Thursday, July 1, 2010

"Utterly Me, Clarice Bean" by Lauren Child

Title: Utterly Me, Clarice Bean
Author: Lauren Child
Publisher: Candlewick, 2005
Where and why: I got this from my local library. I had to pick a children's fiction book for a review for class, saw this and thought it looked great.
Rating: ★★★★
When Clarice Bean gets a chance to use her favorite book series, the Ruby Redfort detective mysteries, in a school competition, she does her best to think of a project that will win. Even if she ends up with Karl Wrenbury, the class troublemaker, as her partner, and even if her teacher Mrs. Wilberton says that “a common housefly has got more ability to apply itself” than she does (13). The problem is, she needs to prove she’s learned something from Ruby Redfort, and she can’t think of one thing. If only her best friend, Betty Moody, would come back from wherever she’s disappeared to—she always has great ideas. But when the class trophy goes missing and Karl is blamed, Clarice gets her chance to show how she’s actually learned a lot from Ruby Redfort: how to solve mysteries.
This book is ideal for readers who have graduated from beginning reader books, and perhaps even chapter books, but aren’t ready for more complex storylines or characters. There is not an overwhelming amount of text, as Child includes many illustrations throughout the book and plays with the size and shape of the text. Though she uses unfamiliar words often throughout the book, from their context it is fairly easy to determine what the words mean, and most of the words are short and simple. The word “utterly” is used over and over (“Sometimes I stare boredly into space, thinking utterly of nothing”[7]), and though not many children have seen or used that word, its repeated usage makes it clear that it’s a synonym for “completely” and “totally.”
Child also uses made-up words that children are constantly using, such as “squillions,” “boredly,” and “goggly.” She loves to play with language, throwing in these made-up words just where they are needed, and as a result they make complete sense: “Mom is always gribbling about pants on the floor and shoes on the sofa” (5).
The story itself will resonate with many children, as it deals with common issues: friendship and fighting with your friends, mean teachers (“Mrs. Wilberton is allowed to say rude things about me and I am not allowed to say them back. Those are the rules of school”[14]), enemies, annoying siblings, and unwanted school assignments. In addition to these familiar situations, there are also a few issues for readers to consider. In the case of Karl Wrenbury, Clarice is horrified that she will have to work with someone whose chief interest is making trouble; however, as she gets to know him and spend time with him, she realizes he might not be that bad after all, and is actually quite funny and nice.
Subplots abound, because after all, problems don’t come one at a time in real life. Clarice notices mysterious happenings all over, like why is her granddad sneaking around at night? Where did Betty Moody disappear to? Why is her brother Kurt suspiciously nice and hygienic all of a sudden? These little mysteries keep the action moving, and the answers are often hilarious.
Child does a magnificent job at using her illustrations and the arrangement of the text to enhance Clarice’s narration. She emphasizes words by putting them in a larger font, and does the same to dialogue when the speaker is raising their voice, and illustrations occasionally have part of the text worked into them.
Lauren Child’s Utterly Me, Clarice Bean is perfect for young readers looking for more complex books than easy readers, but aren’t yet ready for longer, denser stories (it might be a good choice for reluctant readers, as well). It’s relatable, quirky, original and fun without being dumbed-down for its intended audience. I loved it, and plan on reading other books in this series.

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