Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Learning Sideways

Reading nonfiction is the traditional literary way to learn things. Illustrators and photographers help writers jazz this up for kids. But we writers have come up with some riffs of our own, to slide that learning in sideways so that kids hardly know what hit them. David Schwartz discussed this in his recent post, “Guessing Games.” Several new books I’ve read demonstrate other ways as well.

It starts young. Susan Goldman Rubin’s board books lead babies into the world of fine art. COUNTING WITH WAYNE THIEBAUD shows us Thiebaud’s luscious paintings of ice cream clowns, birthday cakes, candy apples along with tasty rhymes by Rubin. The reproductions are fine enough to show details of the artist’s brushwork. In MATISSE: DANCE FOR JOY Rubin gives us lyrical lines to accompany Matisse’s stunning paper cutouts. Brightly colored “frames” and pages of text complement the artworks, and uphold Chronicle’s reputation for beautifully-designed books. Lucky are the babies who chew on these goodies.

No one does encyclopedia-type books better than DK. Two of their recent volumes present animals to two different audiences. ANIMAL FAMILIES, meant for the early reader crowd, presents a theme in each double-page spread. Brothers and Sisters, Mealtime, Neat and Tidy, Gone Fishing, Carry Me, Mom and other subjects show and tell how different species live.

The new DK ANIMALS: A VISUAL ENCYCLOPEDIA for older kids is organized by families and species. 300 + pages are packed with photos and facts. Did you know that 4,700 bee hummingbird eggs could fit inside one ostrich egg and that a murmuration of starlings may contain more than a million birds? The latest information about threatened and endangered species status is presented as well. The visuals pack a punch here, but the captions offer surprises too.

PUNK ROCK ETIQUETTE (Rb Flash Point) – sounds oxymoronic to me. But the subtitle, “The ultimate how-to guide to DIY, punk, indie, and underground bands,” describes where the book is going. Aside from the funny bits about how to dress, who to include in your band (the ratio of tortured poets to rock stars to whatevers is crucial) – this is a manual on how to run a small business with solid info on technology, public relations, merchandising, and management – and how to cross an international border in your funky van without getting hassled.

Then there’s THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO EXTREME SURVIVAL HANDBOOK: JUNIOR EDITION (Chronicle) which gives advice to hard-core extremists, and reasons to stay home for the rest of us. How to navigate by the stars seems tame enough. You don’t need a catastrophe to build a snow cave and emergency snowshoes in your own backyard. And ordinary folks might do well knowing how to treat a jellyfish sting. (Don’t pee on it.) But surviving an elephant stampede, escaping from the grip of a python, and stopping a runaway camel? DK’s encyclopedias don’t tell you this. An appendix called The Field Guide to Extreme Foods, answered a life-long question of mine. What does that Scottish delicacy, haggis, taste like? Answer: wet cat food mixed with oatmeal, served in a balloon. It’s good to know that.

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