so rich with wonder, why dilute it with images from fables?
Scholastic must be applauded for launching a series on science for very young readers. But while writing for children is daunting in itself, a book of science is much more challenging and difficult. Such a book has to be accurate, realistic, yet fun. A book on camouflage has tremendous visual potential and does not even require a connected narrative. Perhaps the book could have had pictures drawn with accuracy of scale, form and colour with a single line of text asking the child to find out where and how the creatures have hidden themselves in the jungle. Writers, illustrators and publishers who wish to introduce young readers to the rigour of scientific thinking must ensure that their books are precise and treat the laws of the natural world with respect and not with sentimentality or cuteness.
Note: Could editors make sure that their books are grammatically correct? Here is a line from the blurb of this book…. “(the creatures) hide using different types of camouflage, or ways to make themselves hard to see.”
By Poile Sengupta
Author: Mathangi Subramanian
Illustrator: Suvidha Mistry
Scholastic India, 2014
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction/Picture Book/Series