How to High Tea with a Hyena (And Not Get Eaten) – written by Rachel Poliquin, illustrated by Kathryn Durst
Tundra Books, 2022
If you’ve ever been concerned about social events going wrong, you will probably agree with this statement: “Besides, when planning a party, it’s always important to consider the WORST-CASE SCENARIO.” However, your worst-case scenario probably didn’t include a powerful, predatory, and omnivorous animal. If that animal is a hyena, you could be in trouble. Finally, if you currently know very little about hyenas, you are the perfect audience for How to High Tea with a Hyena. Even if you had never thought that lack of knowledge about hyenas was a particular problem, the sly humor of this madcap informational book might convince you otherwise. Of course, the same holds true for the young readers in your life.
There are many introductions to wildlife for children, but few about hyenas. Of course, this book isn’t exclusively about hyenas, although children will learn an amazing array of facts about them. It’s also a clever approach to the natural world, convincing in its message that your previous assumptions about any topic may not be true, and there is always more to learn. The narrator is a friendly cockroach sporting glasses and a bow tie, whose qualifications as a survivor over millions of years makes him the perfect guide for skeptics. When he sets up the tea party scenario, hosted by a little girl named Ruby, readers will be ready for anything.
First, you will have to “Pick Your Hyena.” Rachel Poliquin selects her facts carefully, both informing and entertaining with a combination of accuracy and literary embellishment. While it is eye-opening to learn about the four types of hyenas, it is a diverting digression to imagine that one of them, the aardwolf, will “…eat cockroaches like popcorn. And popcorn has no place at a tea party.”
Kathryn Durst’s pictures begin with a basic premise, such as a beautifully arranged tea party whose delicate beauty is destroyed by the hyena in question. (I’ve written before how she’s great with animals.) Appealing sandwiches, pastries, and a polka dotted tea pot are reduced to chaos by the hungry animal. After all, as a subsequent fact-filled page points out, he can consume 30 lbs. of food within 30 minutes. So no surprise there.
There are actually nine steps to planning party. Step Six instructs you to “Invite Slow Friends.” Hyenas are not only incredibly fast at responding to hunger, they are fast, period. They are faster than Ruby, riding a bike in the naïve expectation that she can outrun her hyena guest. If you’re wondering how being slow will protect you from a fast-running predator, the author offers many detours in her logical tour of the facts. Following the twists and turns in the narrative eventually adds up to, as in the determining the pros and cons of specific menu items:; “Slimy, smelly, chewy, it’s all delicious to a hyena.”
By the time the crowd of hungry hyenas has finished with their prey, the unusual hybrid character of Poliquin and Durst’s collaboration is apparent. The animals could be boorish humans, leaving leftovers on the floor, trying on Victorian hats, even loading a model train set with uneaten food. Probably the only reason any of the items are left is because they stuffed themselves to exhaustion, falling asleep on the tracks. At the same time, the child and adult who shared How to High Tea with a Hyena will put down the book knowing that hyena clans may have one hundred members, that they have bone-crunching teeth, and that their stomach acid can neutralize almost any toxin. You probably didn’t know that, but now you do!