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Children's Book Reviews

School Daze

School Daze

Kate Marley

Don’t think of school as a kid’s version of work…think of it as a place children are forced to go. Now most of the time, it’s a positive place of learning, with room for social and mental expansion. But when it’s not, kids are literally stuck, with no place else to go, and very little hope of help, particularly in large schools. So school stories are often powerful metaphors for a child’s helplessness in the world; what a kid makes of their school experience and how they handle it have long been seen as a way of empowerment.

Frog Principal by Stephanie Calmenson. c 2001, Scholastic. This slight variation on the old fairy tale the Frog Prince is a clever adaptation with a school theme. During a demo, a visiting musician accidently turns the beloved Mr. Bundy into a frog, and after a pact with some kids over a wet baseball, he becomes the strangest principal ever, jumping in gym class, eating science projects and taking swims in a sink. The funny illustrations are by Denise Brunkus.

School Supplies selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins. c 1996, Simon & Schuster. This neat little collection of school poems from various writers are greatly enhanced by the vivid, supple and imaginative drawings by Renee Flower.

When Kangaroo Goes to School by Sonia Levitin. c 2001, Rising Moon. Using an adorable, large kangaroo to illustrate polite behavior and general school rules, this is a great way to gently guide elementary schoolkids. It covers nearly all situations: walking to school or riding the bus, playground politeness, cafeteria and bathroom protocol. Jeff Seaver provided the colorful, playful illustrations.

Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco. c 1998, Philomel. Anyone who has ever struggled in school, or anyone who has ever dealt with a bully will emphathise with Trisha. Raised with a love of books in a loving, supportive family, Trisha has trouble reading, no matter how hard she tries. This tearjerker captures the years of self-doubt, the embarrassment, the agony that school had become. And then, one teacher notices Trisha’s plight, and turns her life around. Illustrated by, and based on the author’s own childhood, it’s an unforgettable story.

Show and Tell by Stephanie Greene. c 1998, Scholastic. Woody gets along great with his teacher…but things start to go wrong when the new student teacher comes. For some reason, she doesn’t like his dead fish, and now his regular teacher doesn’t seem to like him either. And his mother is watching a boy from across the street after school, and he kind of gets in the way. Or that’s what it seems like at first. Gradually, Woody discovers that although the student teacher is different, she’s not so bad after all, and the new kid can be kind of fun.

Bertie’s Picture Day by Pat Brisson. c 2000, Henry Holt. Everyone has had at least one disastrous school picture, so this hilarious story will resonate with kids and parents alike. Bertie has one accident after another the weekend before picture day, and ends up with four teeth missing, a black eye and a bad haircut, courtesy of his younger sister. But when the pictures come back, they become a fond remembrance instead of an embarrassment. The cartoonish black and white pictures are by Diana Cain Bluthenthal.

Mighty Boy by Carol Sonenklar. c 1999, Orchard Books. Moving from California to New York City was hard enough, but being the class bully’s preferred new target makes fourth grade just miserable for Howard. He retreats more and more into daydreams about his favorite TV superhero, Mighty Boy, but it just makes things worse. Then Howard unexpectedly wins an essay contest for a guest spot on the show, and he pins his hopes for deliverance on Mighty Boy’s advice. But both Howard and Mighty Boy are in for a mighty big surprise, and a strong dose of reality. Funny and believable, this is an easy first novel for anyone who’s ever admired a superhero.

Oy, Joy! by Lucy Frank. c 1999, DK Inc. Joy has lots going on in her life – she’s starting high school, her friends are suddenly into boys, and her beloved great-Uncle Max moves in with them into their crowded New York City apartment – with his dog. So Joy has to share a bedroom with her younger brother and do her homework in the closet. And though she loves her Uncle Max, he starts getting seriously involved with all aspects of her life. It all makes for a heartwarming, funny story about growing up and finding some surprising solutions to life’s big problems.

Brimstone Journals by Ron Koertge. c 2001, Candlewick Press. Written in short journal type entries by about twenty different seniors from a suburban high school that give brief but blinding glimpses of their troubled and sometimes dangerous lives. Because one of them is a very angry young man, with guns and a deadly plan. Short but chilling.

Girl Reporter Gets the Skinny by Linda Ellerbee. c 2001, HarperCollins. Young Casey is a budding journalist, and stumbles across a mystery at her high school. Someone is secretly harassing one of the cheerleaders and despite her disdain for the group as a whole (she calls them rah-rahs) she agrees to help Angelina. Filled with acerbic comments and wry commentary on sexism, commercialism and teenage life in general, this was a very interesting read.

Visiting Miss Caples by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel. c 2000, Dial. Jenna’s eighth grade social studies teacher has assigned all her students a community service project – to read an hour each week to a senior citizen. Since they were four, Jenna has been in the orbit of the most popular girl in school, Liv, and they both resent the project. But one day, when she forgets her magazine, Jenna begins to talk to Miss Caples, and they slowly begin to connect, and gradually revise each other’s original negative opinion. And as Jenna’s home life and friendship with Liv start unraveling, her relationship with Miss Caples gives her direction and courage.

Dream Freedom by Sonia Levitin. c 2000, Harcourt. Marcus has a hard life – his mother is a single parent, working hard to keep Marcus and his older sister away from the bad influences of a crime riddled neighorhood. But when Marcus’ teacher reads to her classroom about the problem of modern day slavery in the Sudan, he sees a chance to better his life by helping others. Stories of enslaved children and adults in Sudan are interspersed with Marcus’ and serve as a jarring reminder that despite honest hardships in the US, there are still so many other places where it’s much worse. Based on a real headlines and a real program, this is a seriously thought provoking book.

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All contents © 2000, Kate Marley. All rights reserved.