July 28, 2022


Lettuce Get in Trouble. By Linda Kuo with Cynthia Benjamin and Paula Rees. Illustrated by Mariana Rio. Center for Design Books. $19.95.

Jobs of the Future: Imaginative Careers for Forward-Thinking Kids. By Sofia E. Rossi and Carlo Canepa. Illustrated by Luca Poli. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

     A wonderful tribute and introduction to elements of design – but a book whose underlying premise ends up potentially confusing its intended young audience – Lettuce Get in Trouble is the first volume in what the publisher calls the “Sara Little Trouble Maker Series.” There is a fortunate confluence of name and reality there, since the series is based on the life and work of Sara Little (1917-2015), but kids and parents will likely read the series’ title as “Little Trouble Maker,” which is a rather endearing concept that fits the approach of Linda Kuo and coauthors Cynthia Benjamin and Paula Rees well. It is also rather neat to know that Sara Little really was little, weighing just 90 pounds and being only four feet, 11 inches tall (her real name was Sara Finkelstein: she was nicknamed “Little Sara” and called herself Sara Little professionally). As intriguing as all this information is, though, the point of any book for young children is to engage them in a topic in an age-appropriate way and help them see how that subject operates in the real world – their real world. Lettuce Get in Trouble, preoccupied as it is with being a Sara Little tribute book and an introduction to her way of thinking – and to being a series opener – falls short when it comes to what actually happens in the narrative. For instance, the narrative clearly states, and Mariana Rio’s illustrations clearly show, that Sara Little inevitably wore “one tiny upside-down clock on her black turtleneck.” That is an intriguing fact that will surely lead curious young readers to ask why she wore the upside-down clock. And the answer is – never provided. And this is just one of the small (and sometimes larger) frustrations of this trying-a-bit-too-hard book. It is initially difficult to tell just how realistic (vs. fairy-tale-like) the book is supposed to be. It says that Sara Little runs “the Little Laboratory,” which is located “in the Big Apple” (never stating that that means New York City); and that seems plausible and realistic enough. But then it turns out that Sara gets an important letter delivered by “a snowy white pigeon,” and now we are in the fairy-tale realm. And the letter leads to the primary plot of the book, which involves using creativity in design to solve this problem: “Children seem to have stopped eating vegetables.” Well, the tie-in to the real Sara Little’s life makes sense – her mother really did arrange fruits and vegetables in bowls to teach child Sara about design, and that information does appear early in Lettuce Get in Trouble. But as a major plot device, this kids-and-vegetables concept falls flat. The idea is that Sara gets kids involved in design using vegetables, and gives them enthusiasm by explaining about the colors of produce: “green for peace, red for love, yellow for joy.” And this then gets the kids intrigued by the notion of designing food-related things, such as “a meal where everyone eats using their fingers.” And soon kids from everywhere “arrive in hot air balloons” (the book is now firmly in the fantasy realm) for participatory activities: one “makes sushi with white onions and tiny purple grapes,” one “sprinkles mint leaves on tacos filled with bright orange carrots and red peppers,” and so on. All the designs are interesting and attractive, and everyone is happy to be involved in making new ones – even the curmudgeons of the Ministry of Food (again, a fairy-tale element). But Kuo, Benjamin and Rees never solve, or even get back to, the underlying issue of children no longer eating vegetables. It is implied that all this wonderful creativity leads to great happiness and understanding and peace and love and all that, but the thread of the story never gets fully woven into any sort of garment. Why exactly did kids stop eating vegetables? If they stopped, they must have eaten them before something happened – so what happened? Why the title Lettuce Get in Trouble? What exactly is the “trouble” into which kids should get? How does cleverness of design overcome whatever the vegetable-eating difficulty might be? Is the idea that if vegetables are entertainingly presented, kids will suddenly enjoy how they taste? (That would be a perfectly good, if arguable, premise, but it is never plainly presented.) In other words, how can sensitive, even clever design – the province of the real Sara Little – be brought to bear on this specific issue in a satisfactory way? That is a perfectly reasonable question that is never answered. Thoughtful design can solve many problems, but not all of them. Kids’ distaste for vegetables (after presumably enjoying them at some time before the start of the book) is not one of them – unless the authors want to suggest that attractive presentation, in and of itself, is enough to make children become (or return to being) vegetable lovers. They would be entitled to make just such an assertion, even if young readers (and parents) might not agree; but they do not do so. This is a book about how wonderful Sara Little was at solving problems through well-thought-out designs, but the specific problem invented for the story just does not connect very well with Sara Little’s specific talents.

     Intended much more as a real-world book looking into the time to come for the young people who will read it, Jobs of the Future makes various assumptions about how the world will change and how careers based on those changes – incorporating ideas or tools that may not even exist yet – will become available. There is, for instance, “the architect of impossible places,” who initially handles rising sea levels by building an underwater city, then collaborates with another architect to build a perfect city in the Sahara Desert: “No more roads or pollution; transportation will function exclusively through a system of elevated pipes filled with compressed air…and everything – absolutely everything – will be recycled.” It is hard to say which element of this is most Utopian: the notion that 100% recycling is or will be possible, or the idea that people from vastly different parts of the world will collaborate for the equal benefit of all, resulting in a perfect city packed with people from entirely different but perfectly complementary cultures. But Sofia E. Rossi and Carlo Canepa want readers of their book to consider this as a serious career possibility. They also assume that basic tropes of science fiction will merge with reality soon: one suggested career is explorer of faraway planets, complete with precision interstellar travel and perfectly functioning cryogenic equipment; another is that of DNA tailor, someone who can “reverse genetic diseases, prevent the replication of viruses, and determine the roles of newly discovered genes” – with not a smidgen of political difficulty or sociological pushback. There happen to be some really neat ideas here: nanotechnological reconstruction of ancient artifacts, development of a soccer-playing robot that uses human dreams to improve its skills, creation and maintenance of cars and ships powered by solar sails, and more. Not everything in the book is outside the realm of possibility, and it is inevitable that some forms of creativity will move further than anything dreamed of by Rossi and Canepa, and in different directions. The book’s main purpose, though, really lies in the pages after the ones suggesting possible future careers. These pages give the authors’ analyses and opinions on various challenges currently facing humanity, and a chance to put forward their viewpoints on those concerns. Thus, they warn against the possible extinction of more than 38,500 plant and animal species; explain the importance of “investing in renewable energy, such as solar and wind power”; tell readers to “limit water use in the home” and buy products such as “composting toilets”; and so forth. More interesting than these recommendations, and less unlikely than some of the suggested future careers, are some of the explanations of the scientific fields that today’s young readers may be able to explore in the future, such as biomimetics and scientific cuisine. Luca Poli’s illustrations for those explanatory portions of the book are also more engaging than the rather straightforward pictures elsewhere. Jobs of the Future is only in part about jobs of the future – and that is not its best part. More interesting is the way the book can help young readers explore the basics of fields about which they may never have heard before, and perhaps become intrigued enough to come up with their own career concepts in those areas after investigating the possibilities more thoroughly.

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