Fuse #8

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Review of the Day: Stinky Stern Forever

Bibliotherapy. Familiar with it? That’s what happens when something tragic happens to a child or to someone a child knows and that kid’s parents decide to work through that difficult situation with books as an aid. Sometimes they turn to a bookstore, but nine times out of ten they come to their local children’s librarian with very very specific requests. That’s where I come in. I’ll be sitting at my desk and a parent will come up to me wanting the exact situation that is occurring to the child, but in a picture book or young reader format. So when a children’s book comes out that deals with death in some fashion, I take especial note. Now I had not read any of the Jackson Friends series prior to picking up, “Stinky Stern Forever”. This book first came to my attention when it kept showing up on Best Books of the Year 2005 list after list after list. The fact that an early chapter book should tackle a difficult subject is noteworthy in and of itself. That it should do so with the grace and aplomb shown in Michelle Edwards’ fourth addition to her series is not only gutsy on the author’s part, but fills a distinct and definite need. Even if you don’t buy any other book in the Jackson Friends series, you must at least consider adding “Stinky Stern” to your collection.

No matter where you go in the world, you’re going to have bullies. That’s just a fact of life. And the bully at Jackson Magnet school is none other than Matthew “Stinky” Stern. Pa Lia had just finished making a beautiful snowflake out of paper when Stinky plops a huge gob of glue right in its center. So it was little wonder that Pa Lia was mad with the boy when she left school that day. Just the same, no matter how mad Pa Lia was, she never wanted to see Stinky run straight out into the street without looking and get hit by a white van. She never wanted Stinky Stern to die. Now the kids at Jackson Magnet have to deal with death and losing a boy who was both a bully and, as they remember, a pretty neat kid sometimes. And that means finding a way to always remember Stinky Stern forever.

The fact that Edwards was able to write an early chapter book with this level of complexity is mind-blowing. First of all, I want to make it clear that this book never talks above its intended audience’s head. Everything that happens is written in simple words. That doesn’t mean that the ideas are simple, of course. And when you look at this kind of situation (one in which a kid, previously marked as the bad guy, is in a tragic accident) you’re giving your child readers a chance to work through all kinds of complex emotions. If a kid is dead do you forget that he wasn’t nice? What do you remember about him? How do you memorialize someone like Stinky Stern? Edwards takes all these ideas and handles them with a deft hand. In the end, you miss Stinky Stern as much as the Jackson Friends do.

As for the book in general, the characters in "Stinky Stern" are a multi-ethnic crew of varying personalities, temperaments, backgrounds, and opinions. The pen-and-inks are small images that perfectly buoy the story along. As for the writing itself, it’s clear right from the outset that Edwards knows how to get a handle on this kind of a subject. That she is able to do so with such simple words, yet convey a whole host of ideas is reason enough to read this story through. In the May/June 2006 issue of Horn Book Magazine, librarian Maeve Visser Knoth advocates reading emotionally complex books to kids before a tragedy has even occurred in their own sphere. As I read it, that way if someone they DO know dies, they’ll have a book like, “Stinky Stern Forever” to help them cope with the situation. With that in mind, give this book to any kid you know. It’s not just a title for children who’ve lost a classmate. It’s for every kid anywhere who can handle an early chapter book with a little depth. A necessary purchase.


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