June 12, 2014


What Do You See? By Erika Kuster. Illustrated by Milena Kirkova. Accord Publishing/Andrews McMeel. $6.99.

The Little Book of Stress. By Rohan Candappa. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.

Pocket Posh: Charles Dickens; Sherlock Holmes; William Shakespeare. By the Puzzle Society. Andrews McMeel. $7.99 each.

     Small in size but large in entertainment value and overall enjoyment, these little books are especially delightful because of the way they engage readers’ imagination. What Do You See? is a lift-the-flap book – it says so right on the cover – but it is more involving and creative than most short board books for kids up to age four. The reason is that the flaps, when opened, reveal scenes that help challenge and develop the imagination of the youngest readers and even of kids too young to read the book on their own. Erika Kuster’s very simple words combine beautifully with Milena Kirkova’s drawings to produce some very delightful effects indeed. “What do you see when you look at the sky?” is the first question – and in a typical book of this sort, the answer would be something like, “Clouds of all sizes and shapes.” Not here: lift the flap, which looks like an open window through which clouds are already visible, and the answer appears – “Anything you wish, like a train chugging by!” Yes, the ordinary clouds shown before the flap is lifted become train-shaped clouds after the flap is opened. Very imaginative. Each of the six scenes here is at the same level. A little boy looks at a stack of pancakes and wonders, “What sings and hums when the morning sun rises?” Lift the top pancake for the answer: “A pile of pancakes that is full of surprises” – including two blueberry eyes, a bacon-strip mouth and several musical notes. The final question sums up the book very neatly, asking, “When I look in the mirror, what do I see?” The illustration simply shows a full-length mirror with the boy’s reflection – but lift the flap (which lifts the whole mirror) and there appears a scene with the boy as an astronaut, floating in space, with the words, “Anything I can imagine. Anything I want to be!” For encouraging imagination in the youngest children, What Do You See? is a real, not imaginary, treat.

     For grown-up kids – especially ones with a cynical bent, whose imagination runs in some nontraditional channels – there is a very-small-size, non-illustrated book (indeed, a pocket-size one, about as big as a smartphone) that turns some standard adult assumptions neatly on their head. It is The Little Book of Stress, and Rohan Candappa’s premise in it is that stress is a good thing; so good, indeed, that people need to know how to create more of it. Each page bears a headline and offers a small, homily-like nugget of wisdom. “Nurturing Is Good: Nurture your grievances. If you don’t they’ll die and then whoever’s done you wrong will have got away with it.” (That should be “gotten away with it,” but why quibble about grammar at a time like this? That might cause stress. Or not.) Another example: “Communication Breakdowns: If you are stressed, make sure you communicate this to those around you. Soon they’ll be stressed too.” And another: “Know Limits: Recognize your limitations. Then ignore them.” And there is one page where only the headline is provided, since it is the only stress-building remark necessary: “Become a Politician.” Candappa manages not to be mean-spirited (well, not too mean-spirited) in his pro-stress prescriptions, and his sense of humor will make the temporarily (or permanently) overstressed laugh, or at least chuckle from time to time – as, for instance, when he exhorts readers not to worry only about big things, because “small things need to be worried about too.” Or when he notes that “worrying is meditation carried out by realists.” The Little Book of Stress is so stress-filled that it is actually de-stressing to carry it around and read a page or two from time to time. Of course, that is a bad thing, since the whole idea is to increase stress; so this must be a bad book masquerading as a good one. Or vice versa.

