If the hot new computer technology of virtual reality — in which the mind can wander while the body stays put — is worth anything, someday soon parents can have all the fun of raising children with none of the downside. Just strap electronic headgear on the kids, pop in the software, and they can head for Disneyland, free of car sickness, backseat battles, and messy snacks. Ditto the dreaded trip to the beach and Thanksgiving with the grandparents.
Best of all will be raising virtual pets — adorable (but digital) puppies, kittens, or tadpoles that require no housebreaking, cat litter, or aquariums full of primordial soup. We’re not quite there yet, but until the nerds catch up with the need, there are the See How They Grow books, a series written and edited predominantly by Angela Royston. In a lot less time than it takes to find that elusive little dweeb Waldo, your kids can watch a dog, a cat, a duck, a frog, a chicken, and a rabbit progress magically (and messlessly) from birth to adulthood.
Biologically correct, the books are illustrated by photographs rather than drawings. That has advantages as well as disadvantages. The pictures are clear and informative, but a bit cool. While it’s true that relying solely on drawings of the surrealistic tadpole-to-frog transition might strain a kid’s credulity, the charm of an artist’s style is often what makes children’s books memorable. For this reason, publishers of kid lit are wary of photographs, and Dorling Kindersley Limited, the British original publisher of this series, has widely hedged its bet by including strips of tiny drawings at the top and bottom of each page. Grateful parents, who know that too little on a page means fast reads, instant repeat performances, and the rapid decline of the adult mind, will find the drawings a saving detail. (No, kids, Waldo is not behind that lily pad.)
For all their appeal, the See How They Grow books are sometimes sabotaged, at least for this parent, by an anthropomorphic Look Who’s Talking text, which can make even a young tadpole sound as self-aware as any veteran of Freudian analysis. ”I like to swim on my own. My back legs are beginning to grow. I am slowly changing into a frog.” Is this Kafka talking, or Bruce Willis? It’s easy to imagine a shrink asking just how the patient feels about these changes. Will The Secret Life of Gerbils be next?
Some of the books are a bit more appealing than others — it’s only human to like dogs better than frogs, isn’t it? — but the whole series rates a B+.