August 13, 2015
(++++) SPECIAL-PURPOSE CARTOONING
Keep Calm and Do the Snoopy Dance. By Charles M. Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.
Superstars of Science: The Brave, the Bold, and the Brainy. Created by Simon Basher. Written by R.G. Grant. Scholastic. $7.99.
Comic strips and their characters can be plenty of fun on their own, but they may sometimes be called on in the service of a higher purpose than amusement. Or at least a different one. For example, Snoopy, Charles Schulz’ devil-may-care beagle from Peanuts, has famously (or notoriously) been licensed to help sell insurance. He can also be used, in a more upbeat way, to “endorse” comments about the dance of life – on the basis that Snoopy himself went through much of his comic-strip existence dancing for some reason or other, or none. Hence the little hardcover gift book called Keep Calm and Do the Snoopy Dance, in which a number of dance-focused strips featuring Snoopy are intermingled with uplifting quotes about life as a dance, or dancing through life, or dancing despite life’s difficulties, from a wide variety of observers. “You wouldn’t be so happy if you knew about all the troubles in this world,” ever-crabby Lucy tells happily dancing Snoopy in one strip included here – to which Snoopy replies (or “re-thinks,” since he does not talk to the human characters), “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. I’m outrageously happy in my stupidity.” And on he dances. This little bit of homespun amusement stands up well to comments like the ones from a Japanese proverb (“We’re fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance”), Erasmus (“The highest form of bliss is living with a certain degree of folly”), and Carl Sandburg (“Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance”). Some remarks here are from people strongly associated with dance, such as master ballet choreographer George Balanchine: “Dance is music made visible.” Others come from people scarcely likely to be thought of as involved in dance, such as philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.” The quotations range from the simple to the profound, and in a sense, so do the included Peanuts strips featuring Snoopy, which are sometimes simply amusing and sometimes hint at greater depths – Schulz’s strip had deeper thinking in it, often of a bittersweet kind, than many people who remember it fondly realize. Keep Calm and Do the Snoopy Dance is an enjoyable dose of positive thought, courtesy in part of the thinkers whose words are included but thanks even more to the Snoopy cartoons scattered throughout – and the top-hatted Snoopy shown on every quotation page.
The cartoons’ purpose is different in Superstars of Science, but here too the objective is to make more-serious material more accessible than it would be if given only in words. The subject here is scientific discovery, and the book is one of an extended series of Simon Basher designs in which stylized, immediately recognizable cartoon figures with oval heads, very high foreheads and extremely simplified facial features are used to represent real-world people (or, in other Basher books, imagined characters or forces). The work of more than 40 scientists is encapsulated here, in each case with a left-hand page showing a Basher-style illustration of the scientist and items associated with him or her, and a right-hand page, written by R.G. Grant, in which the scientist “talks” to the young readers who are the book’s target audience about his or her life and interests. That page also gives a brief time line, some information on the scientist’s specific accomplishments, and a note on his or her legacy. Ptolemy, for example, explains that “I believed the earth was round and tried to work out its size,” and the entry on him also discusses other ancient scientists, such as Aristarchus of Syracuse, who “said the earth revolved around the sun and even guessed the stars were other suns very far away.” William Harvey, “the father of modern physiology,” tells readers that “what really interested me was cutting things up” by doing autopsies; Antoine Lavoisier, “the father of modern chemistry,” explains how he discovered “that the gases hydrogen and oxygen joined together to form water.” What happened to these scientists was often tragic: for example, Lavoisier was beheaded during the French Revolution and Ptolemy was killed when invading Romans conquered his city, Syracuse. These facts are included in Superstars of Science, but they are not its main point. The primary idea here is to give young readers a small amount of familiarity with and understanding of important scientific discoveries and some of the people who made them. There are well-known figures here, including Galileo, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and others. And there are some names that are famous in scientific circles but not among the general public: Alhazen, William Herschel, Mary Anning, Ada Lovelace, Robert Goddard, Barbara McClintock. The cartoons here, despite being highly stylized, humanize the scientists and – along with the brief information on their lives – can help young readers connect with them as real people, not merely obscure names in textbooks. The idea is to pique readers’ interest so they will obtain more-detailed information elsewhere – a worthy goal, and one certainly worth furthering through the use of the cartooning style for which Basher is known.