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Andrew Clements (1949-) - Sidelights

review school book books

Andrew Clements has all the bases covered in the field of children's books. An avid reader as a child, he has shared his joy of reading with students in elementary, middle, and high school while working as a teacher. From there, Clements went on to the world of publishing, acquiring, editing, marketing, and developing quality children's books for several publishing houses. In 1985, he decided to contribute his own work to that market, beginning with his first picture book, Bird Adalbert. Among Clements' most well-known works is the award-winning Frindle, a book about the power of words that a Kirkus Reviews contributor dubbed "something of a classic." In addition to his highly praised novels for older readers, Clements has also attracted a wide readership for his picture books, which include Big Al, Santa's Secret Helper, Circus Family Dog, Temple Cat, and Bright Christmas, as well as his beginner novels featuring fourth grader Jake Drake, who appears in Jake Drake, Class Clown, among other titles.

"I've got a special place in my heart for libraries and librarians," Clements once told Something about the Author (SATA). "As a kindergartner in Oaklyn, New Jersey, I confess that I was something of a showoff. I was already a good reader, and I didn't mind who knew about it." On his first trip to the school library, Clements chose a thick book on myths. The next day he asked his teacher if he could take it back to the library. "'Is it too hard, dear?' she asked sympathetically," Clements recalled. The teacher's eyebrows shot up when Clements informed her that it was not the difficulty of the book that was the problem. He had already finished it and wanted more. "That event created for me an open invitation to head to the library just about any old time I wanted to. And the librarian was a gem. She kept me well stocked."

Clements made his way through the classics, from the works of authors A. A. Milne to Robert Louis Stevenson, and from the tales of Robin Hood to the stories of King Arthur. Later loves included Sherlock Holmes and Hardy Boys mysteries, Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, adventure tales by Alexandre Dumas and Jack London, and biographies. "I loved owning books. And I will always love that librarian at my elementary school, because she made me feel like I was the owner of every book. That's one of the greatest things about reading a book—read it, and you own it forever."

Clements attended Northwestern University and then earned a master's degree in education at National Louis University. For seven years thereafter, he taught school, at the elementary, middle school, and high-school level. "I liked it," Clements once told SATA. "The kids and I laughed a lot. I enjoyed the hundreds of little conversations every day, the running jokes—I even liked the noise and the craziness of a Friday afternoon right before Christmas vacation. And I loved reading good books with kids—the kids at school and also the four boys my wife and I had at home. As a teacher, it was a thrill to read a book aloud, and see a whole class listen so carefully to every word, dying to know what would happen next. And I was amazed at the wonderful discussions a good book can spark. Good books make good things happen in real life. They can make a big difference. So when I was given the chance to start writing for children, I jumped at it."

That chance began, initially, while Clements was working as an editor of children's books at Picture Book Studio, where he not only acquired titles but also helped translate and adapt European picture books for the American market. "I didn't start writing books until I was about thirty-five years old," he explained to SATA. "But I began writing a long time before that. And the way I really got started writing was by reading. Before too long I found myself reading something good and saying to myself, 'I wish I had written that!' I think the more good books you read, the better you learn what good writing sounds like and feels like. Every good writer I know started off as a good reader."

One of Clements's most popular titles is his picture book, Big Al, a "simple story about the need for friendship," as Gratia Banta described the book in School Library Journal. Big Al is a rather ugly and scary-looking fish who desperately tries to be liked by the smaller fish. When Big Al saves the lives of the little fish, he accomplishes his mission, becoming their fast friend. Noting illustrator Yoshi's use of silk batik and painting, Banta wrote that the "magnificence" of the illustrations is matched by matched "Clements' international story of friendship....The book offers a welcome sense of something other than western culture." The ungainly fish makes a comeback in Big Al and Shrimpy, which finds a little fish named Shrimpy is able to repay Big Al for all his help after Al's fin becomes stuck in a crevice and he goes toppling over the edge and into the dark place known as the Big Deep.

