Fictional Amazon story has its roots in reality

September 24, 2004|by Lisa Tedrick Prejean

No trip to the Amazon Rain Forest would be complete without a glimpse of man-eating piranhas, poisonous snakes and colorful toucans.

A 9-year-old boy named Riley finds out just how amazing the Amazon can be when he visits his aunt and uncle who are doing research there.

His story, "Amazon River Rescue" from the Adventures of Riley series, was created by Amanda Lumry and co-authored by Laura Hurwitz, who bill their work as "reality-based or fact-based fiction."

Animal facts supplied by scientists from the World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society and the Smithsonian Institution are included throughout the story as Riley and his cousin Alice explore the region and seek new species.


For instance, did you know that the Amazon Rain Forest is almost as big as the continental United States?

There are 3,000 fish species in the Amazon River. Most of them don't exist anywhere else.

Piranhas eat more than just meat. Half of their diet is fruits and nuts.

That's good news for Riley, but why should our children care?

Understanding how animals live and interact in their natural habitats helps us to understand the world around us and encourages us to be good stewards of the environment that's in our back yards.

My generation has seen how zoos have changed from a bars-and-cages approach to presenting animals in their natural habitats. Instead of going to a zoo to gawk at and be entertained by animals, our children are typically treated to environmental lessons while they walk through controlled wildlife conservation areas.

The animal collections typically relate to projects in the field and are funded by national organizations.

This approach was applied to the book by Lumry, a photographer. Her photographs of animals are blended into illustrations of their habitats. This appealing display most likely won't be missed by even the youngest child. (I can hear whispers of "The animals are REAL, Mommy.")

"Amazon River Rescue," the third book in the Adventures of Riley series, is designed for ages 4 to 8.

Here are some other interesting animal facts from the book:

· A toucan's large beak is very light because it is filled with air.

· The largest tarantula is as big as a dinner plate. The smallest is smaller than a grain of rice. Even though tarantulas have eight eyes, they have bad eyesight.

· A sloth is the only greenish-colored mammal. The green tint comes from the algae in its fur.

· Jaguars are the largest cats in both North and South America.

· Bats pollinate the flowers of kapok trees, which are the tallest trees in the Amazon Rain Forest.

· Capybara, the world's largest rodent, can weigh as much as 140 pounds. It has nostrils high on its head so it can hide under water and still breathe. It also has partially webbed feet.

· Leaf cutter ants chew leaves into pulp to fertilize fungus beds, their only source of food.

n There are 23 different types of crocodiles, alligators and caiman in the world. For caiman, the sex of the young is determined by the nest temperature.

Just try explaining that fact of nature to an 8-year-old.

For more information on the Adventures of Riley series, go to on the Web. The site includes games and activities for children and lesson plans on environmental education for teachers.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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