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What is an unusual creature? According to author Michael Hearst, "An animal that looks, sounds, smells, or acts in a way that makes you stop and say, "Whoa, dude! What's up with that?"
There are 50 animals who garner such a response from Hearst in his new book, Unusual Creatures: A Mostly Accurate Account of Some of Earth's Strangest Animals (Chronicle 2012). A composer best-known as a member of One Ring Zero, Hearst has already released an album, Songs for Unusual Creatures, on the subject.
"It's true, it's true, there's an elephant shrew," Hearst writes by way of introduction, but then he's all business, connecting its genetic makeup to manatees and noting that the misanthropic Mammalia often clears an emergency escape route from a solitary nest. After delivering a full page of facts, the author is often moved to verse. The Dugong, a mammalian "sea cow" who hovers over underwater pastures off the coast of northern Australia, Southeast Asia, and the east coast of Africa, receives a 12 line poem celebrating the "bulbous beast" who "vacuums up the sea grasses ... and perhaps a little more."
With the turning of a leaf, we say goodbye to our final creature, the Yeti Crab, a blind deep-sea crustacean discovered in 2005, and move onto a page with a header that asks, "You know what makes me sad?" If an animal goes extinct from a giant meteorite, Hearst is somber, but he can rationalize the demise. What can't be forgiven, however, is the destructive human behavior that led to the extinction of the Tasmanian tiger, Tecopa pupfish, and Hartebeest antelope. "We have a problem," Hearst writes, but we can fix it. The suggestions that follow are neither groundbreaking nor heavy-handed: Turn off lights, adjust your thermostat, hang your clothes to dry, buy local food, use less stuff, and so on.
Published in San Francisco by a Brooklyn author, Unusual Creatures is intended for ages 8-12, but who wouldn't want to know that Salavador Dali kept a giant anteater he often walked through Paris, or that the skin of a Honey Badger is tough enough to resist machete blows from angry farmers? I could continue to wax rhapsodic about it, but why listen to me? Lemony Snicket weighs in on the cover:
"Unusual Creatures is a rich and fantastic book of charming imaginary animals who ... what? They're real? I'll be under the bed."