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‘The Manatee’s Big Day’ an imaginative, bilingual intro to nature

July 14, 2014

Even for a children’s book, “The Manatee’s Big Day” (Zona Tropical Press) is goofy. For the first few pages, Erin Van Rheenen’s animal adventure looks like a story of zoological teamwork: There’s a shark in the jungles of Tortuguero on Costa Rica’s northern Caribbean coast, and the animals are all freaked out. Instead of fearing each other, the rival species band together against their common enemy.

But the 39-page narrative takes some surprising turns, rendering “The Manatee’s Big Day” less a picture book for children than a story seemingly told by an actual child. Events unfold in quirky and improvisational ways, as if kids had invented these tales on the playground. Give preschoolers some plastic figurines of frogs, birds and snakes, and they might spin a similar amusing yarn.

In the end, the story is really just a hook. “Manatee” is far more valuable as a bilingual book (Spanish title: “Un gran día para la Señorita Manatí”), as well as an introduction to Costa Rica’s abundant wildlife. Van Rheenen provides an additional 20 pages of animal dossiers, a food chain diagram and a guide to Tortuguero National Park. Each page showcases the colorful illustrations of Maggie Olson, who draws the animals more or less as they exist in the wild — not as gussied-up cartoon characters.

Van Rheenan is a prolific freelance writer and the author of the excellent guidebook “Living Abroad in Costa Rica” (Avalon). Not surprisingly, the globetrotting Van Rheenen has written a children’s book that is equal parts science and travel guide. It’s not Caldecott material. The story is as watery as the manatee’s home, and no one will put “Manatee” on the same shelf as “Goodnight Moon.” But as a souvenir, purchased by vacationing parents to illuminate their curious kindergartners, “Manatee” will induce its share of smiles.

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