Quiz time. Place your books under your desks and bring out your #2 pencils. Everyone ready? All right. Reach back into your brain cells and please name for me all the great contemporary early chapter books that you can think of that star male African-American protagonists. Heck, let’s make it even more interesting than that. Name me such a book but NOT any of Sharon Draper’s Ziggy and the Black Dinosaurs or any of Ann Cameron’s Julian books. You have thirty seconds . . . go.
Now if you’re anything like me, the above quiz is near impossible. You’re either going to try to justify full-length chapter books like The Toothpaste Millionaire as early chapter books (it ain’t) or you’ll try to bring up books that have historical characters like Eric Kimmel’s Louie Armstrong in A Horn for Louis. While we’ve seen a nice and healthy (if still insufficient) increase in early chapter books starring black girls (Sunny, Dyamonde Daniel, Sassy, Anna Hibiscus, Nikki & Deja, etc.) the boys have been left out in the cold. This is a ridiculous gap in our literary marketplace and it leaves librarians like myself more than a little baffled. I half want to track Christopher Paul Curtis down to his home and scream in his ear, “Why aren’t you doing anything about this!?!?” That’s hardly fair, though. If publishers were actively seeking out such fare, it would be published. Into this veritable wasteland walks EllRay Jakes. He’s not perfect, but he’s fun, funny, and a start. And sometimes, that’s all it takes.
Ever since Christmas Break things have been tough for EllRay. For the first part of the third grade year he existed below the radar when it came to bullies like Jared Matthews and his sidekick Stanley. Recently, however, EllRay has become the target for the bully’s wrath and he has no idea why. Worse still, his dad is unimpressed with EllRay’s near heroic (if failed) attempts not to get in trouble at school. So when EllRay’s dad says that if EllRay stays out of trouble for a whole week he can go to Disneyland, the challenge is on! Of course, it’s hard to stay focused when you’re trying the hide the fact that you’re being bullied. Harder still when that bully wants you in a fair fight after school for once and for all.
Sally Warner has a way with words. No stranger to the early chapter book series world (her Lily and Emma books come immediately to mind) I was pleased that she stepped a bit out of her comfort zone with EllRay here. She makes sure to give him all the good lines, which is important when you’re dealing with a kid as charmingly flawed as he. For example, upon viewing a fellow classmate he says, “Cynthia is the cleanest person I have ever known. She is strangely clean.” I love that phrase, “strangely clean.” Of course, the setting is strictly suburban. It was interesting to me to note that EllRay’s story takes place in a school in Southern California where he’s one of the few black kids in his class. He explains at one point that everyone in his class is essentially white, “except for me, Kevin, and two very quiet girls who go to the same church, not mine.” There are plenty of kids in the country in similar situations, but of course this means that EllRay’s problems are strictly suburban problems. If you’re looking for tales set in cities, seek ye elsewhere.
I was impressed with the characters here too. The bad guys are bullies with reasons. Our hero often doth protest too much, and often the reader can see it. And Alfie, EllRay’s little sister, could easily have fallen in the too-cute-to-be-believed void of literary little sisters. Instead, her worst flaw is that she has a cute lisp. This, thankfully, is used well. For example, when Alfie announces her intention to meet Minnie Mouse in Disneyland, her parents warn her that Minnie might not be there. “ ‘I’ll meet her, all wight,’ Alfie says grimly.” Four-year-olds who speak grimly are my weakness. I have a hard time not finding them funny.
This book was originally titled EllRay Fights Back then was changed later to the more innocuous sounding EllRay Jakes is Not a Chicken. The switcheroo makes more sense when you get near the end of the book and the unprecedented happens: Our hero decides to fight out his problems with the class bully . . . and then does! I’ve seen books like this play out the same situation over and over and inevitably the hero never comes to blows. The fact that EllRay does and then solves his problem through far more amicable means later is extraordinary. Undoubtedly there will be concerned adults who read this book and decide that it praises fighting as a way of solving your problems. Not a bit of it. The charm of EllRay is that child readers can see right through him. Early in the book he’s told to figure out what Jared’s problem is with him. He doesn’t, things escalate, and kid readers are left feeling that if he’d just manned up and discussed (or even yelled) the matter over with Jared then everything would have wound up better. As it stands, things seem pretty good anyway. You never see EllRay punished for fighting (another rarity) and yet things wrap up due to some unexpected bonding. It’s a realistic ending that doesn’t pander to the usual early chapter book conventions. Huh.
EllRay Jakes is Not a Chicken is just the first in a long line of EllRay Jakes books to come. I do think that there’s room to expand and grow here as well. My hope, above all, is that EllRay paves the way for other books about other present day African-American boys. Preferably short, funny stories like these that give kids new heroes to grapple with. Writing such books isn’t easy, but I’ve always felt that aside from easy readers, early chapter titles are the hardest and most rewarding books to make for kids. And rewarding isn’t a bad word to use in conjunction with EllRay here. Better check him out.
On shelves May 12th.
Source: Reviewed from ARC received from publisher for review.
Notes on the Cover: Excuse me, EllRay? The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air just called from 1990. He wants his hair back. Recently I’ve noticed a lot of brand new books coming out with one illustrator doing the jacket and a different illustrator doing the interior art. There are undoubtedly money issues for this that are beyond the ken of my hardscrabble brain. In any case, inside this book you will find that Ms. Jamie Harper has a more up-to-date idea of what EllRay’s hair should look like. So I find it odd that cover artist Brian Biggs (who is a fantastic illustrator himself) decided to give EllRay a flattop. I mean, seriously. A flattop? Why not just shave the name “EllRay” into the back of his head and be done with it? So while I’m sure that Kid n’ Play would have nothing but admiration for this jacket, the rest of us here in the 21st century are scratching our heads. Particularly since this was the original jacket (and title) for the series and it makes SO much more sense (hair-wise anyway):