Oh, magical grown-ups. You never get old. There is a long and strong tradition of grown-ups with extraordinary powers helping (or hindering) their young charges in the annals of children’s literature. Your Mrs. Piggle-Wiggles. Your Mary Poppins. Your Ms. Frizzles. Your Younguncles, even. They’re usually nannies or caretakers, but once in a while you get a teacher thrown into the mix. When someone described the plot of the early chapter book The Magical Ms. Plum to me, though, I raised a skeptical eyebrow. They said, “Three words: Magical. Supply. Closet.” Oh ho? Then they said two more words. “Bonny Becker.” Ah. Well. That’s all right then. Bonny Becker is one of my favorite writers for kids today. Whether it is her delightful Holbrook: A Lizard’s Tale or the charming future picture book classic, A Visitor for Bear, this is a woman who has a way with words and always seems to know which ones to use.
Maybe she says it every year and maybe she doesn’t but when Ms. Plum says that this new group of third graders will be her best class yet, you are inclined to believe her. As it happens, the kids are excited too. Each year children come out of Ms. Plum’s class with secret smiles, and everyone wants to know what the big deal is. As it happens, the answer comes every time a student is asked to get something out of the classroom supply closet. Tashala goes in and comes out with a tiny horse that indirectly teaches her not to be a snob to her classmates. Messy Darma goes in and comes out with a pack of squirrels that are at her beck and call, much to the admiration of her classmates. Only Carlos is never selected to go in, and the fact that Ms. Plum doesn’t recognize his superior intelligence eats away at him until he gets the very animal he deserves, but not one he expects. Yes, every year Ms. Plum says that this will be her best class ever. And every year, in a way, it’s true.
They’re not the usual problems and solutions, these little stories. Some are predictable, that’s true. There’s the pessimist, the kid who doesn’t speak English well, and the interrupter. But the story of Emiko, a girl who sees everything through rose-colored glasses, is a little more out of the ordinary. Hers is not a huge problem, after all, but it can be dangerous to only see the good side of things, rather than their potential dangers. It’s a complicated lesson for kids, but Becker deals deftly with it. There’s also a very interesting chapter where Ms. Plum gets something out of the supply closet herself, and finds herself saddled with an attention-seeking peacock. It’s an interesting choice on Becker’s part. A kind of acknowledgment to the child readers that sometimes even adults have ways in which they could improve. That’s my interpretation of the chapter, anyway. I suspect that if you read it to kids they might come up with some entirely different reasons for why Ms. Plum got a peacock. Whatever the case, I liked it too because you almost never get to see Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle or Ms. Frizzle show any weaknesses in their own stories. Becker has created a very modern and complex look at an old, once simple theme.
It’s a small thing, but one plot element I like about this book is that Ms. Plum’s class is of third graders. Sometimes I feel like third graders get short shrift in literature while the fourth graders hog all the glory. After all, it’s called Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing not Tales of a Third Grade Nothing. It’s Fourth Grade Rats not Third Grade Rats. So when it became clear that Ms. Plum specializes in third graders, I was instantly intrigued. At last! Something for them.
There’s not much to find fault with here, but I admit that I was a little shocked at how abruptly Magical Ms. Plum ended. One minutes we’re hearing about Nadia and the little cat that purrs away her worries, and then suddenly the text is italicized and we’re getting half a page of conclusion to the entire book. Maybe it wouldn’t have felt quite so out of the blue if the Nadia storyline had wrapped up all the others, but really it didn’t have much to do with them. The Carlos storyline would have made more sense, really. Then again, Ms. Plum says at the end of the Carlos story that “There’s always another chance at the closet for everyone,” and while he never seems to get that chance, you certainly couldn’t make this the final story with that sentence in it. Tis a puzzlement.
Now let’s talk about Amy Portnoy for a moment. You can certainly write an early chapter book like this one without including any pictures, but I wouldn’t advise it. From what I have been able to determine, this is Ms. Portnoy’s first children’s book, though you’d never know it to look at it. The artist makes use of a loose pen-and-ink style that complements the story very well indeed. To that end, her work is not too dissimilar from that of Ms. Becker’s previous chapter book collaborator Abby Carter. Maybe Ms. Becker’s books just lend themselves to thin pen-and-inks. Dunno.
Teachers are often looking for good books to read aloud in class. Sure, you could read Stuart Little for the tenth straight year in a row, but wouldn’t your third graders like something new as well? Here you go then. Your wishes have been answered, since the chapters in this book are just the right length to read one per day for twelve days, as needs be. Failing that, kids will enjoy reading about the kids in Ms. Plum’s class on their own. It must be exceedingly hard to write a book containing little stories about self-improvement without sounding preachy or didactic. The strange thing about The Magical Ms. Plum is that it comes off as just fun storytelling, with lessons to be learned that require a bit of thought and interpretation. It’s a good book for kids who are thinkers, and even better for book discussion. A worthy addition to a popular genre and a heckuva nice book.
On shelves now.
Source: Reviewed from ARC borrowed from fellow librarian.
Other Blog Reviews:
- Jean Little Library
- Enchanting YA Reviews
- Lindsey’s Library
- Kids Lit
- The PlanetEsme Plan
- Ms. VB’s Book Blog
- Ms. Becker also discusses the issue of sadness in picture books over at Maw Books.
- You can also look the book over on Google books.