Hank and Stella in: Something from Nothing
Could be a bigger something from nothing.
Here is my second book review that was requested by the author. I might be a little more constructive with my criticism than usual, knowing the author will probably read the review.
It's a solid book, but I wasn't grabbed by the story. It's definitely well written. It's written in rhyme, and the meter and rhymes are very solid, but the story is somewhat contrived. The artwork is not stylistically amazing, but it's good enough not to be distracting, and the art style fits well with the story that's going on.
One thing that really bugs me is the font choice for dialogue. It's a handwritten, jagged-looking font that is really hard to read. It's okay for titles, but for long stretches of text it's nearly illegible and I had to squint to read it properly.
The story is this: there are two... puppets? No, wait, they're those weird toys for babies that look like stuffed animals, except it's just the head, and it's on a little blanket. "Lovies", I think they're called. Even though my kids had them as babies, I always found them slightly creepy in reality. But the artwork makes them look a little more like puppets, and not creepy at all. I guess they seem to be based on possibly the author's actual children's toys. I'm not sure what the thinking was behind that except as a kind of homage to the kids-- the characters would have been easier to identify with if they had been more human-like with legs instead of just floating there. Hank, the dog toy, and Stella, the rabbit toy, are in a strange, kind of one-room house, and they're bored. Hank basically says to Stella, "We both put on a show one day, that was pretty cool," and then Stella says, "Let's do it again." Hank says, "Well, you know, we have to plan it out," and Stella says, "No, it's improv," and Hank says, "But where do we get our ideas from?" And Stella gives a couple of suggestions of where to get ideas, and Stella says, "Are you ready?" and Hank says, "No, but..." Which is kind of an inside joke for improv people, and Stella responds, "You're supposed to say, 'Yes, and'! This is improv!" But they're not actually improving yet, so it's kind of out of place there. Let the dog air his concerns before you get started. So "yes and" is helpful. Then Hank says, "What do I do or say next?" "Well, anything, basically." "What if I make a mistake?" "Just go with it." "Is this something anybody can do?" "Yes, but practicing helps you improve." "Wait, I'm a singer and you're a dancer, but you can't sing and I can't dance." "Well, you want to have a group of people with multiple different skills."
And then they suddenly break the fourth wall and say, "Everybody, let's put on a show!" Which is cool. It's got a good message, if not quite as culturally important as some other books' messages. (Obviously, a book doesn't even need to have a message to be great.) But it's mostly expository, which in my experience doesn't make for a good story. And it's presented as a story. If it were instead presented as a nonfiction book, like a series of instructions, then the amount of exposition would make sense. But as it is, it's just Hank saying, "Well what do I do?" for one or two quatrains, and then Stella expounding on it for an entire page (three or four quatrains). As I said, the poetry is really well written, but I think it's out of place. It doesn't seem to mix well with the subject matter. I think a really good book could be written on this that was more matter-of-fact and instruction-based. I remember reading books as a child (an older child, probably) about how to make videos. It would suggest things like doing a video based on a day in the life of a younger sibling, and then go through it with photographs showing the steps of how to do that, complete with dialogue from sample scenes. In this book, though, there are two toys planning to put on a show, one of which is uneducated about it and the other of which lectures him on how to do it. And there's no demonstration of it, and no examples. If the book goes in the direction of a story, at least give us an example of their show. Or several examples of how the show could have gone, since we're talking about improv. And when they address the reader at the end, they could say, "What's your show going to be like?"
When I was a kid, I took a community class on improv for kids. But I have stronger memories of my sister and I doing pretend play that mimicked the storyline of a movie that we liked, where we could sing the songs (or even tape-record the songs if we owned the movie and sing along with them). We could change the story if we wanted. While improv skills are definitely useful (thinking on your feet) and improv can be fun, it helps to see examples of it. I loved watching "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" (Comedy Central reruns of the old British version) but my sister and I rarely did improv, partly because if it's just the two of you, it does take some setup and planning. Which improv games are we going to play? What's our starting point? What ideas will we incorporate and how?
This book is a story where one character explains something to another character, which is not inherently interesting to watch or read. Maybe if they were explaining improv to me as the reader, that would be different. If they were utilizing improv, that would be different. But as it is, it's like Plato's writings of Socrates where he just has a long conversation with someone. Except that's more interesting because usually there was conflict in Plato, and Socrates was usually making fun of someone. Socrates will just verbally destroy some guy who has a different opinion. That's interesting because there's a lot of back-and-forth. In this, there's not so much back and forth. It's just Hank going, "What then?" and Stella filling in the details. You could do with a list. You could do it a lot more concisely, and with examples. I think that's where I would go with this if I were writing the book.
It's weird because it's a good idea, and all the pieces that went into the execution are good. But it's like mixing the best ingredients from unrelated recipes-- it doesn't function well as a whole. The style doesn't fit the message.