A few weeks ago, we were walking through Central Park after a major snow storm. It is one of my favorite times to visit the park. The snow blankets everything and mutes sound in a beautiful way. The most noticeable sounds are the snow dropping from heavy tree branches and a few animals that dare to scurry about. If you get outside quickly enough, the snow remains mostly untouched – by humans at least. We were admiring the snow landscape from my favorite park bridge, when we were completely delighted to notice lots of different tracks going across the frozen pond. We made guesses as to what they might be from, but we really didn’t know.

That evening, I pulled a book off my shelves that I haven’t looked at very closely. I stumbled across it a few months ago in a vintage book sale and really only grabbed it because of the illustrator. (I am a bit of a snob about softcovers.) It came to mind while we were wondering about the tracks and I decided to give it a read. It is now a new (old) favorite! If you are ever wandering about and happen upon some tracks that you wish you could identify, there’s a book for that! How to be an Animal Detective by Millicent Selsam, pictures by Ezra Jack Keats, 1958.

One of the best things about this book is that it is written like a story. This isn’t just a typical how-to guide. It is engaging, narrative, and delightful to read! It opens with a grown detective asking questions about some tracks.

“What happened here?”
“Who was here?”
“Where did he go?”
A detective has many ways to find out.

The rest of the book invites the reader to play nature detective and teaches so much about reading common animal tracks! From cats and dogs, to raccoons and turtles, we are quickly becoming experts at deciphering tracks and all just from this one vintage book!

While I picked up this book because of the illustrations, I am beautifully surprised by the lovely text. Looking up Millicent Selsam, I realized that I am familiar with her work on a few other science, non-fiction picture books. I really love the way she talks to readers, not at them. All the questions in her text are excellent, and how a picture book should be read aloud and engaged with normally.

And as always, I deeply admire Ezra Jack Keats’ illustrations. I love to see his different and yet recognizable illustration styles. Most would know him from The Snowy Day collage style, but I equally love his line work! I would love to know the backstory about his research for these drawings. Pre-internet research is incredibly fascinating to me. It would be excellent to learn how much he and Ms. Selsam collaborated or what information she provided with the text.

We really love this book, having even tracked down a copy to gift to a science teacher. I wish more books were made in this simple, narrative way. It is surprisingly engaging as nature remains the end goal, nothing flashy or dramatic to get in the way.

I hope you enjoyed becoming an animal detective for a few minutes. I highly advise doing it more often.