Finding Santa: The Adventure of Greedy Elf
Good try, but it needs more work.
I was given this book by the author to review, so I may be more constructive about my criticism than usual. I want to start by saying that I really respect the author's creativity in making the book, and courage in sending it out to the world. That's a hard thing to do, especially when someone like me will tear it apart. This is absolutely not a bad book, but it's made by an amateur and it shows.
Wow. Where do I start with this one? It's illustrated through photographs of what I can only describe as dioramas created with what seem to be handmade dolls. The faces are made out of clay, and are very stylized in a way that I'm not used to, looking almost like dolls from the turn of the century. They come off as looking more like goblins to me than elves. Some of them can be downright creepy. Also, if she made the faces out of clay, as it seems, she missed a great opportunity to give the characters more expressions. It's told in first person by a character named Ellie Elf (the same as the "author" of the book, who I'm fairly certain is not actually named "Ellie Elf" despite the copyright notice). Ellie Elf is not pictured, as she is the "photographer" at the North Pole. She begins the book by explaining that there are many kinds of elves and those include "cobbler elves, toy elves, fairy elves, leprechaun elves, cookie elves, pixie elves, and others." Elves are like people: some of them are nice, some of them aren't.
I think it could have been edited better. The sentence on the second page: "Elves do not like having their picture made, especially Santa. I do my best." Despite the text, there are no pictures of Santa on that page. Also, the phrase "having their picture made" is unusual and archaic-sounding. And apparently Ellie is omnipresent because she is able to take photographs of the story as it is in progress, despite there being no suggestion that she was in these places.
Back to the story: A toy elf named Gus, who's a hard worker, is invited to help Santa deliver toys. At the first house, Gus finds a broken train, that he had made, poking out of a trash can. Gus is understandably upset that his hard work has been disposed of. "He got so mad that his elf hat popped off of his head. Once an elf hat comes off there is no putting it back on. That is when Gus Elf became Greedy Elf. He even looked like a different creature." But he doesn't. He looks the same, except without his hat. This is confusing. I'm not sure how much work the author put into world-building, but they seem to have some kind of knowledge of it that we're just expected to understand. Things like the differences between the different types of elves: Gus's mother was a toy elf, and his father was a leprechaun, so apparently those are similar enough to interbreed. But Santa is also referred to as an elf, although he is shown to be the correct size for human houses. Gus comes up a bit higher than Santa's waist. And later in the story, a pixie elf named Lucy is shown to be small enough to fit into Santa's pocket, although in one image she is shown to be about the same size as another pixie elf, Marcus, who is shown in another image riding a reindeer, implying that either there are tiny, pixie-sized reindeer, or Marcus is about the same size as a small child. Maybe Santa just has enormous pockets.
Also, "Greedy Elf" is a strange name for Gus's new form. The incident that caused the 'transformation' isn't based on greed, and the only thing he decides to do is take over Santa's workshop, as he doesn't "want to give toys to children anymore." That doesn't seem greedy, either. He doesn't want the toys for himself. He seems to be upset that children don't respect the hard work of the elves.
So Greedy Elf, AKA Gus, goes to The Winter Wizard who confusingly looks a bit like Santa Claus (although clearly not the same doll). The Winter Wizard gives Greedy Elf magic to help take over Santa's workshop, but "in return he [has] to let the wizard freeze his heart." What does that even mean? Is he literally freezing his heart? Because it shows the Winter Wizard holding a heart that appears to be frozen. Did he take that out of Greedy Elf? Or is it just an object the wizard uses to explain the process to Greedy Elf? Then Greedy Elf uses a spell to freeze all the other elves and reindeer at the North Pole. But Santa can't be frozen, because he has strong magic. So Greedy Elf pretends to be in trouble to trick Santa. He hides "behind the toy shrinker that the elves use to shrink toys and cried out knowing Santa would come." Wait, toy shrinker? That's too unusual to just gloss over like that. Do the elves make the toys at a larger scale, and then shrink them down to toy scale? Do they shrink toys to fit them in Santa's bag? If they're fitting them in the bag, how do the toys become large again? Does the shrinking wear off? Does Santa use his magic to make them bigger again? If so, why doesn't Santa shrink them himself instead of using a machine? This one sentence provides so many questions. But none of them are answered, as Greedy Elf promptly shrinks a poorly Photoshopped Santa with the machine and places him into a glass shell from the Winter Wizard. "Greedy Elf was so busy tricking people he didn't notice a small voice inside his frozen heart that was telling him to stop." And Ellie Elf, the narrator, knows this how? This "small voice" has no effect on the story. It's like it's foreshadowing a change of heart on Greedy Elf's part that never happens.
