December 30, 2010


Wild Alphabet: An A to Zoo Pop-Up Book. Text by Dan Green. Designed and engineered by Mike Haines & Julia Fröhlich. Kingfisher. $19.99.

The Book of Bad Things: A Sinister Guide to History’s Dark Side. By “Count Droffig” (Clive Gifford). Designed by Philip Chidlow. Kingfisher. $19.99.

Versus: Pirates. By Richard Platt. Illustrated by Steve Stone. Kingfisher. $19.99.

     Whether portraying something as sweet and attractive as Xantus’s Hummingbird or as vicious and ugly as the real pirates of the Caribbean, these Kingfisher books are, above all, feasts for the eye. They contain solid information, but it is the way the material is presented that will attract kids to them – more than the facts themselves. For example, there are plenty of alphabet books out there, and more coming out all the time. But how many consist of 26 different pop-ups of animals, each showing the three-dimensional animal as well as the letter with which the animal’s name begins (with the animal integrated into the letter)? That is what Wild Alphabet does, and the result is an exceptionally attractive book that is not for very young children just learning the letters -- the design is a touch too delicate for that. This is, instead, for kids who have learned the alphabet through more conventional means and now want to be entertained by the letters, not just informed of what they are. Some of the animal choices here are obvious, such as G for giraffe, “the tallest animal there is,” and E for elephant, “the biggest animal on four legs” (with the word “biggest” set in type that gets larger and larger, then smaller and smaller). Other picks are more unusual, such as I for ibis, “a fancy flapper,” M for mosquito, whose “bites are an itchy nuisance,” and Q for quetzal, “a sacred bird of the Aztec people.” More curious of all is U for Utahraptor, “a two-ton killer of the dinosaur age” and the only extinct animal here. The animal pictures are uniformly excellent, but it is the outstanding paper engineering that really sets this book apart: it is simply a pleasure to turn the pages and watch the animals pop up from the background in a wide variety of different ways. Very clever indeed.

     The Book of Bad Things contains more words, more information (it is intended for ages 9-12), and more design elements: books within the book, flaps and foldouts, and a layout that combines photography with lists and pages-upon-the-page and notes to the reader and maps and more. The narrative by ”Count Droffig,” which has to do with the search for a mysterious Book of Bad Things that “has been unwriting itself” and requires the speaking of 13 correct phrases in a particular order, is overcomplicated and rather nonsensical, but it is merely the gateway – the framing tale, as it were – for a series of disparate facts: a human head is conscious for 15 to 20 seconds after being removed from the body, while a cockroach can live without a head for nine days; grave wax, a waxy substance that forms on the fatty parts of dead bodies, starts to show up within a month after death; Isaac Newton’s notes reveal that he expected the world to end in the year 2060; the brank was used in medieval times on nagging women – it was a metal mask, often with a strap to hold the tongue still; Malaysian kamikaze ants protect their nest by blowing themselves up and spraying poison over intruders; and on and on. In truth, except for the deliberately overdone narrative, there is nothing to pull this collection of often-but-not-always-scary oddments together (the last woman in Great Britain executed by being boiled in water was Margaret Davy, in 1542; a pandemic is a massive outbreak of infectious disease; when asked to name a color, three out of five people will choose red). But there are so many snippets here, presented in so many different formats and type styles – and with so many things to open, peek into, fold out and examine closely – that young readers who would not find a straightforward presentation of these miscellaneous facts attractive will likely enjoy The Book of Bad Things a great deal.

     Shorter, punchier (or rather stabbier and slashier), and more packed with violence – and aimed at roughly the same age group – Versus: Pirates is a followup to Versus: Warriors and is constructed along the same videogame lines. The book presents 10 different pirates, from the Sea Person of 1178 B.C. to the Yang-Fei of 1807; explains how they operated, what riches they sought and what weapons they wielded; and sets them against each other, two at a time, in a series of fictional battles whose outcomes leave five of the 10 dead or soundly defeated and the other five labeled as victors. Then the book imagines which of those five would emerge victorious over all the others, and why. The simplistic fighting concept, along the lines of the Mortal Kombat videogame series, is overlaid on some genuinely interesting facts about piracy and those who have practiced it through the centuries. There is information on what the pirates ate, how they cared for their wounded, what they did to ensure victory (calling on anyone from a god to a queen), and so forth. Of course, within a book, there cannot be actual combat, but everything about the layout here makes it look as if real fighting (or rather videogame-style fighting) is going on, with power bars, “add stamina” buttons, data files and more. The book’s clear intention is to give visually focused youths – who would be reluctant simply to read about history and the place of pirates in it – a way to learn a little about this aspect of the past (and even a bit about piracy in the modern world) while enjoying much of the over-the-top sensory experience of videogaming. Versus: Pirates cannot, by definition, duplicate the experience of participating in a videogame, but the strength and intensity of its design, and its determination to present facts only in the service of fictional battles between evildoers whose lives were, in reality, separated by many centuries, mean that it comes about as close as it can to the feel of an artificially animated world. Whether this results in actual absorption of knowledge will depend on each individual player…err, reader. But certainly the book looks terrific and is a very impressive exercise in design.

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