Totally Bugs

by Dennis Schatz

Published by Silver Dolphin

32 pages plus box, 2000

The Inflatable Crown Balloon Hat Kit

by Addi Somekh and Charlie Eckert

Published by Chronicle Books

152 pages plus box, 2001

Code Master: Secret Agent

by David Seideman

Published by Innovative Kids

32 page booklet plus box, 2001


Expanding Horizons

Reviewed by David Middleton


How do you get better at something? How do you learn to expand your abilities and increase your knowledge of the world around you? You do it by doing. By doing things that are beyond what you think your abilities are and you do it until what you thought was impossible becomes possible. We often teach ourselves limitations by saying: Oh, I could never do that. But if you just push yourself a little harder and believe that you can do something, you would be surprised at what you can accomplish.

I have a 9-year-old niece who tried sushi for the first time thanks to me -- but much to the chagrin of her mother, who still rolls her eyes at the sight of raw fish. At first my niece was reluctant, "I don't like that," she protested. "How do you know?" I countered, "You haven't even tried it." This is such a cliché thing to say to a kid and it usually makes them even more unwilling, but because I'm her favorite uncle and fun is always on the menu when I'm around, she shrugged her shoulders and ate the raw tuna. I was completely surprised and she was pleasantly surprised at how much she actually liked it.

Expanding a child's knowledge of the world is not always as easy as just asking or telling them to do something which adults think of as right, beneficial or good (just ask my 5-year-old nephew, Scott, who still won't eat the purple part of octopus. But hey, he's getting there). Making a game of learning is often the best way to get a child to broaden their horizons.

So let's take a look at a trio of combined book and box-sets that take fun ideas and play on the basic curiosity of children -- and some of us adults -- and make learning more than just fun, they make it practically effortless. You'd be amazed what you can learn when you don't realize you're being taught.

Dennis Schatz's Totally Bugs is an elementary look at at the world of five different creepy crawlies: the Ladybug, Black Ant, Stag Beetle, Greenbottle Fly and Orb Weaver Spider. Totally Bugs is really a basic primer on these fascinating creatures and without going into complex explanations of the bug world and its politics, this package reveals in simple terms and nice bright illustrations their anatomy and what life is like to be each of these bugs.

While the book is interesting, the real appeal of Totally Bugs is the fact that the book is packaged with a box containing plastic bug parts ready to assemble into your favorite -- or-not-so-favorite (oooh! ick!) -- larger-than-life-sized six- and eight-legged bug. Instructions on how to put the bugs together are included in the book, but figuring out by yourself how they go together might just be more fun. You might also find out that a Ladybug looks pretty kooky with spider legs. Totally Bugs could go a long way in minimizing an insect phobia and just may bring forth tomorrow's world-famous entomologist in your child.

Also packaged as a fully interactive book and box set is Addi Somekh and Charlie Eckert's The Inflatable Crown Balloon Hat Kit. Not only for kids but adults as well, the kit includes 30 of those long skinny balloon-animal balloons and, even though the book teaches technique on how to blow up these difficult-to-inflate-by-mouth balloons, a small but very effective pump is also included: helping avoid burst cheeks and light-headedness.

The Balloon Hat book itself is more than just a well laid out step-by-step instruction manual on how to make some very colorful, and in some cases quite complex, pneumatic cranium covers. It also showcases its authors as world ambassadors of mirth. Charlie Eckert's brilliant and whimsical photos of people from around the globe wearing Addi Somekh's inflatable creations are absolutely priceless. An almost toothless man in El Faiyum, Egypt laughs his head off wearing a wacky balloon-based noggin topper. Tribesmen in Kenya proudly display their long balloon horns for the camera and a musician sports a multicolored composition, looking like so many jazz notes emanating from his head. Even a London bobby poses with a balloon wrapped about his helmet.

The Balloon Hat Kit offers hours of fun while increasing your manual dexterity all the while making you realize that the world could be a much friendlier and happier place. After all, how angry could you be at someone wearing a three-foot-tall yellow, pink and green balloon hat?

But, you say, you'd rather be a spy than a bug hunter or a balloonatic? Then David Seideman's Code Master: Secret Agent is just the ticket. Designed to make your youngster think a little harder and bend their brain around a problem a tad more complex than your average video game, right off the bat Secret Agent sets a challenge. Before you can even see the contents of its sturdy and safe-like box you have to read the attached booklet and solve a few problems in order to discover a four digit code that unlocks the combination lock that keeps the box shut. The booklet is nicely designed and illustrated and once you figure out the numbered code you are in. But why are you trying to open the box? It's a short training program in order to qualify yourself to become part of Q.U.I.E.T. -- the Quality Undercover Intelligence Espionage Team -- in order to foil Q.U.I.E.T's enemies the Nastonians. The box contains a secret spy stuff booklet designed to teach you some spy basics from how to construct a periscope from a milk carton and two mirrors (which are included) to learning how to lift fingerprints and even how to clean contaminated water using only a spoonful of dirt and a paper towel. The box also contains four spy mission envelopes folded in intricate origami fashion. Four corresponding envelopes reveal your mission and tell you if you correctly solved the mission problem. You also get an official Q.U.I.E.T. identification card claiming that you have earned the title: Agent First Class. Sorry: no secret decoder ring is included (perhaps the only thing missing). And to top it all off, the lock on the box is reprogrammable. That means you can change the lock code and keep your secret agent stuff, and anything else, safe from your nosy-parker brother's prying eyes ('cause we all know girls would never snoop through your private things). A great gift for that future Bond -- James Bond -- in the family.

You never know just what you'll be able to accomplish if only you give it a try. | November 2001


David Middleton is the art and culture editor of January Magazine and it only took him 30 or so years before he got up the nerve to try sushi.