March 19, 2009

(++++) PACKAGING PLEASANTRIES

Good Egg. By Barney Saltzberg. Workman. $9.95.

You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! By Jonah Winter. Illustrated by André Carrilho. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

Monsters vs. Aliens: The Junior Novel; Ginormica’s Big Battle; Meet the Monsters. HarperEntertainment. $5.99 (Novel); $3.99 each (Battle, Meet).

     Sometimes the major attraction of a book – or one of the major attractions, anyway – is simply how it is put together. That is certainly the case with the very clever Good Egg, a board book for ages 2-5 that features…well, an egg. But this is not just any egg: it does tricks – or, to be more precise, kids make it do tricks. That’s the cleverness both of the book’s design and of Barney Saltzberg’s story. The book opens with a picture of the egg and the word “egg.” Then come simple commands – things kids can get the egg to do by pulling, pushing or opening tabs, slots and foldover pages. “Lie down,” says one page, and when you pull the tab at the bottom, the egg moves 90 degrees clockwise and the words “good egg!” appear. “Roll over” is on another page with a tab – pull the tab to the right and the egg actually spins around on the page, again with the words “good egg!” appearing. For the page that says “catch,” there is an object that looks like a beach ball, adhering to a bit of Velcro – you pick the ball up from the left page and put it on the Velcro at the top of the right page, so it seems to sit atop the egg…and of course the words “good egg!” are at the bottom of that page. The egg “training” ends with the command to “speak!” – which of course an egg cannot do. Ah, but there is something inside the egg…and that brings this delightfully designed book to a suitable climax.

     You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! is for older kids, ages 4-9, but it too attracts readers through its appearance. The front cover is a very clever design in which André Carrilho’s drawing of Koufax actually winds up and pitches as you move the cover back and forth. And the good packaging doesn’t end there: “baseball cards” of Koufax adorn the book’s inside front and back covers, and Carrilho’s art throughout the book has an elongated, streamlined look that is both old-fashioned and in tune with Jonah Winter’s story. The narrative is cleverly packaged, too, in a “Brooklynese” accent to reflect the fact that Koufax started to pitch for the Dodgers when they were the Brooklyn Dodgers: “It didn’t take long for the major league scouts to start sniffin’ around Dyker Field, where Sandy was pitchin’ to his pals in sandlot games.” “Says nothin’ to nobody, just leaves. Quitsville.” But all this presentation matters mostly because it is at the service of an excellent story: about Koufax’s initial problems, his later successes, his introversion, his Judaism (which led to his refusing to take the mound for the first game of the 1965 World Series), and his early retirement from baseball. Fact boxes are sprinkled around the pages, too, about baseball’s color barrier, about teams’ name changes, about bad years that happened to good pitchers, and much more. You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! is primarily, of course, a baseball story, but it is better presented than many other tales of its type and therefore may be of more interest to kids who might in fact never have heard of Sandy Koufax (who, as Winter points out, is still alive, living in Florida, where he recently celebrated his 73rd birthday).

     Sometimes, it is only the packaging that is likely to attract readers to a book, and that is the case with three tie-ins to the new Dreamworks animated movie, Monsters vs. Aliens. Kids who like the film, in which the monsters (kept at a secret government base, of course) are the good guys, will enjoy having parts of the plot rehashed in the books, which are aimed at different ages but which all draw from the same source and reflect the movie without trying to add anything to it. The Junior Novel, by Susan Korman, is for ages 8-12; Ginormica’s Big Battle, by Gail Herman, is a Level 2 book in the “I Can Read!” series, which means it is for ages 4-8; and Meet the Monsters, by N.T. Raymond, is a pictorial book in the style of a tabloid newspaper, designed for ages 3-7. Kids probably won’t realize that a lot of Monsters vs. Aliens is a sendup of the old “B” monster films of the 1950s: The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman gives us Susan Murphy, who is struck by a meteor and grows to be the 49-foot-11-inch-tall Ginormica; The Fly gives us “Dr. Cockroach, PhD,” a polite and intelligent man with the head of a cockroach; and so on. Parents may or may not make these connections, but ultimately they won’t care: these books, which get a (+++) rating for fans of the film and no rating at all for anyone else, are designed not for their stories but exclusively for the way they have been packaged as movie souvenirs for different age groups.

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