December 2013

Colleen Mondor


Gift Ideas for Curious Minds

Every year I keep an eye out for special books that I believe will make excellent unexpected gifts for holidays. Readers love a good novel or story collection but there is something to be said for the appeal of innovative nonfiction, especially when it is heavily illustrated. I think the coffee table book is one of the better inventions of the publishing industry and I'm still annoyed that all books, regardless of audience, do not come with pictures. Consider these titles the best of both worlds: visually captivating to the very young while engaging and informative to readers of any age.

I first saw the pop-up book America's National Parks across the room at a booksellers' tradeshow and had to pick it up. With paper engineering by Bruce Foster, illustrations by Dave Ember and text and concept by Don Compton, this collaboration is not only a stunner to page through but extremely informative as well. The pop-ups are insane. Six of the national parks are highlighted, and within each massive double-page spread are smaller pop-ups highlighting specific aspects of each destination like the "red jammer" touring buses in Glacier and the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite.

Unlike many pop-ups, which serve as glorious art objects but are light on text, Compton has done a first-rate job of informing readers about the specific parks (including photographs of each destination in small accompanying foldouts). He breaks up the pop-ups with spreads introducing each region and discussing other significant parks that can be found there, such as Shenandoah, Acadia, Cuyahoga Valley and Mammoth Cave in the eastern U.S. These spreads include full-color reproductions of historic posters created by the WPA in the 1930s. That style is duplicated in Ember's many illustrations, which celebrate each destination in a way that is both evocative of the past and thoroughly modern.

Young budding cartographers who would like to look beyond America's borders will find a lot to love in the oversized Maps by Aleksandra Mizielińska and Daniel Mizieliński. With fifty-two full-color maps of continents and countries, there is a lot to love in this fanciful yet accurate journey around the world. The maps, on matte paper with muted colors, include everything from landmarks to animals to popular foods. Every country has a boy and girl representative with names common to their homelands and famous people from history (Cleopatra! Da Vinci! Confucius!) are depicted as well.

Maps reminded me a bit of the Walt Disney "Small World" ride (this is a compliment) and brought the same sort of wonder to mind. There is so much to look at in these big spreads that children can easily pour over the pictures for hours. I loved how many different things are included, from sports to art to geology, and that each page also includes information such as capitals, population, and primary languages. Maps is a colorful way to learn geography that is not cartoony or simple; this is in fact one of the more elegant titles on the subject for the very young that I have seen. It's truly delightful.

For older readers with an interest in the evolution of cartography, two recent titles take a look at how sea monsters played a part in mapmaking for centuries. Joseph Nigg's Sea Monsters: A Voyage Around the World's Most Beguiling Map is an in-depth look at a 1539 Nordic map, the Carta Marina, which was designed by Olaus Magnus. This map was influential in the work of many mapmakers and historians for centuries who used Magnus' depictions of creatures such as "Pristers" (aka whales), the "Polypus" (lobster), and the legendary Kraken in their own work. The dust jacket unfolds to reveal the full map, which is a treat unto itself.

Chet Van Duzer takes a broader geographic look in Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, where he considers how creatures evolved in their appearance over a variety of European maps between the tenth and sixteenth centuries. Referring to all sorts of texts, including Ptolemy and Magnus, Van Duzer shows how creatures have changed as our understanding of them grew. The eight illustrations of the evolving walrus are both bizarre and amazing.

Most of these maps, and indeed the time periods they cover, will be foreign to teen readers, but the idea of "Here There Be Monsters" written across a map is something any fan of fantasy literature or science fiction will recognize. Nigg and Van Duzer explore places and times where such monsters were very much alive to most of the world's population. The glossy illustrations are attractive and the texts compelling. To know what people thought -- what they believed -- so long ago provides a valuable window into the past. The fact that these two books come wrapped up in maps and monsters makes the history that much more impossible to resist.

For readers interested in getting their hands a bit dirty, Stephen Voltz and Fritz Grobe (aka "the Coke and Mentos Guys") have a new book of science projects out: How to Build a Hovercraft. The experiments run through three levels of difficulty from the more basic (such as the "yanking tablecloths and other near disasters," which they caution needs lots of practice), to a "Coke-and-Mentos-powered rocket car" which does pretty much what you want such a contraption to do. There is indeed some adult supervision required on this stuff (and safety goggles) and certainly a likelihood of getting in trouble with the powers-that-be if you do any of it near a school, but How to Build a Hovercraft is well designed, full of easy-to-follow instructions and proof positive of the fun that can be found in science. It's got gold mine potential written all over it for kids who are bored with memorizing the periodic table of the elements and desecrating the bodies of dead frogs. Yes, there is some inherent danger in experiments like the Fire Wire, but the authors have all the necessary warnings and walk you through step-by-step. Get outside, get some tools and dive into this book; it will shake up your ideas about science in more ways than one.

