Very few writers can do what Bibi Dumon Tak does: write outstanding literary non-fiction for children. Anyone who is at all sceptical should read Winterdieren, a book that will whisk you away to the most remote areas of our world: the North and South Poles, ‘the mother and father of the earth’.
After a short and snappy introduction to the ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ of our planet, Dumon Tak goes on to discuss the lives of 23 well-known and less well-known polar residents, with the skill of a seasoned polar biologist. What these creatures have in common is that they have to survive this extreme ‘deep-freeze’ cold. This makes them not merely unusual, like the animals she so vividly portrayed in Bibi’s bijzondere beestenboek (2006). No, it makes them very special indeed: they all come equipped with their own ‘winter gadgets’, as Dumon Tak so fittingly describes the ingenious anti-freeze systems with which evolution has gifted them.
The walrus and the narwhal, the ‘unicorn of the sea’, have their own thick layers of blubber. And the Arctic ground squirrel turns on the ‘super-refrigeration’ for eight months, so that any body parts he doesn’t need during his hibernation can just freeze without any problems. And the male Emperor penguins – abandoned by the females in a snowy wasteland – deliberately sit on their eggs during the winter months, so that the chicks can grow up in the summer.
Dumon Tak provides a great deal of information, yet it’s never dull to read about the wonderful but harsh life that her winter animals lead. This comes as a result of her visual, poetic and light-hearted style of writing and the way she directly addresses the reader, with excellent support from Martijn van der Linden’s icy blue winter illustrations.
‘Listen! Just listen to that!’, she says, alerting the reader to the howling of the wolves. And she cries out in amazement at the sight of the musk ox: ‘Man oh man, what a beast! Scruffy and shaggy on the outside, caring and ancient on the inside.’ With its long, messy, shabby hair, it looks like a ‘windswept pine forest with hoofs’.
Most extraordinary of all is the Arctic tern: it ‘follows the sun its whole life long’ and flies 40,000 kilometres every year, from the North Pole to the South Pole and back again. If only you could fly along with it, you might think. But not without Dumon Tak as the perfect guide.