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Around the World in Eighty Legs | Amy Gibson | Susan Fry | Sweet Peas & Stilettos
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Around the World on 80 Legs

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Around the World on Eighty Legs, by Amy Gibson, illustrated by Daniel Salmieri

Reviewed by Susan Fry

A teacher recently told me she’s horrified that many children don’t know the traditional Mother-Goose-style nursery rhymes.

While I’m all in favor of a child learning to love poetry, I’ve got a pretty good idea why my peers and I are reading Boynton instead of Mother Goose to our kids. Those “traditional” poems are downright strange! Yes, they do provide insight into life during an earlier era. But many of them don’t make any sense to the modern reader, leaving both children and parents puzzled. Many of them depict violence. And many portray values I’d rather not pass on. Take “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater,” for example. My sons can’t figure out why a man would want to imprison his wife in a pumpkin shell – and I certainly don’t want to tell them.

Let’s not even discuss “Three Blind Mice.”

Instead, I’d like to suggest Around the World on Eighty Legs as a wonderful substitute. Amy Gibson’s rhymes and Daniel Salmieri’s pictures offer educational, clever, and occasionally poignant looks at what makes animals around the world unique.

A map at the beginning of the book lays out the terrain, “From the Andes to the Amazon” and “The Sahara to the Savanna,” so parents can flip back and forth to show children where each creature lives. Refreshingly, the animals run the gamut from the familiar (“counting zebras keeps you busy./Counting zebras makes you dizzy.”) to the obscure (“The agouti/gathers fruit/he finds that’s/fallen to the ground./The agouti’s/solemn duty/is to scatter/it around.”)

Salmieri’s neat watercolor-and-ink portraits manage to be both whimsical and realistic. I know, for example, that I would immediately recognize the South American Hoatzin (a colorful and stinky bird) if I saw one, even though the picture shows him grinning at the reader, flies buzzing around his feathers.

And Gibson’s rhymes? Imagine a cross between Ogden Nash and naturalist Stephen J. Gould.

Gibson’s commentary on physical characteristics is witty and – ahem – always spot on: “It may be true/that ocelot/has got/an awful lot/of spots/(an awful,/awful, awful lot).” Gibson’s explanations may also be the perfect way for a child to learn about an animal’s behavior: “The pangolin’s/got scaly skin/from head to toe/as hard as tin./He rolls into/an armored ball,/and nothing,/nothing’s getting in.”

I most enjoy, however, when Gibson muses on the personalities of the animals, making them seem like more than simple beasts. For a tiger, for example, Gibson writes: “His roar/could shake the forest floor,/but tiger opens not his jaws–/He steals on silent, padded paws/and leaves the talking to his/claws.” Her rhino entry is brilliantly punny: “Do you suppose/the rhino grows/tired of puns/on his rhinose?/He’s got thick skin./ He doesn’t mind./ It’s hard to find/a thicker/rhind.”

Mother Goose chronicles animals that are familiar – and essential – to children living close to farms, such as mice, pigs, and sheep. But Gibson and Salmieri’s lovely and clever book is perfect for modern, global children. What better way to prepare them for future travels?

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

You can check out the Sweet Peas & Stilettos’ children’s books page for quick access to all of Susan’s wonderful children’s book reviews.

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