Monday, May 03, 2010

A Dignified Series For Younger Readers

In spite of the use of the word "underpants" and "barfed" in the titles, these two books from the Uh-oh, Cleo series by Jessica Harper are head and shoulders above many books written for new readers. Cleo's stories are real stories that deal with real-life situations. They are not merely a string of lame jokes strung together with little plot. They have honest-to-God beginnings, middles, and ends. There is, believe it or not, a logical reason for Cleo and her siblings to jam underwear on their heads in Underpants on my Head. The undergarments aren't just thrown in there the way they would be in other books of this type because, hey, everybody knows kids like butt jokes. Poor Cleo has a weak stomach, mentioned in both books, and it takes center stage in I Barfed on Mrs. Kenly. So, no, the book isn't an excuse to use the word "puke" as many times as possible.

Both books give the impression that they are not just random efforts. In Underpants on my Head Cleo says, "I like to read too, but I'm not interested in all those wizard books. I'd rather read books about regular kids who lose their pet or there's a bully in their class or something. You know, normal stuff." That is definitely what these two books are about--normal stuff. And at the end of both books, Cleo talks about how what just happened to her feels like a story or a tiny book inside her and speculates about how many of these books she'll have inside her by the time she's an adult.

This is an author who seems to be trying to tell kids that fiction can be rooted in life, in reality. On the back flap of Underpants on my Head, you can check out a photo of eight-year-old Jessica Harper with her head pretty much covered with what looks like a pair of white cotton girly briefs. If I were playing teacher, I'd have some of these books in my classroom to use in a writing unit on using experience in fiction.

Some drawbacks: Cleo doesn't have a great voice. She's a little on the bland and flat side. What she does have is a large number of siblings who can be hard to keep track of. And mink coats figure prominently in I Barfed on Mrs. Kenly. I found that a little retro, myself, as if it came out of a sixties sitcom, because my experience of the suburbs and small town American life these last couple of decades has been pretty much mink coat free. I don't know if a lot of kids these days experience their parents' friends arriving for an evening and piling the minks on the bed.

But even with those complaints, these books should make good reading for young readers, especially those who, like Cleo, would rather not read fantasy.

While we're on the subject of books for younger readers, you might want to take a look at the April I Can Read: A Carnival Celebrating New Readers at Jean Little Library.

Training Report: Almost through with a chapter that has been an absolute ordeal for a couple of weeks. I'm wondering if an author writing the same dinner scene over and over again would make a decent short story. I must remember to write that idea down in my writer's notebook. But I probably won't.

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