In Print : Clementine on the write path
"Clementine's Letter," by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Marla Frazee. Hyperion Books for Children, 2008, 150 pgs, $14.99.
Here she is again, this scrappy, precocious third-grader who is about to get in and out of trouble, to struggle with choices that pit want against should, and ultimately learn important lessons. It's the sort of tale authors Judy Blume (Fudge, Blubber, among many others) and Barbara Park (Junie B. Jones) perfected, and youngsters who've graduated to chapter books, love to read and collect.
Sara Pennypacker's award-winning Clementine books tell a familiar tale. And it works. In Ms. Pennypacker's latest book, "Clementine's Letter," the smart-mouthed little girl runs the gamut of small mischievous deeds in a consistently endearing way.
Written in Clementine's first person voice, the story unfolds quickly: Even though he promised, promised to remain her teacher for the entire school year, Mr. D'Matz, who is especially interested in everything about Egypt, has been given the opportunity to spend the rest of the school year on an archaeological dig in Egypt. And even though he did promise to be Clementine's teacher for the year; even though he understands her completely, gives her special signals so she won't get into trouble, and allows her a little more latitude than the rest of the class when she needs it, and even though on Friday he said, "See you next week," Mr. D'Matz is leaving to spend a week with the Adventures for Teachers Committee to see if he will be the winning teacher who earns a trip to Egypt.
Enter the substitute teacher, Mrs. Nagel, who claps her hands when she wants the class's attention, and writes her name on the blackboard as if it belonged there.
While the main plot unfolds, Clementine engages with her little brother, who she refers to by ever-changing vegetable names. She embarks on a book-writing venture with her dad, who is the superintendent in their Boston apartment building, and works on her relationships with her friends, including Norris-Boris-Morris-Horice-Brontosaurus.
Okay, so she holds a sale of all the items she finds in the apartment's trash bin and gets everybody angry with everyone else.
And when her class is asked to write letters of recommendation to the teachers' committee explaining why Mr. D'Matz should be named to study in Egypt, Clementine decides what she can do to keep him from leaving.
The story moves along quickly as Clementine maintains a running commentary about what she thinks and feels about everything and everyone. It is the sort of thing that gives youngsters a wealth of thoughts and feeling with which they can identify.
But there is a gentleness about the telling because the characters are all essentially nice - the parents loving, the teachers kind, and the children well-meaning. There are no heavies. No moral lecturing. No nastiness. It's a Mr. Rogers sort of neighborhood that beguiles by offering easy-to-relate-to motivations and reactions in the best of all possible worlds. A nice place to visit at that.
On Saturday, June 7, from 11 am to 12 noon, Ms. Pennypacker will be at Riley's Reads in Vineyard Haven to sign books and meet her readers. For more information, call 508-696-7957.