Review of the Day: Clever Hans by Kerri Kokias, ill. Mike Lowery
Clever Hans: The True Story of the Counting, Adding, and Time-Telling Horse
By Kerri Kokias
Illustrated by Mike Lowery
Edited by Susan Kochan
G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Penguin Young Readers)
Ages 6 and up
On shelves May 5th
A good old-fashioned historical mystery. By gum, that’s what we need to see more of on our library shelves! Look here, you want to get your kids interested in history but you want to stick to, y’know, the facts? Well let’s see what we can do about making a list of nonfiction picture books that provide precisely that. Better yet, let’s make that list together! I’ll go first: Clever Hans by Kerri Kokias and Mike Lowery. I’ll grant that at first it doesn’t look like a mystery. On its cover that cheery looking horsey is so jovial you’d be convinced this was just some cutesy little animal tale. Yet once you start reading you quickly realize that there’s something strange going on in this story. Kokias pulls together the different elements of the mystery (what was truly happening with Clever Hans?), weaving together the tale until by the end you’re just desperate for the truth. A super intelligent horse? Talk about a title that booktalks itself. If you have kids that just can’t get into nonfiction, allow me to introduce you to my little equine friend.
Picture in your mind a horse. A horse capable of wonders. This is a horse that can add, subtract, tell time, divide, do fractions, and much much more. Raised by ex-schoolteacher Wilhelm von Osten, Hans (the horse in question) was a divisive figure. Skeptics were convinced it was all an elaborate hoax, but no one could figure out how it was done. And when scientists studied Hans, they saw that it wasn’t a trick, but they still didn’t believe he was this genius animal everyone claimed he was. Enter Oskar Pfungst, a scientist’s assistant who was the first to realize that Hans seemed to rely on visual cues to answer questions. How did he do it? The answer lies in “the Clever Hans effect” which scientists now pay close attention to even today. Contains an Author’s Note and Bibliography at the back of the book.
I do this thing when I really like a book where I’ll flip to the back flap to see what other books the author has done before. I tend to do this more these days with nonfiction picture books. I dunno, but sometimes I feel like the really and truly outstanding ones I see are the product of this perfect alignment of editor, author, artist, and designer. Kerri Kokias once wrote a sweet little picture book called Snow Sisters and nothing about that book would give you the slightest indication that she had a Clever Hans waiting in the wings. With this title, right out the gate Kokias is doing so much right. She isn’t deep diving into fake dialogue or trying to tell us what Hans is thinking at a given moment. Plus, look at how she’s laid out all the information. We meet Mr. Wilhelm von Osten and Hans right away, and immediately we’re swept up by the excitement of everything the horse is capable of. We’re exactly like the people in the audience, witnessing before our eyes the impossible. Maybe we really want to believe Hans is capable of all the great things they say, and when people come to disprove his capabilities, Kokias doesn’t paint them as killjoys. In fact, Oskar Pfungst is clearly the hero of the book, and when his studies lead him to new discoveries, the book deftly dips into human physical reactions, before returning once more to the horse. Do I wish the backmatter had a timeline? Absolutely, but at least there’s a mention of the date in the art at the beginning of the book. Other titles fail to do that much sometimes.
Of course the first book I thought of when I saw this one was Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness by Donna Janell Bowman, with art by Daniel Minter. On the surface the two books seem to have a lot in common. A kind man has a horse and wishes to share its intelligence with the world. The horse is able to read, write, and do math. The difference, however, comes in the presentation. Bowman’s book takes place not too long after the end of the Civil War, and never sets out to explain Jim Key’s abilities, focusing instead on his owner’s message of love and tolerance. Clever Hans, in contrast, likes the horse well enough but is interested in how this story plays into a larger picture of the way scientists work with animals (and that includes people) today. You could have a very interesting reading unit, comparing the two books to one another with kids. Though diametrically opposed in some ways, they say a lot about the role animals play in our minds verses our lives.
I sincerely believe that editors should be credited on the covers of the books they work on. At the very least they should get their names on the books’ publication pages. After all, they tend to be the ones that are so key to a book’s final success. When the editor of this book received the Clever Hans manuscript, I would love to know what thought process led them to believe that Mike Lowery was the right man to illustrate it. It’s not that Lowery isn’t a pro at nonfiction (if you haven’t seen his Everything Awesome About Dinosaurs then you are living a half-life, my friend), but too often I associate him with his stellar work on Mac Barnett’s Mac B. Kid Spy series. This is why I am not an editor. I would have missed this golden opportunity to pair Lowery with this truly fun text. For his part, the man finds humor where he can, and in this book he decided to lean way way into its German setting. Dust off your high school lessons, folks, because you’re about to get a whole heaping helpful of Guten Tags and kluge pferds coming your way.
Lowery’s is a cartoony style, rendered in pencil, screen-printing, and digital color. It’s also engaging and enticing to young readers. Kids take one look at that cover and want to read the book, even if they don’t care diddly over squat about horsey stuff. And when you reread the book a couple times, that’s when you start to notice the typography, panels, and even colors at work (somehow the artist has managed to invoke sepia without letting it overwhelm the read). Lowery’s style is not, now that I think about it, all that different from Meghan McCarthy’s in Seabiscuit the Wonder Horse. Both artists cultivate a deep respect for their nonfiction material while also luring in the kid readers with fun graphics. There’s an art to what they do, trust me.
I don’t think it’s ridiculous at all to suggest that this book pretty much has it all. For the animal lovers, a cute and smart (Kokias points out that when it came to reading physical cues, Hans lived up the “clever” in his name) colt. For the mystery lovers, a true tale that lays out the clues, the detectives, and the surprising solution. And for lovers of science, this is a superb recounting of how people learn more about the natural world around them and build upon that knowledge. Without this particular horse, some scientists would be less effective at their jobs. The older I get, the more remarkable I find the people, individuals, and (yes) animals that single-handedly change the course of history. As the book puts so well in its Author’s Note, “Clever Hans helped change the way scientists work today. He really was clever to have such a lasting impact on history!” To say nothing of the impact this book will have on kids.
On shelves May 5th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Filed under: Best Books, Best Books of 2020, Reviews, Reviews 2020
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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