A while back, I wrote a less than favorable review of Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver’s first book in the Hank Zipzer series, Niagara Falls, or Does It? I have since learned that they have recently published the seventeenth novel in the series, A Brand New Me! (a title which is as off-putting as I can possibly imagine — it sounds like Dr. Phil for the tween set). In all fairness, I thought (or hoped) that Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver would improve as writers with seventeen books under their belts, so I headed over to my local library to check it out.
Unfortunately, the latest volume available was #14: A Tale of Two Tails. No worries, this book came out in 2008 and is still quite recent. Please believe me, I had high hopes for this one. Really, I did.
Unfortunately, this book isn’t better than its predecessor. We start off with some incredibly bad metaphors. For example, when describing his teacher Mrs. Adolph’s gargantuan dog, Hank says:
Pookie Doodle seemed to like this kind of gooey talk, because drool started to pour from his face like the Nile River. (4)
If there is a connection here, I am unable to make it. Sure, dog drool and the Nile River both involve water, but that’s about it. Let’s keep going:
Everybody in the school is laughing and yelling things out, and I whisper one itty-bitty sentence to Frankie, and she’s [Mrs. Adolph] on me like mustard on a hot dog. The yellow kind, not the brown. (8)
“Mustard on a hot dog”? Really? Don’t you put mustard on your hot dog because you like mustard? Isn’t that the point? (Mrs. Adolph and Hank have a mutually antagonistic relationship.) And mustard doesn’t necessarily stick to the hot dog; quite often it ends up on your shirt or in your lap. As for the difference between yellow and brown, that’s just a personal preference.
The purpose of a simile is to take something unknown to the reader and to help them understand it by comparing it to something they do know. Such failed similes come from a failure — or an inability — to think through what a reader would or wouldn’t be familiar with in your story, and what is universal enough for your readers that your simile will lead to greater understanding, rather than confusion. Even worse, such failed similes reflect a lack of respect for your audience (kids deserve better) and lack of appreciation for the complexity of the writing process (it’s not as easy at it seems).
An editor’s blue pencil should have caught these two similes, but if an editor had taken a blue pencil to the manuscript, there would be little manuscript left. But just so that I don’t come across as a pedant who points out problems without offering solutions, lets see if we can’t rework these two similes and make them into something which is at once interesting to read and helps to convey meaning.
Okay, let’s talk dog drool. We want to get across the point that this is a big dog with a lot of drool. The Nile River certainly has a lot of water, but in the pictures I’ve seen of it, it’s always rather peaceful and sedate. Most importantly, it moves horizontally. When a dog drools, the drool drips — a vertical movement. So to convey just how much this dog is drooling, we need to think of something that has a lot of water moving vertically — falling — something like a waterfall, a big waterfall, like…hmmmmm…maybe Niagara Falls. Of course, no dog, however big, is that big, so we also need to convey the idea that this dog is a smaller facsimile of Niagara Falls. So now, maybe we can try it like this:
Pookie Doodle seemed to like this kind of gooey talk, because so much drool started to pour from his lips he looked like a miniature Niagara Falls.
This is a bit longer, twenty-seven words instead of the original twenty-two. But I’m not worried about length. When asked how long a man’s legs should be, Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said “just long enough to reach the ground.” This is probably an apocryphal story, but it contains an element of truth. There is no rule about how long a book for kids should be. How long should your book be? Just long enough to tell the story.
Okay, let’s try the other simile. Keep in mind that we need a simile that conveys the idea of unwanted attention. The expression that comes to mind here is “like white on rice,” which is good, but a bit of cliché by now. A variation of this, one that I heard in the Southern US is “she was on me like a duck on a June bug,” which I love no end, because it’s simply a beautiful image — as anyone who has raised ducks can tell you, they are voracious hunters of all sorts of insects.
Hank and his friends live in New York City, however, and probably wouldn’t be too familiar with the domesticated duck. (A story set in Chinatown would be a different matter.) So what kind of animals would they be familiar with? Pigeons, squirrels, pets (dogs and cats), mice, rats. Cats certainly chase a lot of these animals, and although pet cats probably don’t venture out much, there are certainly plenty of stray cats in the city. So take a stray cat, and a mouse, and we get:
Everybody in the school is laughing and yelling things out, and I whisper one itty-bitty sentence to Frankie, and she’s on me like a hungry stray on a lazy mouse.
Of course, a cat pursuing a mouse is a bit of a cliché, but consider your audience. Most nine-year-olds haven’t heard this expression enough to be bored with it. Now we have a simile which conveys an active situation — a cat chasing, and possibly catching a mouse — rather than a static one of mustard merely lying on a hot dog. And by making the mouse lazy, the entire simile becomes a metaphor for the relationship that exists between Hank and Mrs. Adolph.
