Richard “the Beast” Best is back to school for Grade 2 in Ms. Rooney’s class – again – because he was “left behind”. Surrounded by “babies”, Richard resolves not to be friendly and, the first chance he gets (recess), he takes off to play with his real friends. Only, they don’t want to play with a “left back”.
Giff takes this grade-school drama and, in a few short chapters, follows Richard’s first few weeks of school as a left-back student. And you know what? She makes it interesting and believable for kids (yup, I remember liking this series when I was a kid) and for grown ups (I also remember liking this book when I read it a few weeks ago). In this relatively short book, the following things happen [spoiler spoiler]
- Richard sulks about being left back and deliberately tries not to make friends with his “baby” classmates.
- He gets left out by his former friends and retaliates by telling them that he knows that he was left back by mistake and that the teachers were really supposed to leave back someone else…
- He gets teased about being a “baby” and having “baby” friends.
- He joins a “remedial reading” class (but that’s not what it’s called) where he and some of his new classmates get extra help reading.
- He lies about being able to read when he bumps into old “friends” at the library.
- He accidentally gets a classmate into trouble and she has to stand by the wall during an assembly (mortifying for a 2nd grader, which Giff manages to get across).
- He eventually makes kind-of friends with the kids in his class, and they kind of start making friends with him (nothing too sudden or inexplicable here).
- He learns that he has a talent that he can be proud of, and that other “babies” in his reading class have other talents unrelated to reading.
- He slips up and gets a bunch of demerit points, losing the “class banner” for that week…
- …and redeems himself by being really good the next week, so that the class does have the class banner! They celebrate with (from what I can recall) juice and cookies. (It sounded exciting when I was in grade school, but sounds less exciting now).
These seemed like small dramas when I read the book last week, but I remember that all of these little things seemed really important when I first read the book. And they are important, in the grand scheme of Grade 2. It takes talent to remember what things were live-or-die moments in grade school, and to convey them simply and realistically. And then Giff kept on doing it, by continuing the story of the kids in Ms. Rooney’s class in the rest of the Kids of Polk Street School series. Kudos to Giff!
I am also very impressed with how Giff knows her audience, and how she brings up issues that are important to kids (like being left behind) and presents them from a kid’s viewpoint. There aren’t too many books for younger kids, or series for younger kids, that start with a protagonist who has – essentially – failed out of grade 2 because he can’t read. Giff pulls it off nicely.
The other thing I like about this book (and about the books in this series) is that they are chapter books, with illustrations. Chapters in a book? Way to make me feel grown-up! Blanche Sims illustrated the original series (cover art, too), but for some reason her pictures are not on the covers of the new editions. I just hope her illustrations are in those books (full page pencil drawings, at about one per chapter), because when I think of Emily Arrow and her four ponytails with ribbons (don’t ask), and of Ms. Rooney’s curly hair, I think of Sims’ illustrations. Also, I think it takes talent to draw a person with four ponytails and ribbons.
Reading Ages: 6-8
Things I learned from the Polk Street School series: That James K. Polk was a U.S. President, that the orange and red and white sugary candy shaped like a triangle is called “candy corn”, and that it may actually be possible to make four ponytails on one head with enough elastic, ribbon, and hair.
Rating: A-. The minus is because I don’t think of the series as a classic “must have”. But it’s a very highly recommended “should have”.