One of the things that really surprised me in the Tapir Scientist I reviewed last week was when the author said that most people don't know what a tapir was. Now, I don't remember when I first saw a tapir in a zoo, although probably when I was a child, but I can't remember a time when I didn't know what one was.
The same thing happened to me when I read this book. It's one of those quirky fact books and it's focused on monsters and legends people used to believe in and the real creatures they were based on. As I read through it, I kept thinking "surely everyone knows unicorn horns were really narwhal horns? Cyclops were inspired by elephant skulls? Mermaids were actually dugongs, or manatees? But then I realize...not everyone has a brain packed full of useless information.
This book is a little different than most esoteric fact books. It's a European title but the translated text is mostly pretty lucid and interesting. It starts out with a variety of monsters and legends and the animals they were based on and moves up to the present day with things like giant squid and the coelacanth, on to vampires, witches, and zombies intermixed with mysteries there's no definitive answer to yet, like the mokole-mbembe or Bigfoot.
The book isn't very logically laid out and skips back and forth between monsters proven not to exist, those that did actually exist in some form, and those whose origins are so far still a mystery. There's no bibliography or source notes to back up the author's assertions or historical facts. The last page is labeled "notes" but it's a glossary with four words - Sloth, Heretic, Hominid, and Plesiosaur. This isn't the type of book a kid could use in a report. But it's still an amazing book and for me it's the illustrations that push it over the line from "badly researched nonfiction" to "art book with informational aspects".
Giandelli's art is stunning. There's two styles, simple black, white and yellow line drawings, sometimes funny, sometimes creepy, and smooth, colored illustrations that reminded me of Henri Rousseau's paintings. Each piece of artwork is a miniature masterpiece and I especially loved the way she drew the first page of monsters to match the descriptions but still give enough clues to match them with the real animals on the following page.
Verdict: Kids who love monsters and Bigfoot and other weird and creepy urban legends will gobble this book up and get an appreciation for fine art along the way. It is an oversized picture book in format, so you might have a little trouble finding the right space for it on your shelves, but I would say it's worth it. I'd put it in your graphic novel or fiction section because of the lack of source notes or historical context, but it would also make a good starting point for kids to find out more about urban myths and legends.