The Comedy of Physics

How Machines Work: Zoo Break! by David Macaulay; DK Books, $19.99, 30 pages, ages 6-10.

A sloth and his rodent pal Sengi are attractions at the zoo, but one fateful day they decide their enclosure too boring. They hatch an escape plan, employing simple machines like a wedge, a lever, and a pulley. Will the critter successfully catapult themselves to freedom, or will they remain forever behind bars? David Macaulay continues to dominate the world of elaborate show-and-tells in this latest volume by expertly combining witty storytelling, sly humor, and smart science. Jemma Watson’s paper mechanisms bring Macaulay’s drawings to life, and the entire cover is a working gear, the manipulation of which either saves or sinks Sloth into a piranha-filled pond. Zoo Break! is an excellent introduction to Macaulay’s world, with plenty of simple machines to encourage scientific inquiry and motor-skill practice.

One Bear Extraordinaire, by Jayme McGowan; Abrams Books for Young Readers, $16.95, 32 pages, ages 3-7.

Debut children’s book author-illustrator Jayme McGowan has crafted a triumph of three-dimensional illustration in One Bear Extraordinaire, and her dedication is evident throughout. After rendering the characters using watercolors and colored pencils, McGowan cuts out each piece of paper and assembles the scenes inside a book-size paper theater, suspending the characters and scenery with toothpicks, twine, and even clothespins. Once satisfied with the setup, McGowan scrupulously photographs her creations using various lenses and camera settings. (Art teachers might find this book useful in teaching design concepts and paper cutting techniques.) It’s not a popup, but every page in the book is full of depth and complexity, the result of many hours spent getting every last piece just right. The tale itself is one of camaraderie and acceptance: A musical bear wakes one day and discovers that he can’t quite play the song he hears rumbling in his head. So he sets out across the forest, and along the way collects a banjo-playing fox, a raccoon with an accordion, and even a little wolf pup who can’t seem to play any instrument…yet. The story, while charming, is upstaged by the fantastic art. That said, I think McGowan will bring wonderful things to the world of children’s picture book illustration and I’m looking forward to what she does for her encore presentation. 

Welcome to the Neighborwood, by Shawn Sheehy; Candlewick Press, $29.99, 18 pages, all ages.

Spring is in full bloom, so why not celebrate it with this wonderful ode to the outdoors.  Shawn Sheehy, (A Pop-Up Field Guide to North American Wildflowers; Counting on the Marsh: A Nighttime Book of Numbers) paper engineer and avowed naturalist, explores seven woodland creatures such as snails, beavers and spiders, and explains how these animals are uniquely adapted to survive in their environment and among each other.  Precision and attention to detail puts Sheehy on par with Robert Sabuda, and here deftly crafts a magical world out of handmade papers. The accompanying text is informative and to the point, perfectly suited to young readers. If this book doesn’t encourage children to get outside and start exploring, I’m not sure what will. 

The Dragon & the Knight: A Pop-up Misadventure, by Robert Sabuda; Little Simon, $29.99, 22 pages, ages 5-up.

Master paper engineer Robert Sabuda has created another book sculpture for pop-up enthusiasts of all ages. In this volume of fractured fairytales, a brave (if slightly goofy) knight pursues a maligned and misunderstood dragon.  The duo escape from their story and onto the pages of other fairytales, ranging from Aladdin to Cinderella. The escapees wreak havoc on each tale they visit, while each page reveals a more complex and imaginative three-dimensional creation than the last.  While there is text on each page, it’s not really here to be read. Rather,  it demonstrates the ruckus caused by the intruders – fairytales are obscured by towering structures of fire-breathing dragons, and even some of the characters pop-up sheathed in outfits made of words. (See Cinderella’s dress and Aladdin’s flying carpet.) Sabuda paper art books makes stunning gifts, but they are delicate – with so many intricate folds and pleats, very young readers should be supervised, lest older readers wish to spend hours carefully refolding dragon tails and towers. This tour de force will make an excellent addition to any collection on paper engineering.