May 16, 2013

(++++) KID STUFF

Made by Dad: 67 Blueprints for Making Cool Stuff. By Scott Bedford. Workman. $18.95.

Mighty Alice Goes Round and Round: A “Cul de Sac” Book. By Richard Thompson. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Ten Little Dinosaurs. By Pattie Schnetzler. Illustrated by Jim Harris. Accord Publishing/Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     Plenty of books are purely for fun, designed entirely to show how enjoyable it is to be a kid – although if a little something instructional happens to slip in, well, so much the better. Thus, the projects in Made by Dad are pure enjoyment when completed, but doing them as father-and-child endeavors (which, by the way, could just as well be mother-and-child, the book’s title aside) creates bonding time and learning opportunities and….errr….a fair number of chances for disappointment. You see, even though Scott Bedford subtitles the book, “Projects You Can Build For (and with) Your Kids,” that is not entirely accurate. The ones labeled “easy” will be fine for just about anyone, but there are plenty of things here that really should not be attempted by anybody who is less than handy with tools and art supplies (considerable drawing is frequently recommended, although there is a workaround for it).  The book’s title refers to “Blueprints” for a reason: each project is shown in finished form at the start and then broken down, blueprint-style, into step-by-step instructions that parents may well be able to follow. The projects are not arranged by difficulty level but by topic: “Dangerous Décor,” “Home Hacks,” “Suspect Science,” “Geeky Gadgets,” “Covert Creations,” “Arty Party” and “Playful Parenting” (that last title being one that actually applies to all the sections).  Individual project names are part of the fun here: “Claw-Through-the-Wall Picture,” “Spaghetti & Marshmallow Eiffel Tower,” “Teddy Through the Center of the Earth,” “Snail Soup Decoy,” “Saber-Toothed Spiders,” “Jelly Bean Reward Rocket” and many more – 67 in all, just as the book’s title says. The project names, though, do not explain the difficulty levels; for those, you have to turn to the first page of each project. “Alien Abduction Mobile” is “tricky,” for example, while “Sitting on Eggshells” is “medium,” “Sword Transformer” is “easy,” and “Balloon Ballast Balancing Act” is (gulp) “challenging.”  Parents would be well-advised to leave the more-difficult projects alone until they have done some of the simpler ones and made sure that the kids enjoy them. As for the art workaround, Bedford helpfully provides a 47-page appendix with templates of things that need to be drawn for the various projects, even though he says, “I wholeheartedly encourage you to draw your own elements (or get the kids to do it!).” So the artistic part of Made by Dad need not be a barrier to anyone whose skills in that area are less than Bedford’s. The actual project assemblage, though, may be a bigger deal than Bedford suggests. For the “medium” difficulty “No Place Like Home Twister,” for example, required materials include craft knife, cutting mat, medium-sized corrugated cardboard box, ruler, pencil, white medium-weight cardstock, paper glue, felt-tip markers, toilet-paper tube, hot glue gun, glue sticks, drafting compass, long cardboard tube, scissors, large clear plastic bags or sheets (such as dry-cleaning bags), clear tape, stirring sticks and mounting putty. Got all that? If not, be sure to assemble everything – for any project here – before trying to build an item. Everything that Bedford calls for is needed to get things done; attempting shortcuts is not a good idea. Made by Dad is a great book for handy, workshop-type fathers (or mothers) whose kids really enjoy hands-on crafts projects and are not frustrated by a certain level of complexity, which even the easiest concepts here include. The finished products tend to be both clever and amusing, and the experience of making them together can be great for parent-child bonding if both parent and child can be patient and meticulous – and if neither is easily frustrated in the event that things do not go quite as smoothly as these “blueprints” say they will.

     Things do not always go smoothly for the Otterloop family, a wonderful suburban creation by cartoonist Richard Thompson. But the bumps in the road of everyday life encountered by four-year-old Alice, eight-year-old Petey, and their frequently bemused but always well-meaning parents, are what make the Cul de Sac comic strip such a treasure. Mighty Alice Goes Round and Round is a standard-book-size collection of more-or-less random selections from the strip, with sequences originally printed on weekdays shown here in black and white and Sunday strips in color. It is more an introductory book than anything else: Andrews McMeel places it in its “Amp! Comics for Kids” line and presumably intends it for young readers not already familiar with the Otterloop antics in newspapers. “What’s a newspaper?” some young readers may ask. Well, Thompson has an answer for that, sort of, since he sometimes deals with newspapers and comics in his comics – as in one Sunday strip in which Petey explains to Alice that comics are “a mighty, yet dying art form,” while Alice is unable to understand that a multi-panel sequential strip with a cat in it is supposed to be about the same cat at different times, not different cats doing different things. Thompson’s tweaking of himself and other cartoonists is more for adults than kids, but most of Mighty Alice Goes Round and Round will provide equal enjoyment to children and adults. There are the talks with Mr. Danders, the guinea pig who is the pet at Alice’s preschool and who tells the kids how under-appreciated he feels; Petey’s determination to advance in the world rankings of picky eaters, and his concern that “strange babies keep attacking me”; Alice’s mom’s impossible holiday sweaters and her dad’s impossibly tiny car, which at one point ends up in Alice’s sandbox as a toy; the many oddities of Alice’s friend Dill, who looks through mail slots “as a community service” and hopes to marry Alice if she ever stops grabbing his toys; and much more. Thompson brilliantly channels – or remembers – the way young children perceive and absorb the world, and his dialogue captures childhood moments that readers young and old will probably remember even if they never happened. There is, for instance, Alice’s foray under a restaurant table to retrieve a dropped crayon, and her comment that she has entered “a world where everything is sticky.” And then there is her remark about Petey’s dislike of sledding: “I call it ‘keeping Mom’s expectations low’ and I’m all for it.” Readers new to Cul de Sac will be every bit as charmed by Mighty Alice Goes Round and Round as will ones who already know the strip and are simply rediscovering it through this collection of selected snippets.

     And for kids too young to read Thompson’s comics and perhaps disinclined to take part in Bedford’s projects, but still looking for something amusing and offbeat and looking more like a crafts item than a traditional book, there is Ten Little Dinosaurs by Pattie Schnetzler and Jim Harris. This is a variation on the traditional counting-down-from-10-to-one rhyme, and probably the first time that rhyme has ever included words such as Pachycephalosaurus and Saurolophus. It also contains floating, swirling, bright-green “googly eyes” mounted to the front of the board book and appearing within the face of every dinosaur on every page – and even within the face of the archeologist who, at the end, points out that, alas, all the dinosaurs are extinct. That small bit of scientific accuracy aside, this little book is a romp, showing dinos doing very modern things: bouncing on a bed, riding a tricycle, rafting down a river, and so on. And they get into trouble with each thing they do, resulting in lines such as, “”No more feather-heads jumping off a peak” and “No more big mouths watching baseball.” The rhyme scheme is not perfect, so parents planning to read the book aloud may want to read it to themselves first so they can make the poetry flow well – especially with all those names of dinos in it. And parents also need to know about one oddity before they read the book – the result of confused communication between Schnetzler and Harris. On one page, dinosaurs – Tyrannosaurs, no less – are seen “munching on a mooth.” Schnetzler invented that word to get a rhyme for “tooth,” intending “mooth” to mean “moose.” But Harris did not want to show dinosaurs eating a moose in a book intended to appeal to very young children, so he drew what looks like a gigantic strawberry. This makes absolutely no sense, especially since Tyrannosaurus Rex was a carnivore, but parents – now forewarned – can make a joke out of the whole thing, and appear wise as well as skilled in rhymed reading as they go through this clever and inventive little book.

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