January 14, 2016
(++++) DESIGNED FOR FUN AND FACTS
Small to Scary Animals. By Aubre Andrus. Scholastic. $5.99.
Bunny vs. Monkey. By Jamie Smart. David Fickling Books. $7.99.
Koob: The Backwards Book. Scholastic. $11.99.
Books need not be simple rectangular objects square-cut for ease of page turning. Sometimes book design can itself become an important part of the reading experience, and a way to involve people more fully in a book’s content. Small to Scary Animals, for example, features pages cleverly cut in two different ways: if you flip from page to page from the upper-right corner, you see baby animals in all their adorableness, on pages with the word “small” shown throughout the background; but if you flip from the lower-right corner, you see those animals fully grown and frequently in, yes, scary poses, and with the word “scary” all over the background. A gray wolf pup, for example, is as cute as they come, but a large and snarling adult gray wolf is not to be trifled with; likewise, a skinny-legged moose calf looks endearingly awkward as it stands in a field, but you would not want to come face-to-face with the full-grown moose shown facing the reader, head down as if ready to charge, with huge widespread antlers. Aubre Andrus offers mostly straightforward animal information in the book’s text, although even basic facts about some of the animals shown here can be fascinating – for instance, the fact that baby porcupines are called “porcupettes” and are born with soft quills. He also gives young readers a chance to see some unusual creatures, such as baby stingrays (which are called “pups”). The book is not 100% scientifically accurate – for example, it says of snakes that “the mother snake keeps the eggs warm before they hatch,” but in fact very few snakes do this. By and large, though, it offers correct information; and equally importantly, its unusual design helps readers understand clearly and visually that even if small wild animals look cute, they are still wild – and even if they are not dangerous when very young, many will grow up to be large and potentially ferocious.
Bunny vs. Monkey is about make-believe animals, not real ones, and is a traditionally rectangular book, but the design is important here, too. Jamie Smart’s book is a graphic novel, but one that is much closer to traditional comic strips than are most graphic novels. Instead of having a single extended story, Bunny vs. Monkey has a series of two-pagers, each of them not much longer than a newspaper comic strip. And although there is some variation in panel size, most of the panels are square or rectangular instead of being created in the multiple sizes and shapes of cutting-edge graphic novels. The simplicity of design and layout parallels the simple stories, which revolve around power-seeking, nastily mischievous but ultimately feckless Monkey, good guy and forest protector Bunny, and various subsidiary characters. Monkey ends up in the forest when scientists put him in a rocket and fire him into space, but the rocket crashes just over a nearby hill, so the scientists say, “Ah well, let’s just give up,” and leave Monkey to his own devices. Monkey initially thinks he is on another planet and proceeds to try to create “Monkey-topia” by conquering the other animals, despite Bunny’s comment, “You can’t just show up and tell us what to do.” After a few stories, the whole other-planet notion falls away and Bunny vs. Monkey simply becomes a set of silly good-guy-vs.-bad-guy stories. Monkey get an ally in the form of Skunky, an inventor whose diabolical creations never seem to work quite right: Metal Steve, for example, is a robot that likes to swim and is not hurt by water. Also on the “bad” side is Action Beaver, who has had a few too many bumps on the head, does not say any words (only grunts and odd exclamations), and spends most of his time banging into things. Bunny’s friends and allies include the squirrel Weenie, who loves to cook and bake, and Pig, who is the most baby-like character, given to comments such as, “It feels sparkly in my tummy.” There is also “Le Fox,” a sort of anti-Skunky who has “spent many years digging a network of tunnels underneath these woods, should the time for warfare arise,” but whose initial appearance has him stopping one of Monkey’s schemes by popping up from underground and simply saying, “Stop that.” The book’s pleasant, easy-to-handle design and the equally easy-to-deal-with design of the stories within it combine to make Bunny vs. Monkey enjoyably silly, much less challenging than many graphic novels, and an appealing way for readers who are a bit too young for more-typical graphic-novel intensity to learn about and enjoy this form of storytelling.
One point of book design is permanence, or at least being long-lasting – that being one reason many people continue to prefer information in books to the same information obtained online. But sometimes a book is designed for its own destruction. That sort of backwards thinking about books fits right into the design of Koob: The Backwards Book, a kind of crafts-project thingie shaped like a parallelogram rather than a rectangle and intended to be turned upside-down and read from back to front once you get past the front cover, which thus is really the back cover, while the end is really the beginning. Got it? Some of the material in Koob is clever and some is simply mindless, but almost all of it is designed to make Koob unusable for more than one run-through – parents should decide what lesson that will teach before they buy the, err, thing. Koob says, for example, to write a secret message on a left-hand page and then glue that page to the right-hand one facing it. It says to tear a page out and see how many times you can fold it; to tear another one out and make it into a paper airplane; to tear out yet another one, cut a hole in it, then fly the paper airplane through the hole; to glue onion skin, orange peel or leaves to another page; to draw an animal on a page, cut the page out, attach a string to it, and take it for a walk; to cut out and interweave pages 103 and 105; and much more in the same vein. There are also pages to color, such as one to handle in a “backwards” way by leaving the page blank and coloring its edges. There is a page to stain with a cold teabag, “then try to wash the tea into a cup by pouring water over the page.” A lot of these destructive suggestions are not really “backwards” in any meaningful way, although there are some attempts to take the “backwards” theme seriously, or sort-of-seriously – for instance, suggesting eating breakfast backwards by “slurping milk out of your bowl” and then eating dry cereal, or saying to use a mirror to read the backwards words on a page. Other activities, though, have nothing to do with “backwards” anything, such as writing “hello” in “as many different languages as you can” and getting an animal to make a paw print on one page. The overly elaborate elements here are among the most overdone: “Tear this page out of the koob. Scrunch it up. Throw it in the trash. Retrieve this page from the trash. Ask an adult to help you iron it flat, and then stick it back into the koob.” There is enough outside-the-box (or outside-the-book) thinking here to give Koob a (+++) rating, but its single-use design and an overall sense that it is trying too hard to be different mean that it will not be truly enjoyable for many kids and families. Reading a book forward may be conventional, but sometimes it is simply a better way to go than reading a koob sdrawkcab.