July 02, 2009


Watch Me Hop! By Rebecca Young. Illustrations by Von Glitschka. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $12.99.

Wrapped-Up FoxTrot: A Treasury with the Final Daily Strips. By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

Mike Stellar: Nerves of Steel. By K.A. Holt. Random House. $15.99.

     Lenticular animation, a new version of a technology as old as the 19th century’s seminal zoopraxiscope and kinetoscope – precursors of modern movies – is making a comeback of sorts in kids’ books. The new version of the technology makes still pictures seem to move, often in remarkably lifelike ways and always in fascinating ones. The best version of the technology is a patented form developed by Rufus Butler Seder for museums and other public places. It has been used in several books published by Workman. But others have created versions of this still-but-animated design as well, such as the one in Watch Me Hop! This is a simple book in which animals all hop – or don’t hop, but do something else shown through the same apparent-motion technology. It’s a clever idea. At one point, Rebecca Young writes, “It’s hard to see me, then up I POP. I’m a GRASSHOPPER…watch me HOP!” But then, “I have a snout, and a tail like a SQUIGGLE. I don’t hop – I like to WRIGGLE!” And the picture shows a pig, which does indeed wriggle instead of hopping. Von Glitschka’s pictures here are in color – those in Seder’s books are black-and-white – and their movement is less extensive and can be harder to see than in Seder’s books (you have to hold the pages at the right angle). But this becomes part of the fun: first the animals don’t seem to move, and then suddenly they do, and the result is likely to be squeals of delight from the young children for whom the book is intended. There are eight animals in all here, from the small (frog) to the huge (elephant), each of them attractively displayed and moving interestingly – the kangaroo is particularly good.

     You can skip the oversize FoxTrot “Treasury” volume, Wrapped-Up FoxTrot, if you already have Houston, You Have a Problem and And When She Opened the Closet, All the Clothes Were Polyester! Those two smaller-size collections of Bill Amend’s strip are reprinted here, with no changes except for color Sunday comics in Wrapped-Up FoxTrot. But if you don’t have the smaller collections and have any fondness at all for Amend’s wonderful and now-truncated strip, the new volume is a must-have. Heck, you could probably talk yourself into buying it for the silly cover alone: it looks like a package wrapped in bright purple wrapping paper emblazoned with the heads of FoxTrot characters and “torn” on the back enough to reveal the publisher’s name, the UPC code, and so on. That’s clever, and so is, or was, FoxTrot, which is now a Sunday-only strip and the merest shadow of its former self. Wrapped-Up FoxTrot includes the final daily strips, in which Amend subtly thanked his readers and the newspapers that carried his work for so long. Before that, it contains many, many examples of the reasons the daily strip is missed: a week in which the characters talk about their cartoonist getting sick, resulting in stick drawings, a sideways panel and an imitation of Pearls Before Swine; a week in which Jason makes his own King Kong film, with his brother, Peter, as the giant ape – but in a Donkey Kong costume; a week of crossword-puzzle hints, such as “computer havoc-wreaker” being not “virus” but, since this is the Fox household, “daddy”; a week of Jason’s Halloween costumes, including a full-body Snickers bar and a black hole to attract all the candy; and much more. The character comedy of FoxTrot comes through far more clearly in the daily strips than in the remaining Sunday-only ones. It is wonderful to have one final collection of those dailies – and sad that it is the last one.

     FoxTrot always remained fully grounded on Earth, but Mike Stellar: Nerves of Steel jumps all over the place. In fact, the title character – Michael Newton Stellar, whose name is typical in a book with such other characters as Hubble Hawking and Mrs. Halebopp – jumps into space, toward Mars, through a wormhole and back, out of and back into a spacecraft, and…well, all over the place. This is K.A. Holt’s first book for young readers, and is cleverly constructed so that it can stand on its own or, if she and her publisher agree, become the first of a series. The book is clever in other ways, too. It is a story of a space-age family, but this is no lighthearted The Jetsons – although it starts pretty much that way and retains elements of humor throughout. Mike Stellar and his scientist parents get eight hours’ notice to move to Mars; that’s how things start. Coming along is his mom’s assistant, whose name is pronounced “Shoo-gah-bear,” certainly not “Sugar Bear.” But Mike’s sister, Nita, isn’t coming, because she is a member of “Earthlings for Earth,” and EFE members are considered faintly subversive because they want money spent on our home planet, not on colonization of others. Mike’s mom and dad don’t seem too upset about all this, though. And then there’s another scientist, Jim, with “an utterly bizarre girl” named Larc who has bright blue braces, bright blue eyes and a lot of knowledge about things that she really shouldn’t know but that Mike is curious about, too. What Holt does so well is give the book increasing depth as it moves along, even if the characterizations remain once-over-lightly. For instance, it turns out that Mike’s parents are under a cloud of suspicion because of the presumed loss of a previous spacecraft they designed. Mike’s best friend, nicknamed Stinky, is the brother of Hubble, who was aboard that earlier ship and was Nita’s boyfriend. Larc knows a little too much about that earlier voyage and about suspicious things involving the current one. Just who is a good guy and who is a bad guy, and why, becomes a hopeless muddle until everything is eventually (and neatly) sorted out. Through it all, Mike’s preoccupation with MonsterMetalMachines remains – and turns out to be important. And although there is no romance – the book is strictly for preteens – there is a bit of handholding between Mike and Larc that turns out to be very important indeed. The future-ish language is overdone (“drivedropper,” “electri-car,” “vis recorder”), but the plot follows the best time-tested SF approach by focusing on human relations more than technology. In fact, a sequel would be most welcome.

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