August 02, 2007


My Flag Book. By Sarah L. Thomson. Smithsonian/Collins. $5.99.

My Panda Book. By Stuart P. Levine. Smithsonian/Collins. $5.99.

The Hills Have Eyes: The Beginning. By Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray. Art by John Higgins. Fox Atomic/HarperCollins. $17.99.

      Board books for infants from newborns to age five must, by their very nature, have a strong visual orientation. Fact-based board books face an extra hurdle: they need to be accurate as well as interesting. The Smithsonian Institution’s collaboration with the Collins division of HarperCollins balances these elements very well in My Flag Book and My Panda Book. Both are sturdy and nicely illustrated, with super-simple stories and lots of bright, attractive pictures for kids to enjoy even before they can fully understand the words. My Flag Book features the U.S. flag’s colors, pattern (stars and stripes), plenty of pictures of young children with flags or saluting the flag, and a smattering of basic information: “Why do we fly the flag high on a pole? So everyone can see it.” My Panda Book is full of pictures of the pandas at the National Zoo (which is part of the Smithsonian). These animals – which even adults tend to find irresistibly cute – eat bamboo, play with a ball, wrestle and, of course, sleep, which is actually what they do best (and most of the time). Neither of these books requires any words at all for the youngest children – the pictures are interesting enough on their own. And both have simple narratives that should appeal to families as kids get a bit older and can understand them – that is, if the books have not by then been gummed to pieces by all the love they are likely to get.

      At the far other end of the visual spectrum from innocent little books for newborns and young children are the new hyper-violent graphic novels tied into horror movies, and aimed at young adults. These come from a different part of the same publisher, but they have, in their own way, as strong a visual orientation as the board books do in theirs. The Hills Have Eyes: The Beginning is a terrorfest professing to provide the back story for Wes Craven’s cult favorite, The Hills Have Eyes – whose sequel (called, of course, The Hills Have Eyes 2) is just out. The sheer audacity of the drawings here, and the attempt to tell a coherent tale about films whose sole reason for existence is to cause viewers to shudder and to give them some vicarious bloodletting thrills, earn the book a (+++) rating. But it is decidedly not for the squeamish, or for anyone who is not already a fan of Craven’s work. The basic plot of the Hills movies is a familiar horror-film staple: weirdly mutated semi-human creatures slaughter as many people as possible. The graphic novel spends most of its story explaining what these mutated creatures are, how they came into being (it’s the government’s fault), and how they were forced to become evil predatory killers and cannibals. None of the narrative makes much sense (atomic radiation causing, among other things, virgin births of mutant monsters?); but the pictures are the real reason for this book’s existence. And the graphic novel is certainly…err…graphic enough to interest fans of the “diseased cannibals and serial killers” (artist John Higgins’ description) and the hyper-horror genre they represent.

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