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Review of the Day: EllRay Jakes is Not a Chicken by Sally Warner

EllRayJakes 198x300 Review of the Day: EllRay Jakes is Not a Chicken by Sally WarnerEllRay Jakes is Not a Chicken!
By Sally Warner
Illustrated by Jamie Harper
Viking (an imprint of Penguin)
$14.99
ISBN: 978-0-670-06243-0
Ages 6-9
On shelves May 12th

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):

EllRay2 Review of the Day: EllRay Jakes is Not a Chicken by Sally Warner

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Elizabeth Bird About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently New York Public Library's Youth Materials Collections Specialist. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of NYPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Ed Spicer says:

    I need this book in my classroom today! I have a young man (to whom I have given EVERY single chicken book I own–and I have a surprisingly LARGE number of them!!) who is ready for this level of reading.

    Your review calls to mind How Lamar Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy… about a trash talking, hip hoppin’ African American bowler. Name me another book that features Black bowlers for middle school students?

  2. Great to know about. We have the “Hey L’il D” series at my library, which meets the early chapter book / black male protagonist criteria, but at this point it’s eight years old. And, y’know, it’s only one freakin’ series.

  3. marjorie says:

    THANK YOU for the tip. Much needed indeed.

    You KNOW I’m a parent of school-age kids b/c my first thought upon seeing the original cover was GAAAAAAH STOP TOUCHING YOUR HEADS TOGETHER LICE EPIDEMIC LICE AOOGA AOOGA.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      How many bowling books period, Ed? I actually had a dad searching for bowling picture books the other day. We are sadly bereft and Lamar was too old for his kid. Consarn it.

      L’il D is utterly unknown to me! I should check that puppy out. I suppose you could count the Tiki and Ronde Barber books as early chapter, but if we have to rely on celebrities for our literature then something is seriously the matter.

      Good old head lice.

  4. Adam Rex says:

    Poor Brian. I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that he chose anything about the hair. He lives in Philly and has two school-aged kids, so I expect he’s up on the latest hairstyles. I’m more inclined to assume the assignment called specifically for a flattop, considering the character on the original cover appears to have a (slightly shaggy) flattop as well.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard complaints about some illustrative “decision” I made, especially back in my fantasy art days. Never once was the complaint about something I wasn’t told outright to do. And every illustration gets approved by at least a dozen people before it sees print.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Good point, Adam. Weirdly the flattop isn’t in the book itself, so this must have been some kind of editorial vision with which Brian could not argue. The original cover is mildly flattopish, you’re right. So strange.