I know that the whole girl-who-draws story idea isn’t necessarily new. I mean, before Ruth McNally Barshaw wrote Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel there were books out there like Amelia’s Notebook and the like. But is it just me or has the whole doodling girl idea gotten crazy popular recently? This year alone I’ve seen Katie Davis and her comic-centered The Curse of Addy McMahon and Margie Palatini’s Geek Chic: The Zoey Zone. Girls with pens are in, my friend. So it is that we welcome back our second Barshaw title, Ellie McDoodle: New Kid in School. Thought surviving in the woods with your relatives sounded bad? Try starting a new grade in a new school. Once again Barshaw puts her finger squarely on kids’ fears and anxieties in a format that most everyone can identify with.
It is the end of life as we know it. You may as well just pack it all in right now, because for Ellie the worst possible thing that could ever happen to her has finally occurred. She’s moving. Moving away from friends. From her house. Everything. Moving into a new place and making new pals is going to be just terrible and Ellie knows it. But to her surprise there are a couple kids who take to her right away. Then again there’s that simply awful art teacher to deal with. But what about the nice librarian Ellie just met? Yeah, she’s great but have you seen the really mean New Kid bingo game the other students have been passing around? In spite of this Ellie slowly realizes that her new home isn’t that bad after all. More importantly, she finds a way to make a difference that allows her to use her best talents in as cool a way as possible. The end of the book includes an interview with the author (conducted with plenty of visual aids), instructions on how to make and keep a sketch journal, help on how to sketch, and tips on drawing comics. My edition also included a Teacher’s Guide and potential projects to do in conjunction with the book.
Flawed protagonists make for good reading. You can get away with heroes that are light and goodness incarnate (and many writers do) but generally those people are not the ones you the reader are going to identify with. You want nasty innnermost thoughts. You want a little bit of grit and gristle. And Ellie, for all her charm and verve, is flawed. She rushes to hasty judgments about people and situations. She is asked to dance with her friend Mo’s brother with Down’s syndrome and really doesn’t want to. Her relationship with her older practical joker of a brother works nicely into this as well. As Ellie says at one point, "I’m torn between wanting revenge and wanting to stay on his good side." Lots of kids will be able to relate.
One of the other things that I like about Ellie is that I find the premise believable. We’ve all read those pseudo-journals written in what authors think are kids voices. Sometimes it’s hard to suspend your belief that a child is writing this stuff (though I admit that this is a very adult point-of-view to take). With Ellie it’s a little different. There’s something about the quality of the drawings and the stories that feels authentic to me. I mean, this was the case with the first Ellie book, sure, but I feel that the whole idea of going camping with your relatives isn’t a particularly universal theme. Being the new kid in class, though? Very familiar. One review I saw of this book mentioned that they thought that this would have been a better beginning to the series. Book #1 was too specific in its situation (i.e. camping with relatives). But since there aren’t any numbers on the spines of these titles, and since the situations inside are fairly distinct from one another, I see no reason why you couldn’t hand kids the second book to read first, followed by the first. I think I may.
As with Have Pen, Will Travel, this book is full of cool diagrams and fun instructions for games you can play. As a kid I would have loved to have known how to make a cootie catcher. That was always one of those mysterious kid creations that no one would actually ever teach you. You were just supposed to pick it up (probably from older siblings, which I did not have). So to actually find out how to play Capture the Flag or Ghost in the Graveyard is a bit of a boon to those kids reading the book that wouldn’t have another way of learning these secrets of childhood. Now if we could only learn all the words to Miss Susie Had a Baby . . .
I’ve been trying to think of other trials and tribulations of childhood Ellie can slowly detest and embrace through the course of her stories. So far I’ve thought of piano lessons (not much of a story unless you involve a Russian spy or a dad who buys you an organ instead, though), summer camp (too similar to book one?), puberty, and underwear modeling. Really, the field is wide open. That’s part of what’s so nice about the series. Sure the pictures are fun and Ellie’s sympathetic but really the flexibility of the situations she can find herself is one of the real draws. Fans of the first book will love the second. Fans of the second will look forward to the third. Fun stuff.
Notes on the Cover: When Have Pen, Will Travel came out in hardcover it had a brown cover. I am of the opinion that brown is to children as garlic is to creatures of the night. Well, when the paperback came out it seemed that Bloomsbury agreed with me. Instead of the paper bag brown we now had a bright and shiny yellow cover. Attractive to the eye. Dazzling to the reader. A good idea overall. So out comes Ellie McDoodle #2 and the new cover is . . . . wait for it . . . BROWN!!! What the friggin’ heck? Don’t you guys want to sell these books? Someday I will conduct systematic studies of children’s reading habits and I will prove to the world that brown is not the way to go.
Other Blog Reviews: Jen Robinson’s Book Page, The Reading Zone, BestbookIhavenotread, and Quill, Inc
Other Web Reviews: Teen Reads Too
Other Print Reviews: The Grand Rapids Press, and a piece that appeared in both The Detroit News and the Arkansas Democrat Gazette
This is a wonderful post from the blog Post-Its From a Parallel Universe about a library visit Barshaw made not long ago. It also features a lot of photos, including one of Ms. Barshaw holding up the terrifying Mrs. Claus doll that plays such a big roll in this book.
There are even more pictures of her doing here thing here.
An interview here.
Also be sure to look at the Ellie McDoodle blog if you like.
And finally, a testimonial from her shoe saleslady. You can’t get any better than that!