Friday, March 21, 2014

Andrew Clements

Titles:  The Report Card; Frindle; Extra Credit; No Talking; Lunch Money;
           Troublemaker; The Janitor's Boy; Lost and Found; Landry News;
           The Last Holiday Concert; About Average

Author:  Andrew Clements

Rating:  ***  (3 stars out of 3 possible, "A")
             Highly Recommended

It's not often I come across a series and writer who seem to fire on all cylinders:  smart, funny, important, creative, and unique are the adjectives I would use to describe Andrew Clements writing style and topics.  For this review I read Frindle, and the The Report Card.

Writers must write about what they know, and for Andrew Clements that includes teachers, schools and students.  He taught at elementary, junior and high school levels before writing full-time.  (For more information, see his website at

I read Frindle straight through in about 2 hours one Tuesday afternoon.  I wanted to immediately recommend it to my friends and their kids.  That's how good it was.  It mostly made me laugh and think, although I admit it made me a little teary-eyed as well.  If you never really cared for school, or even if you only had one really memorable teacher, you will find a lot to which you can relate in this book.

Nicholas Allen is a clever 5th grade boy who meets up with an even more clever 5th grade language arts teacher, Mrs. Granger:

"She was small, as teachers go.  There were even some fifth graders who were taller.  But Mrs. Granger seemed like a giant.  It was her eyes that did it.  They were dark gray, and if she turned them on full power, they could make you feel like a speck of dust.  Her eyes could twinkle and laugh, too, and kids said she could crack really funny jokes.  But it wasn't the jokes that made her famous."

"Everyone was sure that Mrs. Granger had X-ray vision.  Don't even think about chewing a piece of gum within fifty feet of her.  If you did, Mrs. Granger would see you and catch you and make you stick the gum onto a bright yellow index card.  Then she would safety-pin the card to the front of your shirt, and you'd have to wear it for the rest of the school day.  After that, you had to take it home and have your mom or dad sign the card, and bring it back to Mrs. Granger the next day."

"Every language arts teacher in the world enjoys making kids use the dictionary.  But Mrs. Granger didn't just enjoy the dictionary.  She loved the dictionary--almost worshipped it.  Her weekly vocabulary list was thirty-five words long, sometimes longer.  As if that wasn't bad enough, there was a "Word for the Day" on the blackboard every morning.  If you gave yourself a day off and didn't write one down and look it up and learn the definition--sooner or later Mrs. Granger would find out, and then, just for you, there would be two Words for the Day for a whole week."

The plot of the book naturally revolves around Nick trying to out-manoever Dangerous Grangerous.

"'Mrs. Granger, you have so many dictionaries in this room, and that huge one especially...where did all those words come from?  Did they just get copied from other dictionaries?  It sure is a big book.'

It was a perfect thought-grenade--KaPow!  Several kids smiled, and a few peeked at the clock.  Nick was famous for this, and the whole class knew what he was doing.  Unfortunately, so did Mrs. Granger.  She hesitated a moment, and gave Nick a smile that was just a little too sweet to be real.

'Why, what an interesting question, Nicholas.  I could talk about that for hours, I bet.'  She glanced around the classroom.  'Do the rest of you want to know, too?'  Everyone nodded yes.  'Very well then.  Nicholas, will you do some research on that subject and give a little oral report to the clas?  If you find out the answer yourself it will mean so much more than if I just told you.  Please have your report ready for our next class.'"

The Lone Granger proves a worthy opponent in several skirmishes.  You'll find your loyalties switching sides occasionally, and Mrs. Granger will have the last word, but not in the way you might anticipate.  She's also not without a sense of humor and compassion.  You just know she's seen it all before, and it would take a lot to pull the wool over her eyes.  (Did you have a teacher like that?  I sure did, and they just happened to be English teachers.)

"Nicholas Allen, I have enjoyed having you as a student.  Now you go out there and have a wonderful summer.  And I expect to hear remarkable things about you, young man."

As kids we always thought teachers were "them" vs. "us."  As we became parents we realized that wasn't true.  Now we often have to try to convince our own kids it isn't true.  This book is a clever example of what could happen if adults and kids tried to work out their differences intelligently.

The Report Card follows some of the same ideas.  It centers around a bright girl, Nora Rowley, who isn't convinced it's in her best interests to let everyone know how bright she is.  She also isn't too fond of all those standardized tests that pigeon-hole kids into "gifted" and "average" stereotypes.  This is another smart read about one smart kid trying to navigate an adult world, all while being a good friend to others as well.

I look forward to reading the rest of Andrew Clements' collections.  You can bet I'll be reserving many of them for my 3rd grader in the coming years.  His school mystery series Benjamin Pratt and the Keepers of the School sounds tempting, as does a set written in a more serious vein:  Things Hoped For; Things Not Seen; Things That Are.  He's also written chapter books for younger readers.

Finally, I give you a glimpse into Andrew Clements' reading and writing philosophy:

"The time that moms and dads spend reading with children has done more to keep books and literature alive than any government program yet invented."

Amen.  Preach it, Andrew.

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