“Curious Critters”

As the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix prepares for the Sept 12 opening of the “Dave Rogers’ Big Bugs” exhibit, I’m getting in the mood with a soon-to-be-released book titled “Curious Critters” featuring text and photography by David FitzSimmons.

My son Christopher, now 22, has been curious about critters since early childhood — volunteering with several places devoted to critter care and conservation. So I eagerly snatched up a preview copy of the book, scheduled for a Nov. 7 release, when it was offered. We both fell in love with “Curious Critters” the instant we saw the Gray treefrog on the book’s cover.

It looks green in the photo, of course, but there’s a simple explanation — which the frog explains for itself on the page it occupies opposite a Bush katydid that looks a mix of pink lemonade and cotton candy.

Each critter photo is accompanied by “a vignette, told from the critter’s perspective.” A sappy idea, perhaps, but superbly executed — achieving the author’s goal of both educating and entertaining. Not just the children, but adult readers too. Never mind that it’s meant for four to eight year olds.

Christopher was especially fond of the book’s reptiles and amphibians. Think Spotted salamander, Eastern box turtle, Fox snake and American toad. The insects and arachnids, which include a Chinese praying mantis and Jumping spider, are equally dandy.

I’m more of a fur and feather kind of a gal, so I warmed up to the birds and mammals first — a Southern flying squirrel, Blue jay, Eastern screech owl and more. Crustaceans simply aren’t my style.

A couple of critters get double the real estate, taking up a full two-page spread. Everyone’s favorite, the goldfish. (No, they’re not appropriate as birthday party favors.) Also the Eastern spiny softshell turtle. And the Virginia opossum my 20-year-old Jennifer describes as “scary cute.”

Exploring “Curious Critters” is a fun way to build pre-reading and math skills like finding ways things are similar or different, sorting like objects into discrete categories and noticing small details. It can be a different book each time you read it.

Were my children little again, I’d make a game of “Curious Critters” — hunting for all the critters with four legs, with bright colors, with whiskers and wings and other fun things. I’d compare different eyes and different snouts.

Each critter is seen against a white background meant to showcase “the animals’ colors, textures, and shapes with precision and clarity.” Hence its rightful claim to a place on the shelf with your other art books.

You’ll find a section titled “Curious Critters: Natural History,” which features facts about each creature, near the end of the book. Also a page showing the relative size of each critter. Size is another one of those subjects that pops up a lot in school, and reading books like “Curious Critters” makes thinking about it fun.

“Curious Critters” is the first children’s book from FitzSimmons, who holds a Ph.D. in English from Ohio State University. FitzSimmons says he was “inspired to photograph and write about nature by his parents” — both “active environmentalists and lifelong teachers.”

FitzSimmons credits his wife, a naturalist — plus daughters Sarah and Phoebe — with assisting in his natural history endeavors. How delightful that we can all reap the benefits of their curiosity.

— Lynn

Note: Learn more about “Curious Critters” at www.curious-critters.com. Enjoy the photography of David FitzSimmons at www.fitzsimmonsphotography.com. And get the scoop on “Big Bugs” at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix at www.dbg.org.

Coming up: Remembering 9/11 through arts and culture

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