19 November 2007

The Book with Six Beginner Mistakes

You wouldn’t think that writing a profile of an iconoclastic economist and then co-writing a book and magazine column with him about non-intuitive findings about human behavior would be good practice for writing a picture book. And you’d be right. But that’s part of the story behind The Boy with Two Belly Buttons, by Stephen J. Dubner.

It’s rare to see so many beginners’ mistakes in a published picture book, much less a picture book published by a top press (HarperCollins). But then the reasons for the publication and extra marketing push for The Boy with Two Belly Buttons are easy to spot. Dubner cowrote Freakonomics, a New York Times bestseller, and this book offers a pat “valuable lesson about life” with the addition of an internationally known celebrity--i.e., he’s ready for his morning-show interview now.

The book’s mistakes actually start with Dubner’s choice to share a tale created for his own kids without punching it up better. Beginner mistake #1: Kids love to hear their parents’ stories, and like to keep their parents happy. The test of a good story is not sharing it with your kids, but sharing it with people who don’t give a damn about you.

The protagonist of the book, young Solomon, realizes when his little sister is born that he is unusual in having two belly buttons. This is a “problem” without consequences. Solomon is not suffering physically. He didn’t feel “different” before his little sister arrived, and I’m pretty sure the anatomical differences between boy and girl go beyond the navel. Beginner mistake #2: It’s tough to write a compelling story without a compelling conflict.

If Solomon just kept his shirt down, no one would see his stomach. But the boy shows his extra belly button to everyone but a “professor of buttonology” who refuses to believe in it. Why doesn’t Solomon lift his shirt then? Because of beginner mistake #3: Making the main character act illogically simply to keep the plot going.

Solomon meets a talking turtle. Why a talking turtle? (Why, for that matter, two belly buttons?) The story never explains. There’s no reason that a whimsical tale needs to explain every detail, of course, but in a world with talking turtles how weird would an extra belly button really seem? Beginner mistake #4: Inconsistent tone. Not every idea for a book is worth keeping.

Finally, Solomon bumps into a “very famous movie director” who looks exactly like Steven Spielberg. In the original manuscript, the publicity materials assure me, the movie director was Steven Spielberg, whom Dubner once interviewed. The text doesn’t prepare us for that moment or explain why Solomon literally bumps into a director getting out of his limousine. This isn’t an experience young readers, or even older readers, usually have. Beginner mistake #5: Ever since Aristotle, deus ex machina is a lousy plot device.

The cinematic artist formerly known as Spielberg tells Solomon that a boy with an extra navel would “have to be very special.” He might even make a movie about that boy. (The real Steven Spielberg would know that movies need a very compelling story, not just a minor physical anomaly.) And suddenly Solomon feels okay. Beginner mistake #6: The young protagonist doesn’t solve his problem; instead, a wise adult tells him how to solve his problem.

The Boy with Two Belly Buttons is ultimately about our celebrity culture. Not just because if someone had offered this manuscript to HarperCollins but hadn’t written a New York Times bestseller, met Steven Spielberg, or been known to the press, then the publisher almost certainly wouldn’t have published it.

The book also reflects our outsized deference to celebrities in its story. The talking turtle tells Solomon that having a stomach like no one else’s “is a recipe for ridicule.” A Hollywood luminary tells Solomon that having two belly buttons is “very special.” Why does Solomon believe one and not the other? Well, only one of those judgments comes from a celebrity.


Brooke said...

Ah, thank you. I was e-mailed a promo for this book, and was bowled over by the mediocrity. You've put the finger on every reason why. Silly, greedy celebrity author!

Andy J Smith illustration said...


Anonymous said...

And of course we all remember how important it was to the ongoing plot that Chandler had three nipples. (All who respond, "He did?" or "What?" or "Who is Chandler?" are proving my point.)

Bkbuds said...

I also panned this book, for many of the reasons you cite--that it's main message seems to be that only Hollywood can give you the validation you crave. Blech.