Wild in the Backyard
“Ma, did you know that lice poop is red?” yelled my nine-year-old son, and I hushed him because I didn’t want the neighbourhood thinking we were walking around with lice. Though, of course, if brave, battle-hardy, macho soldiers had them, why not us? In World War I, a soldier broke the record with 10,000 lice on him!
Here’s the thing: We’d never have known all this had we not been reading a book, and not the Guinness Book of World Records, but the very riveting Wild in the Backyardby Arefa Tehsin.
It’s knotty for an adult to be reviewing children’s books because evidently I am not a child. However, I do have two. The test is really how deeply engrossed they can be in a book; and for two boys, a book on lice, snakes and spiders is a winner.
Arefa Tehsin divides her book on the everyday creepy-crawlies in our lives into twenty-five chapters, each dedicated to demystifying the myths and clouds of dread surrounding them. Happily, this does not make for a yawn-inducing biology lesson; the author’s lively language turns it into a fun fest. It’s peppered with quizzes, questions, fill-in-the-blanks and a bit of reptilian and other creaturely dialogue here and there.
Sample this: A centipede mama eats her own eggs at times, and in utter gratitude for letting them survive, the babies, if born, sometimes – eat their own mamas! This alarming fact is softened by Arefa’s centi-talk:
“Baby: Mama, I’m hungry…
Mama: Oh no, my dear! I am not served with tomato ketchup!”
More on this soccer-team dream: Some centipedes keep growing new legs all their lives! And the males are chivalrous (or lecherous?) enough to allow the ladies to grow more.
Moving onto other lifetime-award-winning body-builders – geckos have up to a hundred teeth (and we thought they were as toothless as grandpa!) and they can replace each one every few months (Wouldn’t you love that, grandpa?).
There are so many fascinating facts in here, a kid could impress his whole class by spouting them. “You have Type O blood? You poor sucker! Mosquitoes are more likely to go for you!” And again, “You can go up in a helium balloon to escape a spider, but they can be seen wafting at those heights too.” Seriously, I mean, a spider can jump up to fifty times its height. What wouldn’t your basketball team give for that, right? A married rat is called a – dam! (Here’s when your kids are legitimately allowed to use cuss words!) Damn right! She’s called a dam. And the next time, any adult accuses you kids of mischief, challenge them, “You’re calling us a group of rats? That’s what a mischief is.”
The greatest gift this book gives to children is the respect it fosters for every living thing. The next time a crow drops a nut on the road, for example, your kid won’t call it clumsy. It’s intentional, so that the cars drive over it and do the job of cracking it open for the crow.
Let your child see how sophisticated each of these little ‘pests’ is. Some bats create their own napkins while eating on the fly. Stylish as they are, even their poop is named – it’s called guano. You think only dogs bark? Well, geckos do too. Most land-snails are so gender-sensitive and politically correct that they’re hermaphrodites and can choose to be a boy or a girl, depending on which chick or hunk they meet at the pub. The blind snake has a head and tail which look the same. If any of us humans could do half the things the wild ones in our backyard do, I’d agree we’re the smartest in the natural world. Until then, my vote goes to the ones who can sit while flying, or to the little guy who can take kitchen junk and turn it into fertiliser – and all without a skeleton of his own.
Arefa Tehsin loves the wild. She learnt to love it, walking alongside her naturalist father. Later, she went on to become a (ex-honorary) wildlife warden herself. Her articles are scattered around magazines and newspapers and she has authored many books. A junglee is what she calls herself on her website. And boy, are we glad she loves the wild, because it’s given us many hours of remarkable reading.
There is a disclaimer. This is not a book to polish off in one sitting. There are so many facts that kids will probably use it more as a go-to, or research book. If only this were recommended reading in schools though. How delightful that would be!
Jane De Suza is a humour writer and the author of SuperZero, whose next mission she is plotting on popular demand. She has written other children’s books, a parenting column, and a novel for adults, The Spy Who Lost Her Head.