Fuse #8

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Review of the Day: The Talented Clementine

The Talented Clementine by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Marla Frazee. Hyperion. $14.99.

When “Clementine” arrived on the scene in 2006 it hit a nerve. Otherwise sane and rational adults began thwapping one another over the heads with the book screaming, “READ THIS! READ THIS! READ THIS!” Children were left abandoned as their parental units devoured the title. Kids, as it happened, quite enjoyed the book as well, but you could be forgiven for not noticing this through the swarm of “Clementine”-addled adults out there. Now the sequel has popped onto shelves everywhere and we are experiencing the calm before the storm. Copies are already flying off the shelves, but we won’t experience the true gale-force winds of the faithful until the summer months. Then watch those copies simply fly. Sequels come with their own set of rules and regulations, of course. Rule #1 tends to be, “Be As Interesting As Your Predecessor,” and is too often ignored by writers. Not Pennypacker. A worthy sequel and a perfectly packaged little gem, “The Talented Clementine,” will please the initiated and uninitiated Clementine-fans alike.

It’s talent show time! Yes, the third and fourth graders of Clementine’s school are gonna put on a production to beat the band and this puts our heroine in a bit of a pickle. Clementine has no talents. None. Zippo o’ talentos. Well, none that she can perform anyway. She cannot dance or sing or cartwheel or Hula-Hoop. Her best friend Margaret can do all of these and more but even with her “help” Clementine’s having some difficulty. And really, it isn’t until the day in question that she discovers something she can do that no other third grader seems capable of. Something that isn't flashy or even noticeable, but that quite positively saves the day.

The funny thing about this particular volume is that Pennnypacker has done away with a subplot. There’s no A story paired with a lesser B story for kicks. This pup’s A and only A from start to finish. You might think that would make the book tedious and slow, but the author appears to know what she’s doing. The concept of figuring out what you do best is infinitely difficult to write about for any extended length of time without sounding like a broken record. All the more reason then for the author to add in details like Clementine super-gluing beer bottlecaps to the soles of her shoes in the hopes learning to tap. I can probably say with certainty that I’ve never read a children’s early chapter book that contained a kid who stinks like a brewery. Other unique details include the presence of adults that aren’t villains. The Principal that Clementine is constantly excusing herself to talk to acts more like an infinitely patient psychotherapist than an authority figure.

I’d like to point out that what I’m doing right now (reviewing this book) is a dangerous thing. You have no idea the position I’ve placed myself in, do you? How easy it is, when reviewing a Clementine, to suddenly lapse into copying down quote after quote from the text without giving it a second thought. I might try to encourage you to read the book by typing something like, “And that’s when the worried feeling – as if somebody were scribbling with a big black crayon – started up in my brains.” That might work. Or I could slip in a little description of the school nurse that says, “She always looks bored, as if she’s just killing time until a really good disease hits the school.” I think you should count your lucky stars that I’ve too strong a sense of self-preservation to ever fall into that trap. Whew!

You know, if we’re going to be perfectly honest with one another here, you should probably know that some people do not care for “Clementine”. Such people have grown tired of the spunky-red-haired-female genre and equate Clem with Junie B. Jones and her pseudo-spunky ilk. Such people, nine times out of ten, have not physically sat down and read the book cover to cover, but some have and Clementine is just not their bag. I’ve also heard objections to Clementine’s maturity or lack thereof. Some people didn’t believe (as seen in the first book) that a third grader would be so immature as to cut off all of her best friend’s hair. But even if that’s your objection to “Clementine”, there’s nothing to stop you from loving its follow-up. Maturity varies with every individual. And if there's any way to describe this heroine, it's as an "individual" indeed.

So why do people like Pennypacker’s books so much? Maybe it’s because she’s damn good at nailing little truths here and there. We know what it’s like when a teacher is so excited by a program that they end up tacking on words to the Pledge of Allegiance like, “With liberty and justice for all and I know we’re all very excited to get to our big project.” Her characters feel believable. Clementine is self-involved, sure. What third grader isn’t? But she honestly feels a concern for her annoying baby brother. In fact, she’s so afraid that the babysitter will forget that he’s allergic to peanuts that she scrawls a, “NO PEANUTS FOR ME!” in blue permanent marker on his head so as to avoid any accidents.

One of the branches in my library system is mere days away from hosting an honest-to-goodness “Clementine” party. There will be a pin-the-bologna-glasses-on-the-face, a pigeon toss, and who knows what all. I was hoping there might be a wok spin, but no such luck. Now after having read the sequel, I wonder what additional crafts and ideas might come of this newest title. A howling contest? A bottle cap coloring station? The mind boggles. Whatever they decide upon, I know that they’ll need plenty of copies of this book when it finally reaches their shelves. Once again, the Clementine-shaped ball that is this book gets knocked cleanly out of the park. A worthy continuation.

Notes on the Cover: Uh, it's Marla Frazee, dude. Short of drawing this cover entirely in her own blood I can't think of a way she could have messed up this image. I also happen to love that Clementine's new shoes make the cover and that the image you see here hints broadly at the talent she eventually finds. Nicely done.

First Line: "I have noticed that teachers get exciting confused with boring a lot."

Previously Reviewed By: What Adrienne Thinks About That, MotherReader, and A Year of Reading. Please inform me if I have missed anyone.

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At 11:56 AM , Blogger Saints and Spinners said...

Do you think that Clementine and Ruby Lu would hang out (if they were the same age) or would they be rivals?

At 12:43 PM , Blogger heidi said...

i'm with the masses of grown-ups who adored clementine! in fact, my bay area group of writers, teachers, librarians, booksellers, and reviewers, thought it should win the newbery. why? because it was so darn adorable and accessible--i will eat up the sequel and can't wait until my four-year old is ready to read (or listen) to it--actually, i may wait awhile. while clementine is ultra-groovy, i'm REALLY glad my son isn't like her!

At 2:48 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

They'd definitely be rivals, if for no other reason than the fact that they have equally strong personalities. Ruby would pull one way and Clementine the other. That said, I think Clementine would totally dig the driving-your-parents car idea. It's a blessing she hasn't thought of it herself yet.


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