Animal Sense

by Diane Ackerman

illustrated by Peter Sis

Published by Knopf

48 pages, 2003

Buy it online



Child of the Senses

Reviewed by Monica Stark


Poet and bestselling author Diane Ackerman, author of A Natural History of the Senses, Deep Play and Cultivating Delight, is known for her sensuous, lyrical writing. In many ways, Ackerman has written most eloquently about the things that set adults apart from children and, more importantly, how adults can regain something that the years might have stolen.

In Deep Play, for example, Ackerman mused about how adults can recapture some of the everyday playfulness they had as children. In A Natural History of the Senses Ackerman wrote with a naturalist's verve and a poet's skill about the five senses. Here again helping adults recapture and appreciate something that children take for granted.

Ackerman's latest book, Animal Sense, is a very different sort of beast for this author even while it explores some familiar territory. Aimed at children aged eight to 12, Animal Sense relates the five senses to the animal kingdom in a style that is subtle, lyrical and humorous, all at once. On hearing, Ackerman writes:

Baby birds aren't born knowing their song.

They babble at first and just humming along,


Learning to sing when they're downy and young

by listening hard, then rehearsing for fun.

Thinking about taste, and with the barely-varied diet of a cow in mind, Ackerman writes:

Maybe she can taste every vitamin

and a hundred rare flavors we can't imagine:

new grass, dewy grass, grass missed by sun.

bluegrass, chop-suey grass, grass kissed by someone...

Otherwise she might be bored to tears

by her great green smorgasbord, steer clear

Award-winning children's book author and illustrator Peter Sis' careful pointillist drawings supply a great deal of the charm in Animal Sense and provide a gentle counterpoint to Ackerman's prose. Not the garish post-modern children's book illustrations commonly found in current illustrated books aimed at this age group, Sis' illustrations give young readers a restful eyeful to contemplate while digesting Ackerman's thoughts.

Bees hate the movies

they loathe TV --

both appear slug-slow

to the eyes of a bee...

In Animal Sense Ackerman and Sis have created a fitting junior companion to Ackerman's work for adults. A gentle contemplation of the larger world, viewed through eyes trained, geared and primed to see it. | May 2003


Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.