A bit less intense but still hands-on, Philippe Petit (author of Man on Wire), has crafted a lovely exploration of sixty different types of "beautiful, lifesaving, and secure knots!" with his title Why Knot?

This compact hardcover (which comes with its own small piece of rope for practice) includes not only easy-to-follow instructions for knot making, but illustrations to help along the way and also -- the best part, I think -- Petit's own high-wire memories and photos from his walks. He also provides general advice on knots throughout the book including such things as how to protect the "extremities."

What elevates Why Knot? above the younger Klutz publication fare is not only the thoroughness of the subject matter, but also Petit's wise thoughtfulness. The introduction considers "knot science" and the seriousness of the craft and takes readers through all sorts of topics such as function, tradition and history associated with knots. This is serious stuff he's writing about, and a subtle way of reminding readers that they should know about something like knot-tying in order to accomplish many other wondrous things (like walk between very tall buildings). Consider Why Knot? a return to craftsmanship, another remedy for our diminished ability to fix stuff. If you're shopping for a certain middle-grade reader, I'd pair Petit's work with Susan Patron's The Higher Power of Lucky; fans of the knot-tying character Lincoln are going to love following in his footsteps.

For the contrarian who is just tired of all the ostrich behavior going on in society today, Darryl Cunningham's graphic novel How to Fake a Moon Landing: Exposing the Myths of Climate Denial is exactly the tonic they are waiting for. (I'm tempted to say we should all chip in and send this to every high-school kid in Texas to save them from their textbooks, but I figure if we talk it up enough online, they will find it anyway.)

Cunningham is fed up with everyone who says the moon landing did not happen. Other targets include "The MMR Vaccination Scandal," "Evolution," and "Climate Change." Very carefully, he leads readers through the reasons why the primary arguments against the science on such subjects are incorrect. For example, he explains why no stars are present in the famous shot of the earth from the moon (this leads to a discussion of glare in photography) and uses not only his own drawings but actual photographs of astronauts and the moon to make his point. He also namedrops the Mythbusters and their experiments on the subject, which ups the book's coolness factor by about a million.

For all its sly humor, Cunningham is doing something very serious with Moon Landing: he is asking his readers not to be afraid to challenge the adults in their midst when they toss about dubious claims or make assertions that fly in the face of reason. The vaccination chapter in particular is a brilliant example of this, as Cunningham showcases the determined journalistic inquiry that revealed the opportunism and cold hard cash that fueled the now discredited study claiming the MMR vaccination led to autism. Reading this chapter will likely fuel the indignation of a thousand future Frontline investigative reporters.

Follow the truth, says Cunningham throughout his book, and more importantly, embrace the truth. Then go and tell anyone who challenges the moon landings that really, there's no freaking way.

Finally, one of the bigger surprises of the past couple of months is the amount of pleasure I have found in paging through a book on collective nouns. I should have known better than to underestimate the fine folks at Woop Studios, for their delightful A Compendium of Collective Nouns is miles from traditional etymological resources. While the words might be in the expected alphabetical order, their presentations never fail to surprise. Consider the history behind a Draught of Butlers, which is begging to be an answer to a bar trivia contest:

Prior to the advent of glass bottles, wine was stored in wooden casks, or butts, which were stored in the buttery. From the buttery arose the title butler, with one of his duties being to draw a draught of wine before he served it to his masters. The butler, of course, had many other duties, but perhaps none so pleasant as sampling the draughts, which brings us this term with a wink and a smile.

The authors have a lot of fun with the words they chose to include in their collection with everything from "a fright of ghosts" to "a circus of puffins" to "a rage of teeth." They acknowledge a wide variety of references with everything from a 1909 issue of Field and Stream to the Bible, note what are likely errors in transcription over the years -- the Middle Ages use of "sloweth of bears" somehow became "sleuth of bears" -- and include a variety of graphics, many of them full color, to liven up the pages. For the budding wordsmith, this title cannot be beaten.

For young readers, there are many solid collective noun alphabet books (A Crossing of Zebras also by Woop Studios, is one to check out) but I have a particular soft spot for the colorful and cheery Have You Ever Seen a Smack of Jellyfish? by Sarah Asper-Smith. The hook here is as much the artwork as the text. Asper-Smith uses silhouettes for the words and animals on each page while bright colors provide the backgrounds. A "murder of crows" perch on a blue tree while a "string of ponies" frolic within a yellow corral. A "pod of whales" swim in a deep green sea while a "parliament of owls" keep watch from a burnt orange barn. The title creatures, a "smack of jellyfish" are home in a purple ocean with green seaweed.

Asper-Smith has made something beautiful here, giving preschoolers a collection of thoughtful terms and animals to learn about and graphic arts fans something to appreciate. Have You Seen a Smack of Jellyfish? is the book that readers of A Compendium of Collective Nouns will learn their first big words from. Both are crisp and witty walks on the wild side of the English language, and along with all the other titles discussed here, they prompt the question: "Who knew learning could be so cool?"