     Now, if you really want some pocket-size self-induced stress that only looks like a form of de-stressing, how better to create it than with brain teasers and brain twisters and diabolically clever puzzles and word problems that show you how little you know about things that you thought you knew a lot about? Oh yes, those folks at the Puzzle Society know how to stir things up – and it is not only a matter of twisting and turning popular culture. Nothing so simple! The wonderful Pocket Posh book line, each book filled with 100 puzzles and quizzes guaranteed to make you feel far less knowledgeable than you thought you were, has dipped its toe into British literature. In fact, it has plunged its entire metaphorical body into those heady and somewhat chilly waters. Three cases in point are the delightfully designed volumes on Charles Dickens, Sherlock Holmes and William Shakespeare. Quick: which of those was not a real person? The answer is supposed to be Sherlock Holmes, but obviously that name appears on the book because it attracts more interest than does that of Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (and never mind that some people still think Shakespeare was not a real person, or at least not the author of the plays attributed to him). Consider that “real person” question a warm-up for the ones in the books, which are quite a bit more mind-muddling, if not necessarily mind-boggling. The Dickens book, for example, offers a 26-number grid that you have to decipher, figuring out what number goes with which letter of the alphabet, so you can then fill in the correct letters in a crossword puzzle that, when completed, will give you a quote from David Copperfield. That is just one puzzle, mind you. Another asks 10 fill-in-the-blank questions and explains that when you answer them all correctly and transfer the answers to a grid, “the top shaded line will spell out the name of Mrs. Clennam’s servant in Little Dorrit.” Not abstruse enough for you? How about a “Wordsearch” in which appear 15 names from Nicholas Nickleby, including Snawley, Folair and Smike? Or maybe you prefer a cross-out-the-letters grid in which, by removing all letters that appear more than once, you get “a word relating to Oliver Twist.” Or perhaps you would like the “Arroword” puzzle that you must solve to spell out a word – the arrows show where to put your answers, after which you have to rearrange the letters that appear in shaded squares “to spell out the name of a chapter from Sketches by Boz.” If you were not a Dickensian when you started this book, you will certainly not be one when you finish it.

     Perhaps you would rather get the same treatment where Sherlock Holmes is concerned. Then you may want to take the 10-question “Character Quiz,” which asks “What is Dr. Watson’s first name?” and “Who is the head of the Baker Street Irregulars?” Or try “Add a letter,” in which you must add a letter to each of 10 words so the resulting words fit a clue, then place the added letters in boxes to complete the title of a specific Holmes story. Or try “Wordwheel,” which gives you 10 minutes to make words from the letters around its spokes plus a specific central letter that must appear in each word – oh, and “there is at least one nine-letter word, the surname of a police inspector featured in a Sherlock Holmes story.” (In another such wheel, there is at least one nine-letter word that is associated with Dr. Watson. You get the idea.) Even devoted fans of Baker Street’s most famous fictional resident will pause before declaring that these puzzles are “elementary.”

     And if Dickens and Doyle’s detective are not dastardly enough mind-stretchers, there is always Pocket Posh William Shakespeare. Many of the types of puzzles in this volume are the same as in the other books, but not all: here, for example, is an anagrams page requiring word sequences to be unscrambled into play titles – sequences such as WHEREOF A TENTH MIGHTS, NEVER THE FIT COACHMEN, and DIARISTS A SCOUNDREL. And when the puzzles here are the same types as those in the other books, what solutions the reader/puzzler must discover! Try the quiz that asks, among other things, “What is the largest female role, by line count, in Shakespeare?” Or the King Lear word search requiring the puzzler to find Heath, Oswald, Storm, Beggar and, of course, Betrayal. Or the one featuring terms and characters from The Winter’s Tale, such as Polixenes, Florizel, Mamillius, Paulina and Autolycus. Or “Wordwheel” puzzles whose nine-letter words are the names of Shakespeare characters. Intense academic study of Shakespeare is not required to answer the questions and solve the puzzles, but you do need more than a passing familiarity with the Bard of Avon to get everything right. If you do not have such familiarity at the start of the book, you will surely have it at the end – even if you need to take advantage of the answer section that appears in every Pocket Posh book. There is, in fact, nothing at all wrong with checking out the back of the book for information you do not know. Part of honing your imagination involves packing your mind with new material that you can engage in flights of fancy at a later time. Or, equally likely, that can engage you – as all these imagination-pleasing little books do.

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