Just this past summer my brother-in-law and sister-in-law were in town for a brief little vacation. Whenever relatives come to visit you in New York you end up seeing all kinds of cool things you’d never have bothered to visit on your own. In this particular case the two were particularly excited to see something called the Design Triennial at the Cooper Hewitt Museum. Game, my husband and I tagged along and it was a really cool show. Certainly some parts stuck in my head while others faded away, but one portion I remember quite clearly was a selection that showed comic book panels where two kids created a host of cool and kooky inventions. The strips were accompanied by real-life counterparts to these inventions, and there was some talk in the descriptions about how these strips might be turned into a book soon. Fast-forward to today and not only is the book in print but it’s a really interesting idea. Part how-to guide, part graphic novel, “Howtoons”, brings together the love every child has for comic books with fun, practical directions for creating everything from terrariums to turkey baster flutes.
Siblings Tuck and Celine may not always agree, but there’s certainly one thing they have in common; the desire to invent miraculous creations out of simple objects. So, through their eyes, fifteen different chapters show child readers how to prepare a workshop for their creations, use a variety of different tools, and make all kinds of cool things. One minute Tuck and Celine are making ice cream without an ice cream maker, and the next they’re whipping up handmade underwater scopes. As the book progresses these inventions grow increasingly complex, though perhaps not impossible. Using a graphic format, authors Saul Griffith and Joost Bonsen and illustrator Nick Dragotta know how to lure in interested child readers, while also encouraging a love of science, invention, and sheer mental agility. If you every wanted to convince your kids of the importance of counting in binary or learning knot tying, no book has made such skills quite as compelling in recent memory.
Remember the popularity of The Dangerous Book for Boys? Do you even remember why that book made as much money as it did? It wasn’t the packaging or even, necessarily, the premise. Rather, it was the idea behind the purchase of this book. Somehow, by giving this book to our children, we could rescue them from this crazy mixed-up world of iPods and GameBoys and handheld devices. The book promised, however obliquely, that it could instill in your children a sense of wonder with the world about them. They’d start doing good old-fashioned things like building tree houses or skipping stones. “Howtoons” makes a similar promise, but it has a distinct advantage over “The Dangerous Book for Boys” (or its subsequent sequel, The Daring Book for Girls). For one thing, the primary purchasers may still be adults, but the format is distinctly kid-friendly. And just look at what the book is promising you! It shows you how to create guns that shoot marshmallows or create goggles out of pop bottles. It means instant muscles or fart mechanisms via a clever combination of washers and rubber bands. Plus the graphic novel format drills home the fact that even with its complex images and difficult to manage tools, kids and teens are going to be drawn to this book. Sometimes packaging is key.
Not that every cool project in this book is going to be easily accomplished by every kid that picks it up. Simple ideas, like making a muscled body double out of duct tape, are self-explanatory. The marshmallow shooter and the pressure-powered rocket, however, are almost frighteningly complex. I can already see some technically inept parents cringing as their young charges start pleading for PVC pipe and 3/4″ O-Rings. In a way, the ideas in “Howtoons” grow increasingly complex as the book continues. The result is that the final creation utilizes every material and idea that popped up earlier in the book. Which, you have to admit, was pretty clever on the authors’ part. Still, you get a clear sense as you read as to why the book begins with the sentence, “Please Note: The authors and publisher recommend ADULT SUPERVISION on all projects!” The kids in this book may be doing everything on their own, but few kids will be equally adept.
The actual comic book style art in the book originally struck me as a bit broad, but I got used to it quickly. Artist Nick Dragotta is a former employee of both DC and Marvel comics, so he knows the importance of multiple details, extreme close-ups, and forced perspective. The characters of Tuck and Celine are likable enough, though it’s a little odd to find them described as brother and sister rather than just friends. Celine, after all, comes across as a dark-skinned version of Janice from The Muppets, while Tuck is a pale weedy boy, all excitement and elbows. That aside, Dragotta is adept at getting down the intricate details and diagrams necessary for this kind of a book. The real test, to my mind, was the “Legend of the Monkey Fist Clan” chapter, which described a series of difficult knots. A good knot diagram is worth its weight in gold, and Dragotta gets every single one down pat. No small feat.
I’m always looking for great non-fiction to promote in my library system. A non-fiction book that combines the vibrant colors and visual medium of the comic book genre with good old-fashioned how-to ideas is probably going to do very well for itself on the open market. Invention may be something attributable to the Edisons of old, but Griffith, Bonsen, and Dragotta are making it a new and vibrant option for the video-jaded youths of today. Fine, fabulous stuff.
On shelves now.
- The Howtoons website has even more ideas for kids to check out and make. It’ll also give you the flavor of the book itself. They even have a blog.
- A profile of author Saul Griffith.