August 27, 2015
(++++) FRIENDSHIP’S FORMS
Friendshape. By Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. Scholastic. $16.99.
Max. By Jennifer Li Shotz. Based on a screenplay by Boaz Yakin & Sheldon Lettich. Harper. $6.99.
The complexities of friendship can sometimes be communicated quite simply, with just a few lines – both lines of prose and lines of drawings. That is just what Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld do in Friendshape: get at the basics of friendship by showing and writing about a circle, square, triangle and rectangle. With dots for eyes and generally smiling slashes for mouths, these geometrical figures might not seem to have much potential for expressivity, but Lichtenheld manages to give them character despite his use of only a modicum of artistic license. And Rosenthal’s text fits beautifully with the illustrations, because it too turns out to be more than you would expect from a few simple words. For example, one page just says, “Friends make their own fun,” with an illustration showing the green triangle balancing the red rectangle in see-saw posture, the yellow square and blue circle teeter-tottering away happily, the rectangle saying “You guys are wearing me out!” and the circle, with a big smile, saying, “You’re gonna be a wrecked angle!” That is about as far as the wordplay goes here, but there is lots of other play as well. On one page, the triangle becomes a kite, flown by the circle as the rectangle waits for a turn and the text talks about playing fair and square (using the square character rather than the word “square”). For a two-page spread about friends sometimes thinking the same thing at the same time, each character is in a page corner and all are shown thinking of a very realistic banana (albeit with slightly different expressions). At one point, an octagon drops by for a visit; at another, the four friends quarrel, but soon make up; and it is through these messages of inclusion and interaction that Krouse and Lichtenheld produce a very simple but thoroughly satisfying look at what friendship is all about and why it is really such a simple thing – yet so complex at the same time.
Books with far more words then Friendshape often strive mightily for a greater level of profundity about friendship, but all too often they manage only to overdo things and come across as trying too hard. That is certainly the case with Max, a (+++) tie-in to the movie of the same name and a book that emphasizes time and again how important its issues of friendship and family are, to such an extent that at least some readers will quickly weary of the manipulativeness and obviousness of both the story and the message it tries to convey. Max has a typical-for-the-movies plot: older brother follows in the footsteps of father and joins the Marines, only to die in combat, not only leaving his human family bereft but also leaving behind his MWD (Military Working Dog), Max, who appears to go crazy after losing his handler and is due to be put down until younger brother bonds with the dog and they develop an interspecies friendship just as important as the young protagonist’s human relationships. Throw in a Marine buddy of the deceased older brother who may not be the upstanding citizen he claims to be, the usual father-son bonding difficulty, a pack of evil gun runners, someone crooked in law enforcement, and a few other miscellaneous types, and you have the makings of an entirely straightforward book and movie that insist on saying again and again that they have important points to make. They don’t, not really, but Max as a book moves at a good pace through the predictable elements of the story, from initial scene-setting to character introductions to the expected heart-tugging dog scenes (including, inevitably, one of Max at the older brother’s funeral). As the plot thickens – it does thicken somewhat, although never very much – Max becomes a more interesting character and the humans, including Justin (the boy with whom Max bonds after Justin’s brother, Kyle, dies in combat), become less so. This all lurches to a climax in which Justin and two human friends make every possible wrong decision after learning about a dangerous and well-armed gun-running ring, avoiding letting anyone in authority know anything and placing not only themselves but also Justin’s father in jeopardy, until eventually – thanks in large part to Max – the bad guys are stopped and presumably brought to justice (that part is not in the book). As an adventure-with-dog book, Max is fine, if not to be taken nearly as seriously as it wants to be. As a look at friendship, whether among humans or between humans and canines, it is much less satisfactory – and far too superficial to be appreciated in the same way as the much more modest but much more forthright Friendshape can be.