November 20, 2008


Walter Wick’s Optical Tricks. By Walter Wick. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $14.99.

The Baby-Sitters Club #4: Claudia and Mean Janine. By Ann M. Martin. Adapted and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier. Graphix/Scholastic. $8.99.

It’s Happy Bunny Ultimate Sticker Book. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $7.99.

The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror: Dead Man’s Jest. By Matt Groening. Harper. $15.95.

The Lady and the Chocolate. By Edward Monkton. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     It is scarcely a revelation that we live in a highly visual age – and book publishers know it. Now there are books of all types, for readers of all ages, in which the pictures are the focus. Walter Wick’s Optical Tricks, by the photographer of the I Spy book series, is now available in an attractive 10th-anniversary edition in which the impossible objects and phantom images look every bit as good as they did when the book originally appeared in 1998. Wick is an extremely clever photographer and designer of photographic assemblages. In this book, he explains something about what is going on in the pictures: how mirrors reflect and distort objects, how the use of multiple mirrors creates scenes that feature many items that do not exist, even how an impossible triangle and an equally impossible building (the latter based on a famous M.C. Escher drawing) can apparently be created in three dimensions through clever photography. Wick reveals some secrets (how the “triangle” really looks, for instance) and leaves readers to figure others out for themselves – resulting in a treat for both eyes and brain.

     The graphic novels based on Ann M. Martin’s popular series, The Baby-Sitters Club, are visually focused in a different way. These are simplified retellings of Martin’s stories, illustrated in black and white with straightforward art that moves the action along briskly (much as in a comic book). The fourth graphic novel in this series focuses on sisters Claudia (a member of the club of the title) and Janine (a dedicated computer nerd who is studying to be a physicist). There is a very serious element at the heart of the book: the girls’ grandmother suffers a stroke, and requires multiple hospital visits and then at-home and rehabilitative care. The girls work out their differences (and they do work them out) against this background; any actual babysitting becomes something of a side issue. Middle-school girls who are unfamiliar with the Martin novels, or prefer to approach books in a more visual way, will enjoy this latest series entry.

     It’s Happy Bunny is also a series, in a sense: it’s the cynical sayings of an apparent escapee from greeting-card land, whose open and simple appearance is at odds with the nasty observations he makes. In fact, the latest entry in this series says “Now Extra Unpleasant!” on the front cover. That’s an exaggeration – it is no more unpleasant than previous Happy Bunny books – but this time, Jim Benton has created something that is almost purely visual. Left-hand pages show Happy Bunny in various poses; right-hand ones have Happy Bunny sayings (such as “I’m happy – don’t wreck it by talking”) but no illustrations. The book includes Happy Bunny stencils and stickers, plus self-adhesive words and phrases that you can use to create your own little bits of Happy Bunny awfulness. This is clever of Benton – he makes readers do the work, which is a very Happy Bunnyish approach – and the book will be fun for kids (and emotionally stunted adults) who can’t wait to put their own spin on Happy Bunnyisms.

     Speaking of emotionally stunted, there’s The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror: Dead Man’s Jest, which is a comic book made to look like a graphic novel – and which, almost in spite of itself, has some very clever elements. Although the stories mostly adhere closely to traditional Simpsons plot lines (Homer’s obsession with doughnuts, Ned Flanders’ obsession with religion, Krusty’s obsession with being evil), this book (Halloween-themed but suitable for Simpsons fans anytime) also includes clever stories tied into the personalities of singers Alice Cooper, Gene Simmons, Rob Zombie and Pat Boone (yes, that Pat Boone). Even more interestingly, it is a tribute of sorts to the wonderful E.C. Comics of the late 1940s and early 1950s: Vault of Horror, Crypt of Terror and all the rest, including war comics. Matt Groening draws actual characters from the comics in some stories, and also creates tales that parallel (with a Simpsons twist) those from the old E.C. line: “Squish Thing,” in which Homer becomes a sort of Swamp Thing and tears apart the person responsible for his transformation, and “Two Tickets to Heck,” in which Bart and Lisa find themselves trapped in E.C. sequences after going through doors with dates on them (“1950” lands Bart in a war comic, while “1952” leads to the “comic-book corruption of youth” arguments that eventually emasculated comic books and destroyed the E.C. line). You need some familiarity with comics history to pick up all the references in these stories (“squa tront” and “spa fon,” anybody?), but there is plenty of Simpsons-style fun even if you don’t have that background – and some pages that are all Simpsons-style humor (such as Bart’s “Halloween Candy Classification”).

     The humor is on a different, more adult level, and the graphics are gentler, in The Lady with the Chocolate, the latest little hardcover gift book from Edward Monkton (pen name of poet Giles Andreae). The cover simply shows a lady and a chocolate bar (which is larger than she is), and the pages are a discussion between them. The Lady argues that “the weight that you put onto my THIGHS, my WAIST and my BOTTOM is not worth the satisfaction of the eating,” but the chocolate eventually persuades her that “being EATEN is the only reason for my existence” and so she really should go ahead. Which she does – the moral being that Ladies who eat chocolate “are performing a very great and GENEROUS service indeed.” Monkton’s ultra-simple drawings are just right for this ultra-simple (and silly) story, right down to the final one showing the Lady with an angel’s halo hovering above her because she has helped the chocolate fulfill its destiny.

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