The Tuatara

by Brian Parkinson

The Tuatara Book Cover
The Tuatara is a 32 page lavishly illustrated factual children’s book which was published in 2000 as part of the New Zealand Wild series by Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd and has been taken off their Web site. Other books are available-type "TUATARA" in the search box. Reed Publishing say they expect their children’s books to, “contain a strong New Zealand ‘flavor’” (accessed from http://www.reed.co.nz/index.cfm on 22 January 2008). This book achieves Reed’s goal because the tuatara is endemic to New Zealand and is the only member of its biological order of reptiles that is not extinct.
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Organization and Clarity
The Tuatara has a table of contents, an index and a glossary. The table of contents gives the chapter headings with their page numbers, such as, “The Life Cycle of the Tuatara” and “A Vanishing Species:Saving the Tuatara”. This will be enough of an aid to navigate the book for many children.

The index is useful and includes concepts and information that would be difficult to find using the table of contents such as “Classifying Tuatara”, “Hibernation” and “Maori Legends”.

The glossary includes many difficult scientific terms like, “arboreal”, “isopod” and “pineal gland” but it does not include the Maori word “Mana” that was used on page 8. It is likely that most New Zealand readers will be familiar with this use of this word, (to mean honor, prestige or importance) but readers from other countries will miss an important point. Other Maori words in the text are explained in the text, for example, “they represent ariki, that is, they are considered to be God forms” (page 8).

The Tuatara starts badly. The first sentence is not appropriate for a children’s book, “When the supercontinent of Gondwanaland began to split apart around 120 million years ago, one of the fragments contained the beginning of the island landmass that has become New Zealand.”(page 4). Perhaps to the author the idea of continental drift has drama but to most children below high school level that sentence would be unintelligible. I feel the book would have started better with a hook of an interesting or unusual fact about tuataras and there are many interesting and unusual facts to choose from! The rest of this chapter talks about the history of the classification of the tuatara, information that is unlikely to be fascinating to many children, and would have been better to include later in the book.

The next chapter, “How the Tuatara got it’s Name” starts with “The name Tuatara is a Maori word and means “spiny back” or “peaks on the back” (page 8). The book would have been better to start on this chapter. Another possibility for a good opening sentence is given in the opening sentence of the Deparatment of Conservation’s webpage about tuataras (at http://www.doc.govt.nz/Conservation/  accessed on 22 January 2008). The webpage starts, “The tuatara is the last representative on Earth of reptiles which appeared at the same time the dinosaurs were evolving, around 220 million years ago.”

The Tuatara is set out with large color photographs taking up over half of most pages. A simple glance at the text shows it has too many words to be suitable for very young children. Therefore the format suggests a book for middle grade children from about 8 to 12. However, the text is written at a higher level that might be more suitable for children from about 13 and up.
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The author Brian Parkinson does not give his credentials in the book but I found a biography of him on the internet. This states that he has no formal credentials but has worked with wildlife and the conservation movement for many years and has written many other wildlife books. ( http://www.ecotours.co.nz/Brian/index.htm  accessed on 13 August 2006). These informal credentials make him qualified to write on this subject but some description or explanation of this should have been included in the book.
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The Tuatara has no bibliography or suggestions for further study, nor does it say where the author found his information. This is a major lack because the accuracy and authority of the author’s sources cannot be checked. Also the tuatara is not a well-known animal with a lot of books written about it for children, so it would be useful to know where else to look for information. I could find only two other juvenile books about tuataras on WorldCat and Books In Print, (Tesar, Jenny E. What on earth is a tuatara? 1994 and Jones, Jenny, The tuatara 1993).  On the other hand it is easy to find information on the internet (my google search of the word tuatara returned over 29,000 hits) but some of this is about a rock band of the same name and as always children will have difficulty knowing what is authoritative. I found a page from the New Zealand government’s Department of Conservation that is authoritative (at http://www.doc.govt.nz/Conservation/ accessed on 22 January 2008) but most children not from New Zealand would not know where to find this. As this is a government webpage it may have a fairly long lasting URL so it could have been a useful addition to a bibliography of this book. Several organizations that study or conserve tuatara are mentioned in the text, such as the Tuatarium, Invercargill and Mt Bruce Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. A listing of these organizations with contact information would also add much to the utility of the book.
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Scope and Bias
The scope of this book is excellent. It covers the basic tuatara facts such as what they eat and how they breed, but it also includes more obscure information such as the controversy over the classification of the tuatara and other information such as conservation efforts and a Maori legend (pages 8-90. The author Brian Parkinson obviously feels strongly about conserving tuataras by the way he says, “of particular concern is the plight of the Brother’s tuatara” (page 23) and “In 1997 six adults, along with twelve thriving juveniles, were returned to Red Mercury Island” (page 27). The words “plight” and “thriving” are not strongly emotive words, but they certainly convey a sense that what happens to tuataras is important. Also the sections on “A vanishing Species:Saving the Tuatara” and “Smuggling” occupy eight pages out of 32 page book while the information about what a tuatara eats gets one page. This means this book does what Sutherland gives as a hallmark of a good nonfiction children’s book and, “goes beyond the presentation of facts to presentation of principles, concepts, theories, interpretation and evaluation“ (Sutherland, page 467).
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This book has clear, bright, informative color photographs on every page. The illustrations include useful additions such as an x-ray showing eggs in a female tuatara and black and white photographs of a tuatara skull and jawbone. The cover illustration shows a tuatara eating a weta (a large New Zealand insect), which adults may find unappealing, but this and other “gross” pictures will appeal to many children. Most of the photos are captioned and the captions are generally short explanations such as, “A male tuatara in a mating display.” (page 11). The illustration that is conspicuously absent is a map. Many children would be able to find New Zealand in a general atlas if they searched but many atlases would not include small New Zealand off shore islands such as Somes Island or Poor Knight’s Island, which are significant in the text. A diagram of tuatara body would also be useful. A significant and unusual tuatara feature called the pineal gland is mentioned in the text and is illustrated in one photo that is not very clear (page 21) but it would be useful to see the exact placing of it on a whole tuatara. Children are often asked for information such as diagrams of an animal’s body in school projects.
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The Critics Say...
Nick aged eight says, “I liked it. It was interesting. I read about half of it.”
Anna aged ten says, “I thought this book was really interesting. I think it’s sad that they’re almost extinct. I think it’s weird how they have an eye on the top of their heads. It’s got lots of good photos. There are interesting facts on the sidebars. There is also a Maori legend.  I like the cover because Tuatara is a weird looking word and because it is brightly colored. Also I like it because it’s kind of gross that the tuatara is eating a bug. I would recommend it to a friend if they liked animals and they were pretty good readers.”
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The Tuatara has deficiencies as an introductory book for children of 8 to 12 but it is authoritative and informative. If a child is very interested in this subject he or she will find it very useful. A child who is drawn to read it by the interesting, appealing photographs will be able to browse and learn much about tuatara but it is unlikely that many children will choose to read it straight through. A teenager or even an adult who wants information on tuataras will find this book very useful if they first overcome their reluctance to use it because of the juvenile format. A child will come to this book because they are interested in the subject or the photographs attract them, not because it is of itself a delight to read.
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Parkinson, Brian. (2000). The Tuatara. Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd. Auckland, New Zealand.
Sutherland, Zena. (1997). Children and Books. Ninth Edition. Longman Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc. New York, NY.
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Created by Jan Pye
for LIS 303 Literature and Resources for Children
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Fall 2003
SEE ALSO: Books For Military Children by Jan Pye
To Contact Jan E-mail Jan Pye