In Praise of One Exasperating Girl
November 16, 2017 § Leave a comment
Because my Emily loves nothing more than a spirited, emotive, somewhat out-of-sorts heroine who reminds her of a hyperbolic version of herself, I always knew she was going to fall head over heels in love with Clementine. It’s why I waited until now to read the seven books in Sara Pennypacker’s laugh-out-loud but astutely heart-tugging chapter series set in Boston—first published ten years ago (Ages 6-9)—about a third grade girl with “spectacularful ideas” and difficulty paying attention in class. I wanted my Emily to be close enough to Clementine’s age to relate to her. And yet, I wanted her to be just young enough that the reading level was a liiiiiitle beyond her, so she’d perhaps pick up the books again on her own in another year. Which she will—I’m now sure of it.
I was tempted to embark on the Clementine books two years ago after our enormous success with Ramona. (Suffice it to say that when we finished the Ramona books, we had to read all the Henry Huggins titles, simply because Ramona would make occasional appearances.) I was again tempted to start Clementine every time Emily begged me to read Dory Fantasmagory or one of its sequels (I credit the third, about Dory’s struggle to learn to read, with convincing Emily to put forth more effort on the subject herself). Or Lulu’s Mysterious Mission. Or the Cody books. But I bided my time, because I knew I was saving the best for last.
I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed reading aloud anything this much. I mean, quite literally, that reading aloud these books—narrated in Clementine’s insistently dramatic, alternately confident and bewildered voice—is beyond entertaining. Clementine is the kid who talks with such gumption, such purity of heart, that adults have to do all they can to keep from laughing (or maybe, if they’re related to her, bury their face in their hands).
“I’d better not go to school today,” I told my mom on Wednesday as soon as I woke her up. “I have cracked toes.” I put my foot right up on the pillow next to her face so she could see without getting up. This is called Being Thoughtful.
“Nope,” she said, without even opening her eyes to see if it was true.
“Well, that’s not all,” I said. “I also have the heartbreak of sore irises.”
“Nope,” she said again, and she still didn’t open her eyes.
“Actually, I think I have arthritis,” I said. “Mrs. Jacobi was breathing on me in the elevator the other day, and I must have caught it.”
“Oh, please,” she said, but this time she opened one eye. And then she made exactly the sound Polka Dottie used to make when she had a hairball.
There’s no question that Emily’s own tangible excitement (dare I say obsession?) also enhanced my enjoyment. She even created a secret Clementine signal. When she’d curve her fingers to make the letter “c” at me from across the dinner table, I knew she was thinking about Clementine. On weekend morning, when she’d climb into bed with me and make a “c” with her hands, I knew she was about to procure the book from underneath the covers. “Oh, Mommy, I think about her all day long,” she said one day after school. “I just can’t wait to see what she’s going to do next.”
After all, these books are full of trouble. Of mistakes, of misunderstandings, of escapades that go terribly, often hilariously wrong. Only Clementine would overhear her parents discussing a surprise party—complete with a cake reading “Goodbye and Good Riddance!”—and assume they were plotting to get rid of her. (In fact, they’re celebrating Clementine’s clever solution for relocating the hordes of pigeons sprawled across the stoop of their apartment building.) Only Clementine, in an effort to ensure her favorite teacher won’t win a sabbatical in Egypt and leave her, would submit a letter to the judges filled with fabricated criminal accusations. Only Clementine would turn shoe shopping into such a prolonged calamity of indecision that her parents would begin bribing one another for the chance to avoid taking her shopping ever again.
There’s undeniable appeal in watching life play out from the safe confines of a book’s pages. But I’d argue that the appeal of Clementine goes deeper than simply watching a third grader navigate the shifting expectations of academic, social, and family life.
What author Sara Pennypacker does so brilliantly (and with more than a little help from Marla Frazee’s expressive pencil sketches) is to create a window into the inner-workings of the mind of a girl who is often judged prematurely or incorrectly or unfairly. When Clementine is sent to the principal’s office for not paying attention in class again, we know—because she’s our narrator, after all—that she was paying excellent attention, just not to what her teacher was saying. In fact, she never stops paying attention: to pointy things (which freak her out); to the fourth graders playing outside her class window (as a future fourth grader herself, it’s imperative she understands their “rules”); to devising a list of excuses to get out of performing at the school talent show.
