May 27, 2010


Rubber Band Powered Flying Machines. By Pat Murphy & the Scientists of Klutz Labs. Klutz. $19.95.

The Game of Sunken Places. By M.T. Anderson. Scholastic. $6.99.

     Some books help your imagination soar. And then there are Klutz books, which help you make things, and then those things soar. Rubber Band Powered Flying Machines is a perfect example of capital-K Klutziness (which is something good, unlike small-k klutziness, which isn’t). The whole book is a project, or rather three projects, since its contents are enough to make three model planes powered by rubber bands. The instructional part of the book – in the usual Klutz wirebound, open-flat format – gives detailed information on how to assemble the planes and how to make them fly in various ways. The plane parts (which are not plain parts but are brightly colored and attractive) include plastic propellers, punch-out foam for airplane bodies, wooden motor sticks, other elements of plane assembly, and of course rubber strips to twist until they store enough energy to power the planes. Although recommended for ages eight and up, Rubber Band Powered Flying Machines is really for careful and attentive model builders, no matter what their age: these planes have to be lightweight in order to fly and do their tricks (yes, they do tricks), so they must be assembled carefully and patiently. Kids who are prone to rush through projects will succeed only in damaging the plane components (the lightweight foam is especially vulnerable) and getting frustrated. A little adult supervision – from a patient adult – can be helpful here. And the time spent putting the planes together is well worth it. One plane, designed for outdoor use, flies especially high; the second, to be flown indoors or out, flies in neat loops; and the third, designed only for use inside, turns tightly and is therefore well equipped to avoid such hazards as walls and table lamps. The planes are not really difficult or time-consuming to assemble (although, again, it will not work to force the pieces or try to do everything too quickly). Flying them, however, does take some skill. The book really excels in details of how to make the flights successful. A “Preflight Checklist,” for example, shows exactly how the plane should look and also how things might go wrong. There are also very useful troubleshooting sections, and some back-of-the-book information on how flying works – which makes gravity, thrust, lift, drag and torque (the forces that push on a flying airplane) into easily understandable concepts. And the tidbits of information in Rubber Band Powered Flying Machines are fascinating – such as the fact that the Wright Brothers, 25 years before their famous flight at Kitty Hawk, had their very own rubber-powered helicopter.

     It took considerable imagination to get from rubber-band-powered flight to an airplane that could carry a human being, and imagination is also the key ingredient in creating worlds where events go beyond anything that can be invented on our own planet. The power of imagination turns out to be crucial in several ways and on several levels in M.T. Anderson’s The Game of Sunken Places, which despite the title has quite a few high-flying moments in it. It is the story of 13-year-old best friends Gregory Buchanan and Brian Thatz, two very different people who seem like “two lobes of the same brain” – a description that turns out to be very important in what happens to them. The “what happens” starts with an invitation from Gregory’s strange Uncle Max to the uncle’s house in Vermont, where all sorts of peculiar people and all sorts of peculiar events come together as soon as Gregory and Brian arrive. At the center of everything is the game of the book’s title, which the boys find in the attic – a board game that is more than a board game, propelling the friends into an adventure in time and space that includes kingdoms at war, a monstrous troll, and sundry other magical creatures. This does not sound like a very original or particularly promising plot – and, to be honest, it isn’t. What makes The Game of Sunken Places a successful book, worth a (+++) rating, is Anderson’s constant deviations into sly humor and his unending fondness for plot twists (near the end, when you are sure he has finally untwisted the last of those, he still has one in reserve). The Game of Sunken Places has some of the flavor of long-ago role-playing games (not the massively multiplayer online role-playing games of today, but games of the “Dungeons and Dragons” variety) and much of the flavor of “buddy movies,” although that element is one of the ones that get twisted at the end. Anderson’s skill at plotting helps conceal the fact that Gregory and Brian are not particularly interesting characters – in fact, they are repeatedly upstaged by less-central beings, from an artificially created monster to someone (or something) that does a lot of the shaping of the world in which the boys find themselves. There is medieval-style adventure here, and some time travel, and some monster-outwitting, and in fact the book sometimes seems to be made up of small pieces of several other books, uncertainly knitted together. Anderson is a good enough writer so he almost pulls off the sleight-of-hand necessary to conceal the seams in the story – and if he doesn’t quite succeed, there is always an upcoming sequel called The Suburb Beyond the Stars to which readers can look forward.

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