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Book Review: The School Story by Andrew Clements

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I can’t believe I haven’t read Andrew Clements before, but I’m really glad I discovered him now. He’s fast becoming one of my favorite middle-grade writers.

Normally I’m drawn to YA and middle-grade fantasy, SF, and mysteries, and those remain my favorites. But lately my ten year old’s reading for school has necessitated stepping outside my favorite genre haunts and picking up books on other people’s reading lists. I’ve read and reviewed Clements’s The Janitor’s Boy, and really enjoyed it. So picking up The School Story was actually a no-brainer at that part.

I knew from my previous experience with Clements that he could hold his own emotionally in a story. I knew I’d like the characters and that they would have problems I could relate to.

What I didn’t expect was the education about the world of writing and publishing that is so much a part of this wonderful story. I know kids are interested in just about everything these days, but I didn’t know they would have been curious at all as to how a book gets bought, published, and advertised.

Clements does all these things in an interesting manner. Not only that, but he makes those facets of publishing a big part of the novel. Each one of those steps of getting a book to a publisher, into the hands of the right editor, and into reader awareness becomes a stumbling block for our three intrepid heroines.

Natalie Nelson is the writer. Her dad tragically died and she was really close to him. She wrote her book, called The Cheater, partially in his memory, because she didn’t want to forget about him. And because she knows her mom, Hannah, is struggling with everything as well. She pours out her heart onto the pages and wins the support and enthusiastic belief from Zoe Reisman. Natalie wants her mom, an editor at a book publisher, to publish her book, but doesn’t want any special favors. So she invents a pseudonym to write under.

Zoe is the go-getter of the group. Her dad’s a lawyer and has always told her she could do anything. So she sets out to see if that’s true. She reinvents herself as an agent (after finding out what agents do), gives herself a pseudonym as well, declaring herself to be Zee Zee Reisman, of the Sherry Clutch Literary Agency (an agency she also invents and rents an office for), and goes to work making everything happen for Natalie.

Along the way, the girls become convinced they need to have an adult help them. They choose their young English teacher, Ms. Clayton, who is new to teaching and still unsure of exactly where her responsibilities lie in her chosen profession. One of Clements’s greatest skills as a middle-grade reader is his ability to write from the adult perspective in a way that doesn’t bore the younger readers or talk down to them.

The readers are elevated to the same level as the adult characters, and the adult problems are stripped of age, sex, and other modifiers that prohibit understanding by younger and less experienced readers. Ultimately in Clements’s view of the adult world, problems still confront characters who can affect them, but the question remains, should they? I agree with this philosophy, and it’s something that kids understand in a heartbeat.

The School Story is a great book about friendship between kids and between kids and adults. Everything fits together nicely in the end, which makes it more fictional than the real world, but the book delivered exactly what it set out to do.

At the end of reading it together, my son said that he believes the book should be turned into a movie because he could see everything happening. I tend to agree. But don’t wait for the movie. Read this splendid book while you’re waiting.

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