Burton and Isabelle Pipistrelle: Echo-locating mysterious worlds

Glen Ellis, head of the Royal Ontario Museum Press and executive editor of ROM magazine

"And the tiniest of them all was a bat named Burton . . ." The St. Clair Cave, a subterranean river grotto in southeast Jamaica, is home to half of the island's 20 bat species. The ROM's recently revamped Bat Cave is modelled on the Jamaican cavern, which is reproduced so accurately—replicated, it seems—that ROM visitors familiar with St. Clair quickly get their bearings. The ROM's Bat Cave has always been a popular destination for Museum visitors. For children camping overnight, the cave enhances the mystery of a "night at the museum," when the crowds have gone home, the house lights are down, and only security guards wander the precincts of antiquity.

It is said that the shade of Charles T. Currelly, first director of the Royal Ontario Museum of Archaeology, floats in periodically, keeping an eye on things. The new Bat Cave likely meets with his nocturnal approval.

In connection with this enhanced attraction, Royal Ontario Museum Press is publishing its first children's book, Burton and Isabelle Pipistrelle: Out of the Bat Cave, a fanciful tale of two pipistrelle bats. The word "pipistrelle" derives from the Greek hesperos (evening star), the rising of which coincides with that of bats. Pipistrelles are among the smallest of bats and Burton is the smallest of the pipistrelles.

Denise Dias, a senior writer with the ROM Governors, originated the concept and wrote the text. The illustrations are by Tara Winterhalt, graphic artist and principal designer at ROM Press. Burton and Isabelle Pipistrelle live in the ROM's Bat Cave. One night, Burton, a born explorer, decides not to follow the colony in the nightly forage for insects but instead to investigate a small opening in the cave that leads to another world, the Museum at night. So while his bat buddies are zipping and zooming over Philosophers' Walk, gorging on mosquitoes, moths, beetles, and fireflies, Burton looks to food for thought as he goes on a journey through time and around the world, encountering, among other things, dinos from 65 million years ago roaming the halls. The night is so filled with escapades, poor Burton forgets all about time. And then dawn breaks! Rays of sunlight begin to find their way into his sublunar, solarphobic world. Burton panics. He wishes that he were snug in his cave, sleeping upside down with the other bats, their fat little bellies full of bugs, their dreams entomological. Where is big sister, Isabelle, the all-knowing and wise one? Will Burton make it back to the cave? And if so, how? And when? If you're 3 to 7 years old, it's a nail biter. ROM mammalogist Dr. Burton Lim, a specialist in bats, is the book's scientific consultant. He has graciously loaned his name to the story's male lead. Dr. Lim also appears, in a stylized version, on the last page, with his selection of amazing bat facts. Award-winning children's book authors and illustrators Sean Cassidy and Loris Lesynski served as story consultants, providing valuable input. The Museum intends the book to be the first of a series. It is also a strong candidate for animation.

This fall, the ROM will feature a host of programs relating to the book (see sidebar). Burton and Isabelle Pipistrelle will also be prominent in the ROM Museum Store and at Word on the Street (Toronto), September 25, 2011. This year, the ROM Press booth is situated just outside the Museum's Queen's Park entrance. The Press will be supporting the publication through incentive discounts to the retail book trade and a variety of promotional items, including large (3' x 2') cover posters, available at Word on the Street, featuring Winterhalt's vibrant, whimsical art.

Children will quickly identify with the wide-eyed pipistrelle: "I see Burton in the faces of children at the ROM every day," remarks Dias. "They fly through the doors ready for adventure, with an excitement that is completely contagious. I hope that children reading the book will experience the ROM, through Burton's eyes, as a thrilling place full of adventure and possibility, a truly magical place."

Glen Ellis is head of Royal Ontario Museum Press and executive editor of ROM magazine.

Burton and Isabelle Pipistrelle: Out of the Bat Cave is available in the ROM Museum Store, bookstores, and online. Published by Royal Ontario Museum Press, hardcover, $19.99.

Photo credit: Illustrations by Tara Winterhalt. Photo by Wanda Dobrowlanski