February 11, 2010


The Slightly Odd United States of America. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $12.95.

Good Growing: A Kid’s Guide to Green Gardening. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $16.95.

     “Reliably offbeat.” That’s a two-word review of the entire line of Klutz books – and, as it happens, of each book individually. The Klutz line has never been much like anything else in book publishing, even though other firms produce occasional products that are somewhat in the same vein. Klutz does everything in its own vein, though: the “books-plus” field, in which something that looks like a book and is bound like a book is inevitably more than “just” a book.

     Klutz adheres to its own special weirdness even when producing a book such as The Slightly Odd United States of America. This sort of thing has been done often before: take young readers (the target age range is eight and up) on a tour of the 50 states and give them snippets of unusual information all along the way. But Klutz, being Klutz, does not stop there. Start with the foldout map at the beginning of the book – which includes such geographical designations as “the middle middle” and “the middle (sort of).” Continue with state-focused questions, such as: “Georgia is the nation’s leading producer of ‘the three P’s.’ Can you name them?” (Answer: peanuts, peaches and pecans.) Go on to a page of real state nicknames mixed with fake ones, and try to figure out which are which and which real ones go where. Stop at “Interstate Scramble” to find out a unique feature of various states by unmixing the mixed-up letters: New Mexico, for example, has “oelitt cork,” which unscrambles to “toilet rock.” And by all means stop on the page devoted to each state, so you can learn that the Ah-Choo Sneezing Powder Company was founded in New Jersey, a nuclear bomb was accidentally dropped on South Carolina in 1958, and the first ice cream sundae was made in Wisconsin. Throw in abundant illustrations – from lots of amusing cartoons to a variety of photographs of people, places and things, past and present – and you have a book that is not only informative but also looks good. It is also spiral-bound, so it opens flat – a convenience for readers doing the “star search” puzzles in which, for example, you need to find the capital of each state named at the bottom of the page within the large square of apparently random letters higher up. An offbeat look at offbeat facts, The Slightly Odd United States of America is at least slightly odder than similar “factoid” books from other publishers – and that’s the Klutz way.

     There is a more serious, overtly instructional side to Klutz, too – one in which the “books-plus” format really excels. Many Klutz books teach crafts or hobbies, and they always include what kids need to get started. Good Growing, for example, isn’t just an instruction book about gardening – not even just about green (ecologically aware) gardening. It is a how-to kit, including two small hydroponic growing systems (Klutz calls them “Super Sprouters”) bound to a cardboard panel attached to the spiral binding behind the book’s back cover, plus packets of seeds for green beans and radishes. The idea here is to show kids ages six and up what gardening is all about, and then let them try it themselves. The book starts with a particularly neat definition: “Gardening is the art and science of turning water, soil, sunshine, and seeds into something tasty to eat or lovely to look at.” That’s a clear encapsulation that gardening books for adults could well emulate. Good Growing then explains what plants need to grow, how the “Super Sprouters” work, and how to get things growing – not only with the items included with the book, but also on your own. Simple instructions show how to grow herbs, avocado plants, even “grassheads” (silly decorative things made from old stockings, grass seed, googly eyes and decorations). “Know-It-All” boxes provide supplemental information – explaining, for example, why it is better to cut off flower buds that bloom when growing herbs. Chapters on outdoor gardening take young readers beyond the simple windowsill growth of “Super Sprouters” and potted plants. By the end of the book, kids will even know how to grow giant sunflowers – and how to get edible sunflower seeds from them. There’s knowledge as well as enjoyment in Good Growing, as in so many Klutz books. And that’s why a three-word review of many Klutz offerings could well be: “making learning fun.”

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