Ruth Heller wrote a number of books examining certain… well, “categories” is the best word for it. A book about kites, another about jewels, another about lollipops, and so on. Her best books are the ones about nature: Animals Born Alive and Well about mammals; Plants that Never Ever Bloom about fungi (yes, I know fungi aren’t technically plants). The other day I introduced a friend’s 2-year-old to The Reason for a Flower and he ate it up—literally: he loved pretending to eat the fruits and vegetables depicted. All Heller’s books are illustrated with gorgeous and accurate detail, and are fun and informative to read.
But the very best one, to my mind, is Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones—a book about all the different creatures that lay eggs! It’s full of engrossing illustrations of so many different kinds of birds, as well as snakes and frogs and dinosaurs and fish and spiders, and on and on. And the illustrations of the eggs themselves are fascinating—so many different kinds! The crazy ones laid by sharks and rays were always my favorite when I was a kid.
And yes, okay, you already probably know I’m a bit of a geek, and will not be surprised to learn that as a child I loved books like this because they allowed me to work words like “oviparous” into conversation. (It means “egg-laying.”) But kids don’t have to be nerds like me to become completely absorbed in the information here—it naturally appeals to children’s interest in the world, interest in weird and different things, interest in new perspectives on familiar things.
The other thing I like about Heller’s books is the way she writes. There’s a lot of rhythm and rhyme, but it’s always a bit off-kilter, a bit inconsistent. For instance: “This mother seahorse lays her eggs / into the father’s pouch. / He keeps them there until they hatch, and then he’s through. / I think that’s nice of him, don’t you?” You think you know where the rhyme’s going to be, but you don’t. Or how about this example: “This one will hatch into a hungry caterpillar who… will grow and grow and grow and then climb up a stem and change into this—a chrysalis—and change again one summer morn. That’s how a butterfly is born.” Notice how it seems like a sentence, and all of a sudden the meter kicks in, and you’re in a little poem. Rhythm and rhyme are always good in kids’ books, but I find it especially powerful when it’s a little odd and unexpected. That’s the kind of use of language that makes kids prick up their ears, and really pay attention to the words. It’s the kind of attention that teaches language really well, that makes children enjoy words and reading.
Heller’s books aren’t super flashy, and seem to have fallen a bit out of favor. A lot of colleagues and friends of mine who know and love children’s books have never heard of them, and it’s too bad: they’re really treasures. Start with Chickens and go from there.