May 07, 2009


Palindromania! By Jon Agee. Sunburst/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $6.96.

Math Attack! By Joan Horton. Pictures by Kyrsten Brooker. Melanie Kroupa Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $16.95.

     Both these books deserve to have titles that end in exclamation points! Offbeat, amusing and unusual in both words and illustrations, they turn subjects that can become drudgery – English and math – into fun!

     Jon Agee does this with a mixture of palindromes he invented and ones that have been around for a while. Using comic-strip-like illustrations, including some sequences that really are comic strips, he makes wordplay into a fine art. For example, “The Three-Palindrome Gnu,” a four-panel creation, starts with the title panel and then amusingly illustrates “gnu sung,” “gnu lung” and “gnu dung.” Even cleverer is a single two-page-spread panel of palindromic “Criminal Evidence,” showing a trench-coated investigator looking at a “mirror rim,” “pit tip,” “bird rib,” “trapeze part,” “balsa slab” and “motto bottom.” Elsewhere, we meet “Little Snitch,” who tattles, “Nate bit a Tibetan” and “Dennis sinned.” We see a sleepless man endlessly repeating the unending palindrome, “Six is a six is a six is a six is…” During a journey to Metaltown, a metal owl seems to have a touch of indigestion: “Gag!” “Kak!” Two other birds explain why: “Mr. Owl ate my metal worm.” All this back-and-forthing through words is enjoyable in and of itself, but Agee’s amusing illustrations make it even more so. Just catch the amazed expressions on the faces of an apple and orange that have been debating who is “Fruit of the year.” After one says “Now, I won” and the other replies, “No, Will, I won,” they are astonished at the actual result: “No way! A papaya won?!” One way or the other, Agee’s palindromes are wordplay winners.

     Joan Horton’s foray into silly math is more traditional in format – a story told in rhyme, with delightfully offbeat illustrations by Kyrsten Brooker. And it is just as enjoyable in its own way. A girl tries so hard to remember the multiplication table that, when her teacher asks her to multiply 10 by seven, her head goes wild: “I was thinking so hard all my circuits were loaded./ Then all of a sudden, my brain just exploded” – and numbers fly everywhere, whizzing throughout the classroom and all over the school. The nurse diagnoses “a case of arithmetic strain” and asks just when it happened – and as soon as the girl explains that she was trying to figure out 10 x 7, “Numbers flew out of my head as before./ ‘Gangway!’ cried the nurse/ As she dashed through the door.” The numbers mess affects everyone – the principal, the policemen who show up to find out what is going on, drivers who have to stop because of all the numbers in the road, and even “the clock in the tower/ Was crazily bong-bonging every which hour,/ For sixes and sevens had climbed from its base/ To join the twelve numbers that circled its face.” Can anything stop the number flood? Well, yes, the girl herself can – when she solves the 10 x 7 problem that started it all. And eventually she does remember the answer, and everything is fine – “UNTIL Miss Glass said, ‘What’s eleven times nine?’” And so the book ends with the promise of more hilarity ahead – but take a look at the inside front and back covers for something extra and educational, because they show the girl very proudly completing the entire multiplication table on her class blackboard, from 1 x 1 all the way to 10 x 10, and walking away with a big smile on her face. Math Attack! will put a big smile on yours, too.

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