December 23, 2010


Robots. By Steve Weston. Kingfisher. $16.99.

Legendary Journeys: Trains. By Philip Steele. Illustrated by Sebastian Quigley. Kingfisher. $19.99.

Story County: Here We Come! By Derek Anderson. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

     The whole point of some books is visual: text is secondary to the sheer impact of the book’s appearance, even if it is the text that carries most of the information. Steve Weston’s Robots is a perfect example – and a wonderful book, too. Less a traditional book than a three-dimensional diorama with play pieces for interactive games, Robots is not about cartoon or movie robots but about the real-world ones doing important jobs today. The book’s design is simply delightful. In the middle are four pack-flat scenes that tuck into tabs and open up into three-dimensional representations of the Moon, the ocean floor, a volcano, and an ancient tomb. Real-world robots are in fact used in exploring all of these. In a pocket to the right of the pop-up scenes, packed flat, are punch-out pieces that readers (or, more accurately, participants) fit together by folding them as shown and placing the correct tabs in the right slots. The result is nine three-dimensional robots and robot-related parts that are then used to explore the four central scenes. What exactly should book users do? That is where the text comes in – packaged as an “Operator’s Manual” in a pocket to the left of the 3-D scenes. Weston’s text explains just what robots do at Moon Base, Reef Wreck, Fiery Volcano and Egyptian Tomb, including information on what the locations are like (the lava of a volcano, for example, can reach a temperature of 2,200° Fahrenheit; the Volcanobot is built to withstand the searing heat). The information is not extensive, although it may whet the appetite of young readers and encourage them to go elsewhere for more details. But Weston explains enough to make the pop-up scenes and exploring robots both interesting and connected to real life. The result is a book designed for serious play – and serious fun.

     There is more text in Legendary Journeys: Trains, and there are more things for somewhat older readers to do – Robots is recommended for ages 3-6, Philip Steele’s and Sebastian Quigley’s book for ages eight and up. The subtitle of Legendary Journeys: Trains explains the format very well: “The Slide-Out, See-Through Story of World-Famous Trains and Railroads.” In an age in which young people know little or nothing about trains as an elegant, exclusive and impressive means of travel, this book provides a window into history and a whole series of extremely clever interactive devices. For example, a page showing an elegant first-class railway car has the instruction “pull” at the right, and pulling the tab brings out two full additional pages that show the engine and coal car ahead of the passenger coach – and give additional information on this line, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Similarly, pulling the tab in a section called “Rail Underground” reveals a very impressive scene of the early Paris Metro system, including a picture of civil engineer Fulgence Bienvenue (who supervised the system’s construction) standing on a platform. There are maps here, and photos, and bits of information in unexpected places. For example, opening a flap on the side of a freight car reveals hobos inside, along with is a brief explanation of the use of railroads by people seeking work during the Great Depression. Although Legendary Journeys: Trains is not a lengthy book, it is packed with information, from the route of the famed Orient Express (within which a reader can see Agatha Christie’s fictional detective, Hercule Poirot) to the development of diesel power and the reasons it quickly made steam engines obsolete. By the end, when Legendary Journeys: Trains discusses modern bullet trains and the quest for ever-higher rail speeds, young readers will have learned, perhaps for the first time, that even if the grand days of rail travel are over, modern railroads continue to play a very important role in transportation in many countries – and are also quite impressive to look at.

     The visuals are less striking and the design more conventional in Derek Anderson’s Story County: Here We Come! But this too is a book designed in large part to be fun to see: Anderson is best known as an illustrator, and he certainly works his visual magic here for young readers. There really is a Story County – in Iowa – but it is neither as magical nor as ridiculous as Anderson’s fictional one. In the book, amusingly angular characters (Farmer, Pig, Cow, Chicken and Dog) get together to build a farm, cooperating in constructing a barn and painting it, creating fields, planting crops, and so on. The fun here is in watching the characters’ antics. Dog studies architectural plans while Pig builds a scale model of the barn out of mud; Farmer paints while one of his feet is stuck in a can; Chicken drives a tractor pulling a trailer heaped with such farm necessities as corn and, um, jelly beans; Cow insists on putting lipstick on the scarecrow; and so on. Dog is the most practical character, designing and measuring and pulling the others back from premature exuberance. Eventually the farm is finished, or so everyone thinks until Dog tells the others to look up: they have forgotten to make the sky. So they do – a night sky, since it is late. Then everyone celebrates and goes to sleep beneath a wall hanging that says, “Farm Sweet Farm.” The story is simple and silly, and would be of only moderate interest without the illustrations. But with the illustrations, it is simple and delightful. Still mighty silly, though.

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