I remember a friend telling me she abandoned the first book after Clementine chops off her friend’s hair, then her own, then colors both scalps with permanent marker. “I don’t need my daughter getting any ideas. That girl is a pain in the you know what!” she relayed to me in horror (only she didn’t say “you know what”). But if we don’t read on, we miss the chance—like most of the adults around Clementine—to understand why she did what she did: how she was trying to help her friend, who had accidentally gotten her hair caught in the scissors in art class. How when she saw that her own actions had made her friend feel even worse, she did the same to herself in solidarity. How she chose the permanent markers because they were the most special thing in her artist mother’s supply closet. Clementine doesn’t understand why the principal, not to mention the two mothers, can’t see this. Heck, she doesn’t understand why they aren’t impressed that she could sheer someone’s head with a pair of plastic scissors in the first place.
[Also] it is very hard to color hair with a marker, let me tell you. But I did it. I colored all of Margaret’s hair chunks Flaming Sunset, and then another really great idea popped into my head and I drew Flaming Sunset curls all over her forehead and the back of her neck so her hair would look more like mine. It looked beautiful, like a giant tattoo of tangled-up worms. When I am a grown-up, I will have hundreds of tattoos.
Here’s what we come to understand about Clementine: she may be the Curious George of chapter books, igniting chaos at every turn, but it’s only because she is trying her very best to put things right, to connect with others, to save the day. She wants so badly to be understood, to have people look at her with that awe-filled “I must be dreaming” expression, as she puts it.
Throughout the books, more and more adults come to see Clementine for the kind, passionate, perceptive soul she is. They take her most infuriating qualities—her impulsivity, her stubbornness, her inattention—and recognize the strengths they belie. She has an eye for things most people miss. She has conviction to take down life’s injustices. She is resourceful. She’s an artist, a writer, a pigeon tamer, a kitten rescuer, and a whiz with numbers. When people, like her beloved teacher Mr. DeMatz, give her a chance to rise to the occasion and put their confidence behind her, she rarely disappoints.
Hands down, my favorite non-Clementine character is her father. As facilities manager for the apartment building where the family lives in the basement, he’s usually around when Clementine returns from school. He takes his daughter’s mood swings or mis-steps and approaches them with calm and humor. You can feel the mutual affection and respect, even while Clementine reminds him that “fathers aren’t supposed to be comedians.” When she’s in a funk, he gives her the keys to the service elevator and lets her ride it up and down. When she pitches a fit upon discovering her parents are having a third baby, he stages Project Pentagon, and the two covertly build a five-sided kitchen table so no one will ever be squished.
Over the course of the six books, which span Clementine’s entire third grade year into summer, we witness significant emotional maturity in her, albeit in realistic fits and starts. She learns to “press her mouth together in a pencil line” rather than to say something inappropriate or hurtful. She learns to stand up to peer pressure; and to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. She realizes that, as much as she detests her name (and insists on calling her brother by different vegetable names, so he can experience what it’s like to have a “food name”), she’s like a clementine in one fundamental way: she is made up of different sections. Sometimes those sections are in harmony with one another and sometimes they are not. Because life—and people—are rarely that straightforward.
This is series writing at its best. The kind of writing where the characters seep into your consciousness, where just when you think you can predict what is going to happen, someone does something so unexpected, so vulnerable, so thrilling, it pulls the rug out from underneath you. Did I mention that every one of the book’s endings left my eyes more than just a little watery?
Ultimately, these pages are testimony that there are often complicated motivations and feelings at work behind outwardly “difficult” behaviors. Daydreamers have rich interior lives. Disruptors have important things to stew about. Indecisive children don’t want to miss out on anything. Impulsivity means someone hasn’t learned to control her passions. If we get rid of labels and try to see the whole of our child, we might begin looking at her or him the way Clementine’s parents do, as if she was “the winning ticket in the kid lottery.”
P.S. Sara Pennypacker is currently through book two of a new series titled Waylon, about a science-loving boy in Clementine’s class who may or may not have actual superhero powers. Obviously, we’ll be reading that…because it’s rumored that our favorite gal makes the occasional appearance.