Life is easier when you can categorize it. When you can slot it in a distinct category and reduce everything to black and white terms. Gray is problematic and messy, after all. This type of thinking certainly applies to how people learn how to read. If you’re a library you separate your written fiction into five distinct locations: Baby & Board Books, Picture Books, Easy Readers, Early Chapter Books, and Middle Grade Fiction. Easy peasy. Couldn’t be simpler. And it would be an absolutely perfect system if, in fact, that was how humans actually learned how to read. Wouldn’t it be great if you could make mental leaps in difficulty from one book to another with sublime ease? Yet the fact of the matter is that for all that “leveling” a collection or trying to systematically give each book a Lexile reading level makes life easier for the folks who don’t want to bother to read the books themselves, it’s not so hotso for the kiddos. Not everything written in this world can be easily summarized. For this very reason I like books that don’t slot well. That are neither fish nor fowl. And I particularly like extraordinary books that fall into this category. Behold, then, the magnificent The Meanest Birthday Girl. Simple, straightforward, and smart as all get out, it’s too long for an easy book, too short for an early chapter book, and entirely the wrong size for a picture book. In other words, perfect.
As Dana sees it, birthdays are great for one particular reason. “It was Dana’s birthday and she could do whatever she liked.” Fortunately we’re dealing with a young kid here, so Dana’s form of Bacchanalian abandon pretty much just boils down to eating waffles for breakfast and dinner, showing off her birthday dress, and torturing fellow student Anthony. So it’s with not a little surprise that Dana finds at the end of the day that Anthony has shown up on her stoop with the world’s greatest birthday present. There, in the gleam of the house lights, stands a white elephant with pink toenails and a pink bow. Dana is elated and thinks that this is the best gift a gal could receive. It isn’t until she spends a little time with her white elephant gift that she begins to understand not just what a jerk she’s been, but how to spread the elephant “love” to those who need it the most.
I’ll confess to you right here and now that sometimes when I’m reviewing a book I find it helpful to look at the professional reviews so that I can nail down exactly WHY it is I like such n’ such a book. I mean, I liked the art and the story and the characters here, sure. But what I really liked was what the book was trying to say. Small difficulty: I’m not entirely certain what that was. Is this a book about the selflessness of parenthood or is the elephant a metaphor of unchecked desires? So I turned to the professionals. PW said the book “both makes amends and pays it forward”. SLJ eschewed any complex interpretations just saying that this was “more a story about a girl and her pet than it is about birthday shenanigans”. The Horn Book Guide (the book didn’t even rate a proper Horn Book review) found the message confusing while Kirkus gave the book a star and saw the elephant as simply a delivery system for a lesson about kindness. None of these really do the plot justice, though. I sympathize with Horn Book Guide’s confusion, but I disagree that the message doesn’t make any sense. It just requires the reader to dig a little deeper than your average Goosebumps novel.
Here’s how I figure it. Dana’s mean. She’s given an elephant (I love the idea that Anthony, the victim, may have previously been himself a pretty nasty customer to have had the elephant in the first place). The elephant demands constant attention, but subtly. It could just be Dana’s projections of what the elephant wants that undo her. That means she’s capable of empathy, which in turn leads to her feeling bad for what she did to Anthony. And then much of why this book works as well as it does has to do with the fact that the elephant isn’t, itself, a bully. If it were then the message of the book would be pounded into your skull like a hammer on a nail. Far better then that this particular elephant is just quietly insistent. It isn’t incapable of emotion, mind you. I was particularly pleased with the look of intense concentration on its face as it attempts to ride Dana’s rapidly crumpling bicycle. The slickest elephant moment in the book visually is when its trunk makes a sly play for Dana’s sandwich when she falls asleep under a tree, but the last image as the elephant stands in front of its new owner is of equal note. There you’ll see its trunk making the gentlest of movements towards the girl’s slice of birthday cake. It doesn’t take a Nostradamus to know that that’s the last the girl will ever see of her cake from here on in.
It was the PW review that probably did the best job of honing in on what makes this book special. Said they, the author “serves justice, [and] subtly (and quite cleverly) lets readers see another side to Dana …” That’s not something that occurred to me on an early reading but it’s entirely true. You meet Dana, her head resembling nothing so much in shape and size as those birthday balloons on the cover, and she does unlikable thing after unlikable thing. Then she gives up everything she has, from sandwiches to her bike, for a pachyderm. Kids may not make an immediate leap in logic between what Dana does and what they themselves sometimes have to do (willingly or unwillingly) for their little siblings, but it’s there. Schneider’s best move, however, is to show Dana being teased by a fellow classmate. Nothing cranks up the sympathy vote quite like someone suffering at the hands of another. Hence, by the time Dana formally apologizes to Anthony we’re completely Team Dana.
The art is all done in a simple execution of pen, ink, colored pencil, and watercolor. All of Schneider’s kids look like escapees from “L’il Orphan Annie” comic strips. They sport the same pupil-less eyes. Normally eyes without pupils are downright scary in some fashion, but Schneider shrinks them down so that they’re little more than incredibly expressive Os. Eyebrows go a long way towards conveying emotion anyway (the shot of Anthony raising one very cross eyebrow as Dana systematically nabs his cupcake is fantastic). Because Schneider’s books all have a tendency to look the same (Tales for Very Picky Eaters looks like The Meanest Birthday Girl looks like Princess Sparkle-Heart Gets a Makeover, etc.) there’s a temptation to discount him. Resist that urge. His is a star that is rising with rocket-like rapidity. I see great things for this guy. Great things.
The age level for this will cause no end of sorrow amongst the cataloging masses. I don’t care. The same could have been said for Sadie and Ratz (another preternaturally smart early early chapter book with a psychological base worth remembering) and a host of other books out there. What it all boils down to is the fact that The Meanest Birthday Girl is one of the rare books that makes for really intelligent fare. Odd? Certainly. But it’s willing to go places and do things that most books for kids in the 6-9 age range don’t dare. Not everyone will get what it’s trying to do. And not everyone deserves to. One of the best of 2013, bar none.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Sadie and Ratz by Sonya Hartnett
- The Bad Birthday Idea by Madeline Valentine
- Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan
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