“Call me irresponsible. Call me unreliable. Throw in undependable, too!” (My apologies to the songwriters for borrowing their sentiments…) I came here to work on getting this done in time to post on Thanksgiving and suddenly realized that the third Thursday this month was LAST week! So, Fun Fourth Friday it is!
Like much of the reading world, I was first introduced to Andrew Clements through his break-out novel Frindle, a book about a boy who turns playing with words and meanings into a movement. Having been the sort of child who frequently used made-up words or repurposed words that my whole family (and sometimes neighborhood) understood (but not the kind who would have defied school authorities–yikes!), I loved using this book when I taught fifth grade so I could tell them that story, so I could show them that what they learn, they can use, and they can use it right now. Since then, I have read dozens of Andrew Clements books, and I can honestly say that I really have never been disappointed. I was not surprised to find that he was a former teacher–he writes the teachers in his books very accurately, very honestly–and he has clearly not forgotten what it was like to be a student, either. Now that his writing credits have expanded dramatically, there is sure to be a book from his vast bibliography to appeal to just about everyone. Here is a small sampling in publication order!
Big Al (1988–preschool to early elementary): Big Al is a very friendly fish who is also very big and scary, so all the other fish avoid him. After a long time trying to fit in and make friends, he manages to rescue some smaller fish from a net one day, and they appreciate his help and become his friends.
Billy & the Bad Teacher (1992–elementary): Billy is a fourth grade student who does everything practically perfectly. His teacher, Mr. Adams, however, isn’t quite so formal, and Billy starts to take notes about everything he does wrong. When Billy tries to come up with a list of what a perfect teacher would be, however, he realizes that all the things he wants in a teacher, he realizes Mr. Adams already does most of the amazing and fun things he chose, so he tears up his list of objections and decides to give Mr. Adams another chance. (The artwork is a little strange, and I can’t even find an image to use of the cover!)
Frindle (1996–middle to upper elementary): Nick–a fifth-grader who defies labeling–initiates a word experiment after a discussion in English class about the origins of words: calling a pen a frindle. When involvement expands beyond his friends to the whole school and news gets out, his experiment blossoms out of his control, and it kind of scares Nick what power his ideas can have. In the end, Mrs. Granger (the teacher with whom he engages in this battle of words) encourages him to move past his fear that his ideas will go too far and continue to use his great mind to make changes.
Double Trouble in Walla Walla (1997–elementary): Dedicated to a teacher who once told him something he had written should be published (I’m still waiting to honor Mrs. Schwantez the same way!), this book tells the story of Lulu, a girl who starts some trouble in English class by starting a chain reaction of using words with repetition–like nit-wit, higgledy-piggledy, and tip-top–that passes from her to her teacher to her principal to the school nurse who narrowly averts the disaster that might be caused by calling the superintendent and passing the trouble on to him by suggesting they say all the “rootin’-tootin’, crink’em-crank’em, woolly-bully words” they can imagine to get it out of their systems. Pages and pages of silly words and wild illustrations follow, but that does the trick, and all is back to normal again…sort of.
Circus Family Dog (2000–early elementary): Gramps, an old circus dog whose trick is to not jump through a flaming hoop, feels threatened by the arrival of Sparks, another dog with a big selection of showy tricks. Gramps practices until he can actually jump through the hoop and surprises everyone. He only does his trick once, but it lets the others know he needs attention, so his loving circus family gives it to him, and Gramps is happy again.
Jake Drake, Bully Buster (2001–middle elementary): Jake Drake, a fourth grader, is having some trouble with a SuperBully at school, and none of his usual tactics seem to be working. Then, through a partner project where he’s assigned to the bully himself, he begins to find the real person behind the bully’s actions, and that’s how Jake becomes a bully buster. Not a perfect how-to manual of how to deal with bullies (for one thing, it reinforces that you shouldn’t tell an adult, but the reason he gives (it can make it worse when/if the bully finds out) is certainly a common reason that often proves true when either the telling or the resulting adult response isn’t carefully considered for timing and potential repercussions), but the idea of seeing past a person’s behavior and humanizing others is sound. One of several in a series.
Brave Norman: A True Story (Pets to the Rescue) (2001–early elementary) and Dolores and the Big Fire: A True Story (Pets to the Rescue) (2002–early elementary): GirlChild loved these two true stories of pet heroism and read them a couple times each. Norman, a blind dog, rescues a swimmer in trouble and becomes a therapy dog, and Dolores, a cat, helps lead her owner to safety when a fire starts at home during the night and receives an award.
The Jacket (2002–upper elementary): Phil sees another boy–a black boy–in the hallway at school wearing his younger brother’s distinctive jacket and accuses him of stealing it, forcing an audience with the principal at school. Both he and the boy are humiliated when it is uncovered that Phil’s mom had given the coat to the woman who helps her with housework and who happens to be this boy’s grandmother. Phil is forced to confront his own perspectives and unconscious prejudice and try to rectify this fault in his character that he hadn’t even realized was there.
Because Your Daddy Loves You (2005–early elementary) and Because Your Mommy Loves You (2012–early elementary): These two books for small children about parental love compare how a parent could respond to different everyday situations but instead responds in a way that provides support, comfort, and teaching moments…and assurance of love.
No Talking (2007–upper elementary): The fifth graders at Laketon Elementary School have a big problem–their mouths. When one boy’s little experiment with silence inspires a war of few words between the boys and the girls, things get turned upside down. In the end, everyone (including the teachers) learns the value of the spoken word…and silence.
Lost and Found (2008–upper elementary): Ray and Jay Grayson are identical twins starting sixth grade at a new school, a school where no one yet knows them. Between Ray being sick on the first day of school and a records mix-up, Jay finds himself in a position where he can be his own man (so to speak) and experience what life as a non-twin would be like. He and Ray switch off attendance days and revel in the difference it makes to be seen as an individual instead of part of a pair. Things fall apart, of course, but everyone involved gets a new perspective on individuality.
The Handiest Things in the World (2010–preschool to early elementary): The only nonfiction title of his I found, this book is a cute, rhyming examination of what hands can do and what other things do more efficiently. The end reminds readers with a photograph of a small child holding hands with someone else that “For sharing love with tenderness…the hand itself is handiest.”
Benjamin Pratt & The Keepers of the School: We the Children (2010–upper elementary): Attending a school full of history that is about to be torn down to put in an amusement park, Ben is given a mysterious coin and some cryptic information by the janitor shortly before he dies. This first book in a National-Treasure-like series pits Ben and his friends against a corporation that seems sure to destroy the history of their school and their whole town. Reading the whole series is required for the full story arc, but each book has its own subplot to resolve.
Other great books by Andrew Clements:
A Week in the Woods (2002–upper elementary): An annual school trip provides Mark–a newcomer and an outsider–and his teacher a chance to see past their preconceptions of each other to the real person behind the labels they had secretly given each other.
Extra Credit (2009–upper elementary to middle school): An extra credit assignment to start a pen pal correspondence with a person in another country causes some upheaval and some learning experiences for both letter writers in the very disparate worlds of a girl in central Illinois and a boy in a village in Afghanistan.
About Average (2012–upper elementary): Jordan is a completely average child, but she shows extraordinary calm and presence of mind in the face of a frightening storm at school.