May 17, 2012
(++++) FUN WITH REALITY
Scholastic “Discover More”: Technology—How Today’s Technology Really Works. By Clive Gifford. Scholastic. $15.99.
Scholastic “Discover More”: Night Sky—Watching the Universe Outside Your Window. By Giles Sparrow. Scholastic. $15.99.
The President’s Stuck in the Bathtub: Poems about the Presidents. By Susan Katz. Illustrated by Robert Neubecker. Clarion. $17.99.
Don’t Sit on the Baby: The Ultimate Guide to Sane, Skilled, and Safe Babysitting. By Halley Bondy. Zest Books. $12.99.
Amply illustrated with outstanding photographs, tables, schematics, charts, and just about every design element that can be brought to bear in book form, two new books in the Scholastic: “Discover More” series are excellent introductions to their subject matter. Clive Gifford’s Technology is something of a technology wonder itself, for all the fact that it belongs to the same basic words-on-dead-trees category as the Gutenberg Bible. The book is packed with statistical information (the number of digital music downloads rose 940% between 2004 and 2009), history (Martin Cooper of Motorola led the team that invented the first handheld cell phone in 1973), and fascinating information tidbits (the first crash-test dummy was named Sierra Sam), Technology explains the inner (and sometimes outer) workings of robots, electric guitars, game controllers, 3-D movies, cars, space exploration, mountain bikes, human prostheses and more. General facts, step-by-step diagrams showing each segment of a process, glossaries appropriate to individual topics, diagrams that pull common objects apart to show how their parts interact, and occasional offbeat photographic illustrations that show items from very unusual angles are combined here to answer a whole series of intriguing questions: “What’s so smart about smartphones?” “Where are the world’s scariest roller coasters?” “Do Jet Skis use jet engines?” “How do sneakers put an extra spring in your step?” One of the best things about Technology is that, while it certainly simplifies complex processes, it does not shrink from tackling even the most difficult scientific experiments, such as those being done in the Large Hadron Collider beneath the French-Swiss border. Individual paragraphs are kept very short, but there are constant cross-references that deepen readers’ understanding – for example, a mention of handheld controllers refers to a page where their workings are explained, and a reference to alternative energy sends readers to pages discussing how wind, water and sunlight can be harnessed. Technology is a fascinating gateway to a world that is increasingly becoming the world of the young readers at whom the book is aimed – and of their parents, who will likely get as much from the book as will its target audience.
Night Sky is an equally well-done introduction to its subject matter. Among the questions addressed by Giles Sparrow: “What will next be visible from Earth in 4530?” “Why does the sun have spots?” “Why did people believe there was life on Mars?” “What’s on course to collide with the Milky Way?” These are distinctive and unusual questions through which to approach astronomy, even if some could be slightly better worded: the reference should be to intelligent life on Mars, especially now that research indicates the possibility of primitive life of some sort there (or at least having been there in the past). Still, the book’s factual accuracy and genuinely engaging graphics make it an exceptional introduction to a subject that has been covered many times before. The “Strange Stars” illustration, for example, contains a fascinating schematic diagram of a black hole, while the pages on constellations do an excellent job of drawing the usual imaginary connecting lines while also showing, on the same page, how the star patterns really look – so readers can find them easily. Among the especially attractive illustrations here is a series of four views of the galaxy Centaurus A – one using visible light, one using X-rays, one employing radio waves and one combined view. Star maps of the northern, southern and equatorial skies, examples of stars of various colors, vivid pictorial renditions of planets and moons, a gorgeous photo of the Milky Way as seen from Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean – these and many more elements combine to make Night Sky beautiful to look at as well as informative. This is a learning adventure that is also a great deal of fun.
The President’s Stuck in the Bathtub is fun in a different way: Susan Katz’s amusing poems and Robert Neubecker’s offbeat illustrations combine to make politics seem a lot more enjoyable between book covers than it does in the current round of presidential-election-year seriousness and mudslinging. In fact, the mudslinging dates back to the days of the second president, John Adams, who was mocked as “His Rotundity” for his supposed devotion to British-style titles. Katz couples her poems with prose that gives additional interesting information on each chief executive. For Andrew Jackson, for example, the poem points out that “he kept the Congress under his thumb./ He couldn’t spel rite, but he wasn’t dum.” The prose mentions that Jackson was “reported to have claimed that a person who could spell a word only one way lacked imagination.” The facts on the less-known presidents are often the most intriguing ones: Martin Van Buren was nicknamed “The Little Magician” because of his political cleverness; John Tyler so angered his political party, the Whigs, that the members voted unanimously to oust him; Millard Fillmore is pictured with his face obscured by a cloud because he “is always forgotten;/ they call him obscure./ Isn’t that rotten?” And then there are Franklin Pierce, the first president to decorate a Christmas tree in the White House; James Buchanan, whose dog mimicked his habit of tilting his head to one side to favor one eye over the other; Rutherford B. Hayes, who had the first telephone installed in the White House; Grover Cleveland, who was known as “His Obstinacy” for his determination to re-take the presidency after losing his bid for a second consecutive term – a quest at which he was successful, becoming the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms. As for the president who got stuck in the bathtub: that was 350-pound William Howard Taft, for whom a new tub – big enough for four ordinary-sized men – had to be built after the mishap. Packed with trivia that effectively humanize presidents and the presidency, The President’s Stuck in the Bathtub is enjoyable in itself, and can also help get young readers interested in the (alas, far from amusing) workings of modern-day American politics.
In fact, young readers are more likely to be involved in babysitting than political endeavors, and that is where Don’t Sit on the Baby comes in. The main distinguishing feature of Halley Bondy’s guidebook is that it does not stop after the first two sections, “Babysitting Breakdown” and “Essential Skills,” but goes on to a third, “Business Basics.” It is in that third section that readers will find advice too often missing from guidebooks to teen and young-adult life: deciding how much to charge (“Negotiating can be nerve-racking, but if you ask nicely and have convincing arguments, it just might work”); knowing your rights and obligations (the right to a safe environment while on the job, the obligation to keep the kids safe while they are under your care); updating the parents (tell them both the good stuff and the not-so-good stuff, with the good stuff first); and more. The earlier sections of the book explain how to structure play by age range, cook for picky kids (sample recipes are included), deal with diapers and potty training, help with homework, and discipline without having to call the parents (although that is an acceptable last resort). There is serious material here, such as learning the signs of child abuse, balanced with amusing “Tales from the Crib” that give various babysitters’ experiences, such as the 40-minute adventure that led to creation of chunky-peanut-butter sandwiches on triangle-shaped bread. Don’t Sit on the Baby is a short book (128 pages) and an easy-to-read one, so it should not strain teens’ attention spans too much. But it is so packed with useful information and helpful tips from people who have done their share of babysitting – and survived the experience, sometimes even thriving on it – that readers may want to take it along on babysitting jobs to consult it for advice when things get a little too hectic and perhaps just a tad more difficult to manage than anyone expected.