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Goofing Off

The anti-textbook for do-it-yourself fun
June 23, 2008

Joost Bonsen prides himself on having “snuck a fart machine into a design museum.” But this was no prank: the curators of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York chose to display “The Happy Hippo” as an example of hands-on science education. The comic-book-style story teaches kids how to build a device that allows them to “capture the acoustic aura of the mighty hippo” by sitting in a chair and “shifting their mass.” It’s just one of 15 “Howtoon” comics collected in Howtoons: The Possibilities Are Endless!

Howtoons: the possibilities are endless! By Saul Griffith, Nick Dragotta, and Joost Bonsen HarperCollins Children’s, 2007, $15.99

Howtoons, which feature the fictional siblings Tucker and Celine, got their start at MIT in the spring of 2003, when Bonsen ‘90, SM ‘06, and Saul Griffith, SM ‘01, PhD ‘04, were grad students. ­Bonsen, who had learned to read by paging through comic books in Dutch and English, told Griffith that he dreamed of making do-it-yourself cartoons for kids. Griffith reached up to his bookshelf for his collection of ­century-­old illustrated how-to books, saying he’d long wanted to update them. Griffith soon drew up some plans for a soda-bottle rocket, and the pair hosted the first of what would be several parties where children tested their designs. Later that year, they hired Marvel Comics artist Nick Dragotta to turn their scribbled drawings and directions into professional-quality comics. Although ­Bonsen is now a lecturer and researcher at the Media Lab and Griffith is a MacArthur “genius grant” ­winner and entrepreneur, the three collaborators continue to collect projects and create comics that show kids how to build them.

Most of the cartoons are narratives rather than step-by-step instructions, and they encourage kids to adapt the project designs. In “The Infamous Marshmallow Shooter,” for example, a beaming Celine brandishes a five-barreled version of the shooter and says, “You know, the possibilities are endless.”

“We really are trying to be the anti-­textbook,” says Griffith. People “are programming kids a little to do scripted play,” he adds. “We say, Here’s this toy, and here are the instructions on how to use it. I think, really, the most important thing is unscripted play.”

Howtoons’ creators routinely change their designs as they go along. Dragotta, who describes himself as “all thumbs,” often serves as the guinea pig. “Before I draw them, I build every one–and go back and yell at Saul and Joost about how they could make it better,” he says. “I build them all 10 times,” Griffith counters, laughing.

Their design process shows up in the story “The Righteous Stuff,” where Tucker and Celine compete to design their own rockets. “Celine’s launcher [made of wooden blocks] was Saul’s design, and Tucker’s [coat-hanger launcher] was my design,” Bonsen says, “and both of ours failed in the ways that are illustrated.” The characters go back to the drawing board and combine their approaches.

The group’s adventures continue as they work on a second book, due out in 2009.

Recent Books
From the MIT community

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction)
By Junot Díaz, associate professor in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies
Riverhead Books, 2007, $24.95

Managing Catastrophic Loss of Sensitive Data
By Constantine Photopoulos ‘77
Elsevier, 2008, $59.95

Ropewalk: A Cordage Engineer’s Journey through History
A documentary film written and ­narrated by Bill Hagenbuch ‘40, SM ‘41, directed by Steve Fetsch, 2008, $20.00

Dynamic Digital Representations in Architecture: Visions in Motion
By Imdat As, SM ‘02, and Daniel Schodek, PhD ‘71
Routledge, 2008, $53.95

Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)longing in Contemporary India
By Parmesh Shahani, SM ‘05
Sage Publications, 2008, $32.95

Suburban Transformations
By Paul Lukez, MArch ‘85
Princeton Architectural Press, 2007, $40.00

Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Technology, Society, and the Imagination (new edition)
By Rosalind Williams, professor of the history of science and technology
MIT Press, 2008, $19.95

Please submit titles of books and papers published in 2007 and 2008 to be considered for this column.

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