Cats on Skates 48-Piece Floor Puzzle. By Kestutis Kasparavicius. Pomegranate Kids. $18.95.
Winter Wonderland 48-Piece Floor Puzzle. By Angelea Van Dam. Pomegranate Kids. $18.95.
Kids Cooking: Tasty Recipes with Step-by-Step Photos. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $19.99.
Publishers have different tastes, strategies and motivations, but there is ultimately a certain sameness to what most of them do: book publishers put out books, although different ones focus on different areas, and magazine publishers offer magazines, albeit with different target audiences, and so on. Pomegranate, however, is genuinely unusual, because it produces all sorts of different products in line with its stated mission “to invigorate, illuminate, and inspire through art.” Yes, that is a marketing slogan, but it is not just a marketing slogan, because it is genuinely reflective of the company’s offerings in everything from books to calendars to note cards to informational “knowledge decks” to, well, puzzles. That is puzzles as in traditional, complex jigsaw types in the thousand-piece range and also quite untraditional puzzle designs, such as “floor puzzles.” These are big, not in total number of pieces but in overall size: two feet by three feet or three feet by two, depending on the orientation of a particular scene. Individual pieces are big, too, averaging about five inches square – which makes the puzzles fun for the whole family. Yes, a lot of puzzles claim they are for family use, but these really are, since even small hands can easily grasp pieces without concern about squashing or damaging them. The pieces have the same intricate shapes as jigsaw-puzzle pieces generally do, but their size makes them less delicate and easier to fit together – although, as with any puzzle, a lot of the fun comes from trying to match the colors and designs of scenes perfectly so as to choose exactly the right piece for exactly the right place.
A couple of particularly charming floor-puzzle examples, both having the sort of whimsical humor in which Pomegranate (or rather the artists whose work it showcases) specializes, are winter scenes, one vertical and one horizontal. But these are not standard snow-on-trees-and-fields pictures. One features a delightfully amusing ice-skating-on-frozen-pond picture that is stopped from being ordinary by the fact that all the participants are cats. Cats on Skates was created in 1993 by Lithuanian artist Kestutis Kasparavicius (born 1954). It shows 14 cats doing the things that people normally do on icy ponds (in art works, anyway): skating alone or in couples, balancing on a single skate, doing a balletic dip, or looking rather bewildered after having apparently just fallen. All the cats are anthropomorphic, and all are wearing clothing that is part of the fun here: one has an elegant grey-and-white coat and matching hat, one wears a pink tutu-like skirt, several sport jaunty tasseled caps, and so on. The scene is a pleasantly amusing one of an idealized winter landscape, with a stone bridge and thatched-roof homes in the background, and the piece-by-piece assembly of the brightly colored picture is a real family treat. So is Winter Wonderland by New Zealand artist Angelea Van Dam (born 1979). This is a vertical puzzle (Cats on Skates is horizontal) and is even more brightly colored than Kasparavicius’. In fact, all three characters are swaddled, head to toe, in beautifully intricate full-body-length sweaters plus contrasting scarves, everything neat as a pin and the neckwear knotted absolutely perfectly. It just happens that the three characters are – penguins. And, of course, without pants, which somehow makes them extra-adorable. Two adult penguins stand in the background, looking down their beaks at a little penguin in front, which stares directly out of the frame from a face both rounded and fuzzy (the adults’ heads are sharper in shape and brighter in color). There is no action in the scene and no particular point to it except cuteness, which it has in abundance. In this case, cuteness is its own reward – and Winter Wonderland, like Cats on Skates, is very rewarding indeed, perhaps especially so if a human family finds itself stuck inside because of real-world winter weather and would prefer to spend some time with fanciful wintry scenes that are considerably more enjoyable than the ones faced in everyday cold-weather life.
Kids who are stuck indoors in any season – and even ones who are not stuck but just happen to be indoors – can express their creativity in a different sort of puzzle with a new Klutz “books-plus” offering called Kids Cooking. When you think about it, cooking is a puzzle of sorts: the right things have to be put together in the right way in order to end up with the right result. Cooking is also applied chemistry: the word “catalyst” may sound technical, and its definition of “something that changes other things without being changed itself” may seem abstruse, but anyone who cooks knows that heat is a perfect example of a catalyst in everyday life. This does not mean that heat is needed for all the recipes in Kids Cooking: one of them, the cleverly titled “Kick-the-Can Ice Cream,” has nothing to do with warmth at all – the recipe name perfectly fits the explanation about the importance of rolling around the ingredient-containing coffee cans (a smaller one nested within a larger one) “across the ground for about 20 minutes. It’s good to do this with a friend, preferably outside.” Um, well, yes. This approach to ice cream really works, even if it is scarcely as elegant as making the cool delight with an appliance designed for the purpose. But elegance is not the point here: fun is. And as usual in Klutz “project books,” there is plenty of it. The recipes almost all require a “grown-up assistant,” which makes them great for teaching kids about cooking and baking – or, for kitchen-challenged adults, learning along with children. Just as in adult cookbooks, there are sections for preparing different meals: breakfast (muffins, eggs, smoothies), lunch and snacks (kebabs, lemonade, burritos, popcorn and more), family dinner (noodles, tacos, pizza, etc.), and desserts (cookies, brownies, and, as noted, ice cream). Dishes’ names are on the cutesy side: “Scrambled Egg Buddies,” “Bugged-Out Snack Platter,” “Curry in a Hurry,” “Rrraw-some Cookie Dough.” And presentations are designed to be enjoyable. The recipes themselves are fun, too, with cartoon drawings for the “you will need” section, good information on preparation and (where relevant) baking time, and helpful illustrations of some basics that even adults need to keep in mind – for instance, the right way to level off a measurement, such as a tablespoon. Klutz “books-plus” productions usually include everything needed to do the crafts projects explained in the books, but unfortunately there is no way to put all those delicious ingredients into Kids Cooking. There is, however, a way to include something that kids will certainly find useful in the kitchen: a whisk (a rainbow-colored one, no less), sized smaller than whisks usually are and therefore especially suitable for smaller hands. Cooking and baking are puzzle-and-chemistry skills that kids can take with them throughout life, so they might as well be gained as enjoyably as possible – and, with Kids Cooking, they are.