Raising children with an appreciation for our natural world requires that we show them that world in every way we possibly can. Visiting our nations best zoos and natural parks, going outside and building a rain garden, observing the comings and goings of birds, squirrels, lizards, butterflies, bees, and other everyday animals are all great ways of doing this. But to bring home the lesson about how amazing the creatures of our world are, sometimes you really just need a book. Because the world is so vast and life is so abundant you could never, ever, ever expose your child to every amazing living thing in the world without the help of books.
Orangutan Houdini by Laurel Neme and illustrated by Kathie Kelleher depicts a clever orangutan named Fu Manchu, who not only enjoys making trouble, but has a sense of humor. (I received a copy of this book at no cost to me to facilitate my review.) Neme first began researching Orangutans for a previous book, and stumbled upon the story of real life Fu Manchu, who was famous for his escapes from the Henry Doorly zoo in Omaha, Nebraska. Surveillance revealed he had somehow learned to pick locks- no one knows how. Having realized that here were all the ingredients for a children’s story any kid would love, Neme fictionalized Fu’s exploits for this book. The story is told with a low-key humor and great charm. My personal little Houdinis will find plenty to identify with in Fu’s shenanigans- although I devoutly hope no one EVER teaches them to pick locks. I fully expect to find pieces of wire sticking out of locks around here for years to come as a result of reading this book, but something was bound to inspire them to try and learn to pick locks eventually… I’ve accepted it.
This book would not be complete without Kelleher’s illustrations to bring the animals to life. There’s one page where I swear I can tell the elephants are giving Fu Manchu the side-eye, which just cracks me up. Without the wit in these illustrations, the elephants aren’t even characters in the story, just a passing mention. The orangutans’ personalities are similarly depicted and completely individual.
As a story book, this is delightful all by itself. As a jumping off point for learning about primates, endangered animals, and non-local species, it’s perfect.