What do you get when you mix an endearingly nerdy Brooklyn musician, an infographic designer, two Dutch screenprinters, and 50 of the animal kingdom’s most bizarre members?
You get Michael Hearst’s awesome book, Unusual Creatures, which my librarian friend Eileen turned us on to. In fact, it’s my son’s very first book checked out on his own account at what will soon be his elementary school library. Sniffle! Now that I think about it it’s probably way overdue – is that a bad omen for his grade school career? Or is it a good omen for his career as a passionate reader… One thing is for certain, he is head over heels in love with this amazing book.
It starts off with a brief explanation of biological classifications, and offers the following helpful mnemonic: “Kids Place Candles on Foot Gravy Sausage,” which is a pretty good indication of the silly yet informative tone of the book. At the least, it’s much more PC for a rising kindergartener than the one I learned in Freshman Biology: “King Phillip’s Children’s Only Friends Got Slaughtered.” At any rate, mnemonics are probably wasted on a child who can’t read, but my kid got really into shouting out the Kingdom, Phylum, and Class of each animal. In fact for his bedtime story tonight, he chose to “read” us two of his sister’s board books, which he re-titled “What are Mammals and What Are Not Mammals, Volume 1 and 2,” and then proceeded to classify the animals on each page.
But that is just the beginning of the fun in Unusual Creatures; each page offers beautiful drawings (though the subject matter is often quite hideous) and a dryly humorous description of each animal’s unusual features, as well as quizzes, factoids, and poetry inspired by the animal in question.
But the magic doesn’t end with square poop, my friends. Unusual Creatures, the book, was inspiration for an entire album titled Songs for Unusual Creatures, composed by Hearst and featuring the Kronos Quartet as well as people playing a bunch of kooky instruments like the tubax, daxophone, theremin and xylobot.
With a book and companion songs under his belt, Hearst couldn’t stop there, and went on to create a whole series of fun videos about the creatures, which I just discovered tonight while writing this blog post. These are basically the kid-appropriate version of Ze Frank’s True Facts About videos, of which True Facts About the Sea Pig is a family favorite. I can’t wait to wake up my kids on the first day of summer vacation and show them this: