Monday, April 30, 2012

About Hummingbirds

As a child, I loved to pore over the pages of illustrated guides to just about anything: trees, flowers, clouds, the more detailed the better. Truth be told, though, I usually ran out of steam for the exploration about half-way through, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of variety that existed in the natural world.

Maybe this is why, even at this late stage in my existence, I'm so delighted with the "About" series by Cathryn and John Sill - one recent installment of which, About Hummingbirds (Peachtree, 2011), is a finalist for Bank Street's Cook Prize. Its illustrations are intricate and accurate in the best field guide tradition, showing all sorts of hummingbirds in all sorts of environments. And there's just the right number of them - 18 plates, highlighting 26 species in all, doing things like building nests and escaping from predators. The accompanying text is similarly selective, keeping what could have been an overload of facts to an easily-digestable minimum. Possibly my favorite feature (but I concede that this might be the adult in me speaking) is the afterword that gives expanded detail about what is shown in each plate, and the scientific marvels – did you know that hummingbirds beat their wings 80 times per second? – that make hummingbirds such exceptional creatures.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Balloons Over Broadway

Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet (Houghton Mifflin, 2011) - one of the four finalists for Bank Street's STEM prize - is a book that fills me with nostalgia. Not that I remember the years when lions and other animals from the Central Park zoo "marched" in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (that preceded me by several decades). But I certainly do remember a time before the marketing-driven frenzy of the event. A time when the parade was closer in feel and intent to the heartfelt way it was depicted in Miracle on 34th Street than to some Disney-driven spectacular, designed to make your kids covet mountains of souvenirs and character-driven memorabilia. But I digress.

This story follows the career of puppeteer Tony Sarg. He's literally the man behind the parade - a German immigrant who was initially hired by the great New York department store to design a "puppet parade" for its holiday window displays. Eventually, he was tapped to create the life-size parade as well, meant to cheer up Macy's host of other immigrant employees who were missing home around Christmastime.

It's a terrific subject for a kid's book, and a fun, easy-to-digest history lesson. It's chock-full of engaging collages composed of toys recreated by the author - not to mention several pages straight from Sarg's Marionette Book. And it'll have more than one kid wishing that the days of the lion procession were still with us.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Honey to Cure What Ails Ye

I snapped this perfectly rotten photo last week on a visit to the newly installed Islamic wing at the Metropolitan Museum. (Here's a link to a far superior photo of it on the Met's site.)

Leaf from an Arabic Translation of the Materia Medica of Dioscorides, 1224
It depicts medicine being made from honey in an ancient pharmacy. Which of course got me to wondering, what sorts of curative properties were ascribed to honey in the Middle Ages? Apparently, lots. Hot plaster spread with honey and pigeon dung was used to treat kidney stones. A similar plaster smeared with goat dung, honey, and rosemary was used for gout. "Excess humors" were treated with an enema of herbs, honey and water inserted into a clyster pipe, itself fashioned from a pig's bladder. Surgeons daubed honey on wounds, already aware that it acts as a minor antiseptic. And a latter-day snake oil called "treacle" – honey mixed with some 64 herbs and other substances – was touted as a cure for fevers, heart trouble, epilepsy, plague, and many other ailments.

But honey's curative renown stretches much further back than medieval times. About 2700-3000 years further, in fact, to various Egyptian documents – the so-called Edwin Smith, Hearst and Ebers papyri – which are among the oldest extant medical texts. In them, Isis herself is said to have prepared a headache poultice for Ra out of coriander and honey. Cough was treated by having the patient inhale a mixture of honey, cream, milk, carob, colocynth, and date kernels. And a recipe for the treatment of diarrhea instructed the maker to boil together green onions, freshly cooked gruel, oil and honey, wax, and water. Drink up!