There's a nice photo of the Winter Wizard in Santa's outfit (apparently being too skinny, although it isn't explained why Santa can't be skinny, or why Greedy Elf would need a replacement Santa if he's not planning on using the workshop).
Out of nowhere, a new character is introduced. Lucy the pixie elf, who is missing her wings so she can't fly, had been riding in Santa's pocket when he was shrunk, but managed to "[jump] out of his pocket just in time. Lucy followed Greedy Elf without him knowing and put clues along the path so that YOU can help find Santa and break the wizard's spell." What. Why is this suddenly an activity book? The rest of the pictures have riddles on yellow cards that I suppose the reader is supposed to solve, although they're just answered on whatever page comes next, be it in the same spread or after a page turn. The first one is in "the room where Greedy Elf found the broken train." And the picture shows the broken train. But according to the story, Santa "took the broken train from Gus." So it shouldn't be in that room anymore, but at the North Pole. And why did Greedy Elf, after shrinking Santa, go back to the room with the broken train? Anyway, Lucy is standing by the train, with a yellow rectangle edited into her hand that has the text of a riddle edited onto it. The riddle's answer is "clock", where Lucy is standing with another clue. What is the significance of these locations? Why did Lucy leave clues? More importantly, why did she go back to where the clues were and hold them up so that the reader could see them later? Is this some kind of compulsion Lucy has? One clue instructs the reader to "shine your light in the train tunnel," which assumes that I'm both physically in the book and holding some sort of light. Some of the clues rhyme, although not very well. At any rate, after exploring this house, you follow Lucy to the gingerbread man's house (again, a weird mixing of fables that's just glossed over) and then to the Winter Wizard's house, where you get a key, and then to Santa's workshop, where Lucy uses the key to open a desk to find the glass shell with Santa in it, which is opened using the word "love", the answer to this riddle (and also the answer to a previous riddle). The clue to find the desk is hidden "on a puzzle so Greedy Elf wouldn't find it", which means that the page it's on just has the pattern of a jigsaw superimposed on top of it. Am I supposed to cut this out to put together? Does this page represent having already put it together? And if Lucy is there, and can presumably speak (although she never seems to), why isn't she just telling me these things instead of hinting at them with weird riddles that she then moves to the answer of? And apparently Greedy Elf is an idiot who can't put together simple jigsaw puzzles.
After saving Santa, the book says, "You did it! Thank you for helping Santa and Lucy and all of the North Pole. You followed the clues so Santa is free." On the last page, it says, "As for Greedy Elf and his frozen heart/He is in Santa time out then he will get a new start/Because just like me and you/Greedy Elves need second chances too." Okay, what does Santa's rehabilitation program look like? Greedy Elf basically kidnapped everyone in the entire North Pole. Because it was magic, and he was stopped, it didn't turn out to permanently disable or kill them, but that was more or less what his plan amounted to. Does his "frozen heart" get healed? Again, what does that mean? Does he ever get a new hat? How do you determine the punishment for mass kidnapping? How do you rehabilitate someone after that?
My best guess is that the author made this for her own children and family. Someone close to her would have a sentimental connection to this book, but I'm a lot more impartial. It seems to be self-published. I want to restate that the book is not bad. And I feel bad about saying all these things, especially because the author seems like such a nice person. She insisted on sending me a physical copy of the book, and included a letter personally thanking me for my time. But as a self-published author myself, I wish I could have told her these things before she published it. One of the best pieces of advice that I received before publishing was to hire a book designer, someone to lay out the book better than I could do by myself. This book could have been much better produced than it was. Many of the photographs have poor exposure, color casts, or low resolution, which suggests that the author could have used the help of someone with more knowledge about photography and photo editing. I feel like the author needed more support, more people willing to nitpick her work to help her make it the best that it could be. Visual as well as textual editing. Someone to point out all the plot holes so that they could be fixed before it got to someone like me who might tear it apart.
I hope this doesn't discourage the author from being creative. She's clearly trying hard to make a labor of love, in contrast to the many books published by some publishing houses that just seem to be churned out with no care given to their quality. In our culture with our obsession with individuality and standing on our own, it can be hard to see that we need others' help, and it can be hard to let go of part of a creative vision and allow others to add input. It took me several days to accept some of the decisions made by my book designer, but I know my book was better for it in the end. It's especially tough if you don't even know that things like book designers exist.