These books have other problems. As I wrote previously, they are filled with contrived situations which adult readers are supposed to find cute, but have little relationship to reality. (And yes, Mr. Winkler, we get the idea that you can’t count.) Hank has a “rainbow” of friends: his best friend Frankie Townsend is black, and his other best friend, Ashley Wong, is, you guessed it, Asian.
The two biggest problems revolve around questions of story and voice. Let’s talk about story first. E.M. Forster made a useful distinction between story and plot. “The king died and then the queen died” is story, “the king died and then the queen died of grief” is plot.
What we have in these books is a lot of kings and queens dying all over the place, but precious little grief, which reminds me of how six-year-olds tell a story, where each event is linked to the next with “and then.” For example, in chapter five, Papa Pete (Hank’s grandfather) escorts the kids to Riverside Park so they can train Hank’s dog Cheerio. We start with half a paragraph of description about the park, which concludes with Papa Pete sitting down on a park bench and striking up a conversation with Officer Quinn. After that we have an entire paragraph about Officer Quinn, who “could carry on a total conversation without ever taking his eyes off everything that was going on in the park” (40).
The next paragraph starts “Frankie, Ashley, and I got right to work with Cheerio” (40). No, you didn’t. You got right to work with a lot of pointless description and narration that has nothing to do with your story. The park doesn’t play a major or even a minor role in the story, so why spend time describing it? The fact that it’s a real place doesn’t make a difference, either. I suppose if you live in New York City, you can head down to the park and compare it to the description and say “Wow, Henry Winkler really nailed the description of this park. This book must be full of verisimilitude.” But for the other 99.99% of your readers who will probably never set foot in New York City, much less Riverside Park, you create verisimilitude by accurately depicting how characters think, speak, and act, not by painstakingly detailing their surroundings (or their appearance, or their clothing).
There’s an adage in theatre that if there’s a gun on the mantle in Act I, it has to go off before the end of the show. Riverside Park is sitting on the mantle, and so is Officer Quinn, and if they never go off, they’re just fluff, something to fill up the blank space on the page.
Interestingly, the very next chapter is a list of “ten things Cheerio did at the park that had nothing to do with our training.” Number seven is a list of things Cheerio peed on, including “one little old lady who didn’t notice until it was too late” (45). Where were Officer’s Quinn’s ever-watchful eyes then? Wouldn’t this be a good point to inject a little irony? — “The one time Officer Quinn didn’t catch everything, and he couldn’t stop Cheerio from…”
When Officer Quinn finally does go off in the third act, he does so by arresting Cheerio. That’s right, he arrests a dog. He even fingerprints him, taking “Cheerio in his arms, [holding] his front paw, and [rolling] it across the inky surface” (105).
So where was the editor and his blue pencil? I’ll tell you where: tied to a chair in the marketing department, while some numbers guy is telling him “look, this book was written by the Fonz, and it’s about a kid with learning disabilities, and the public just eats this stuff up. Don’t change a thing! Think about the money we’ll be making! We’re sitting on a real gold mine here!”
Okay, maybe it didn’t happen exactly that way, but it says something about the state of publishing when I can be this cynical about a series of books and not even feel bad about it. It’s not enough to combine a well-liked and well-meaning celebrity with an issue which affects millions of children and their families and call it a day. Kids deserve better. Kids deserve books which address their issues, sure, but they also need books which speak to them rather than at them, they need books which reflect the reality they know while at the same addressing their aspirations, and they need books which are authentic. Most importantly, they need books they actually would enjoy reading.
I don’t doubt for a minute that many of the feelings Hank experiences are fairly accurate depictions of the struggles Mr. Winkler had as a child. (He seems to have a particularly difficult relationship with his father.) But in order to write these stories authentically, Mr. Winkler needs to listen to the child he was and tell the story from that point of view. He can’t tell the story as an adult looking back.
That question of voice is the other part of what’s so wrong with this book. It just doesn’t sound like a kid telling this story. It sounds like an adult trying to sound like a kid. Even worse, all the characters sound the same. Here’s an example of what one character says to Hank:
When you’re on a team…you make a commitment. You have to be there when it counts, when your team members are there. Otherwise, you let people down. (66-7)
If you think think this is one of Hank’s teachers talking to him, or even his father, I can understand your reasoning. It sounds like something an adult would say, and it’s worded the way an adult would word it. Unfortunately, this is what Frankie says when Hank misses a clubhouse meeting. (And these kids have more meetings than most businesspeople.) But kids, at least the kids I know, just don’t talk like this.
Like I said, kids deserve better. Kids with dyslexia certainly deserve better. And Henry Winkler deserves better. He obviously has a lot that he wants to say about the subject of growing up with dyslexia, and the world should hear it. I just wish that he could work with an editor who could shape his story into a book that kids would read and enjoy and talk about with their friends, rather than a treacly, message-laden tract which parents and other adults buy for kids without actually taking a look at what’s inside.
Winkler, Henry, and Lin Oliver. A Tale of Two Tails. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 2008.