Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Cedar Valley's Youth Read

Each year, the public libraries in the Cedar Valley join forces and help fund an author visit for our communities' fifth grade students. Being a fifth grade teacher, I joined this committee and now get to meet our selected authors as well! My first year teaching, I met Christopher Paul Curtis. The next two years I met authors Cynthia DeFelice and Will Hobbs. Meetings with Gennifer Choldenko and Wendy Mass followed those up.

This year, we welcome Patrick Jennings to the Cedar Valley, author of OUTSTANDING IN MY FIELD, WE CAN'T ALL BE RATTLESNAKES, and our focus book for his visit GUINEA DOG, just to name a few.

I have to be honest, before this I hadn't heard of Patrick Jennings. A coworker had read THE BEASTLY ARMS and loved it and another coworker had read THE WOLVING TIME and found it to be "odd." I had seen OUTSTANDING IN MY FIELD grace the pages of our Scholastic book orders, but had never purchased it or given it a read myself.

Our committee was working on a tight schedule and wanted to lock someone in place for this year (as we have someone big locked in for next year). Jennings was available, he was an author, and he has published tons of kid-friendly books, so we snatched him up. Little did I know, he's incredible!

Last year blogger Betsy Bird reviewed GUINEA DOG and had this to say about Patrick Jennings:

You've read him, right? No? Well that's fine with me. It's like when you discover this cool underground band, and you get to be their biggest fan all by yourself. It's great. You walk around with this knowledge in your head of, "I am into something incredible that only I know about." That's how it is with Patrick Jennings and me. Problem is, I keep recommending his books to the kids in my library. And if I keep this up, I may end up unexpectedly creating a whole host of Jennings fans. Then he'll get hugely popular and go mainstream and I'll have to share him with the rest of the world.

She went on to include GUINEA DOG in her list of 100 Magnificent Children's Books of 2010. With her high praise, I approached GUINEA DOG with fairly high expectations.

GUINEA DOG tells the story of Rufus and his plight for a pet dog. His obsessive father works at home and refuses to give into Rufus' request. His mother, feeling sorry for him, compromises by bringing Rufus home a guinea pig. But Rufus wanted a dog. And no matter how dog-like his mohawked guinea pig Fido acts, she's still a guinea pig. How will Rufus' new pet be received by his classmates? By his best friend Murphy? Will he ever get a dog?

First person narratives are popular in children's literature, which I find a little odd, given that most working authors are adults. In my opinion, first person narratives can be tricky. It takes a special author to truly climb inside the mind of a young person and project their thoughts and see the world through their eyes. And do it in a believable way! Jennifer Holm is one of the best. Andrew Clements is a master at getting inside kids' heads. Well Mr. Jennings, I just may have to add you to that list.

I was so impressed with how Patrick Jennings captured Rufus' voice. Read aloud in my classroom, my fifth graders laughed hysterically numerous times. They felt that this was Jennings' strongest feat (and I agreed). My class felt as if Rufus was one of them. He's funny. He's wry. And above all, he's believable. That's not always easy to accomplish in children's literature but Jennings has. He really knows how to speak to kids. Even his adults are spot on.

While being an easy read, there are some surprisingly deeper themes at work here too, especially about friendship and acceptance. Rufus is friends with Murphy. Best Friends. Dmitri wants to be Murphy's friend because Murphy is incredibly popular and welcoming to everyone. Rufus and Dmitri are not popular. The tension between the three is well written and drew my students in almost as much as the hi jinks involving Fido did. That should tell you something!

I'm very excited to meet Patrick Jennings now. There are some particular plot details I'd love to hear his explanation on. For instance, the reasons behind Fido's dog-like characteristics are never fully disclosed. Why does Fido act like a dog? Is Fido's purpose to teach Rufus sometimes life surprises you when you least expect it to? And what about the mysterious pet store from which Fido is purchased . . . why does it disappear? Where does it go? Did it ever really exist? Where did Fido actually come from?

GUINEA DOG was a funny, clever, romp of a read. It would be a perfect fit with reluctant boy readers, around 4th and 5th grade.

Final Grade: B+

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