Other picture books followed. Santa's Secret Helper was the first of several books Clements has written about the Christmas season. Illustrated by Debrah Santini, the book features Mrs. Claus as a stand-in for her exhausted husband, dressed just like Santa and filling stockings with great care. Back at the North Pole, she gets a big hug from her husband. "This story is appealing in its simplicity," noted Booklist contributor Ilene Cooper, who gave high praise to the artwork which keeps the helper's identity a secret until the very end. Another holiday title, Bright Christmas: An Angel Remembers, tells the story of the Nativity from the point of view of an angel. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly remarked that in "the voice of a seasoned spinner of yarns, Clements imagines a heavenly perspective on the birth of Jesus." Writing in Booklist, Shelley Townsend-Hudson described the book as a "lovely blend of words and pictures" that "attempt to explain the idea of eternity." A School Library Journal contributor described the story as told "in spare, tempered, and reverent prose," and concluded that Bright Christmas "is a fine combination of text and illustration that tells a familiar story."

Clements has explored themes ranging from strengthening counting skills to accepting differences to the concept of ownership in his ambitious picture books. A simple task such as learning how to count is transformed by Clements into an exploration "of the diverse wonders of our planet," as Steven Engelfried described Mother Earth's Counting Book in a School Library Journal review. The seven continents and four oceans of this planet all figure into Clements's counting scheme. Billy and the Bad Teacher tells a story of acceptance that "will have students and teachers rolling out of their chairs," according to Jeanne Marie Clancy in School Library Journal. Neat and compulsive Billy is initially horrified when he gets the unorthodox Mr. Adams for his new teacher, but slowly comes to love this teacher who makes long division fun and reads The Swiss Family Robinson to the class each day. "The story makes a nice point about accepting the foibles of others without hitting readers over the head with it," concluded Clancy.

The concept of ownership comes under scrutiny in Who Owns the Cow?, a story about a cow, a farmer, and the many people who come into contact with both. A little girl thinks of the cow when she hears its bell; a milkman earns a living by delivering its milk; an artist paints it. So who really owns it? While several reviewers felt this question of ownership might be too philosophical for most young readers, Deborah Stevenson of the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books maintained that Who Owns the Cow? is an "offbeat book with an appealing style" that "will puzzle some and become the favorite of others."

Relationships also figure in Temple Cat, the story of an ancient Egyptian feline who is the lord of a temple but is tired of being pampered. The cat longs simply to be loved, and finds such love in the arms of two children after it has run away. Susan Middleton, writing in School Library Journal, asserted that "this endearing tale is sure to find favor wherever cat stories are in demand," while a Kirkus Reviews critic remarked that "Clements pens a tale for consummate cat enthusiasts or lovers of antiquity."

A further adventure in the picture-book format is Double Trouble in Walla Walla. Young Lulu is sent to the principal's office when she cannot stop speaking in a sort of hyphenated slang, and her saga is related in a book that Barbara McGinn in School Library Journal dubbed "side-splitting fun." "In this breathlessly verbose tale, a rash of [compound nonsense words] infects an elementary school," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer, who concluded that "children with a fondness for wordplay may delight in this dizzying romp."

True tales of animal heroism are served up in Clements' "Pets to the Rescue" series, which includes the books Ringo Saves the Day, Tara and Tiree, Fearless Friends, and Dolores and the Big Fire. Designed for beginning readers and featuring illustrations by Ellen Beier, the series covers actual occasions when cats and dogs were able to save the day, rescuing their loving owners from all sorts of mishaps. In Ringo Saves the Day, for example, an orange kitten lets his owners know when his sensitive nose detects a broken gas line in the family's back yard, while Tara and Tiree, Fearless Friend tells how a man was saved after a fall through the ice by his loyal rottweiler and golden retriever. In Dolores and the Big Fire a savvy feline is once again the hero: house cat Dolores lived alone with Kyle, and was able to awaken her sleeping owner one night when the house caught on fire and his life was threatened. In School Library Journal, Jessica Snow praised Dolores and the Big Fire as a "wonderful story" that should "appeal to newly independent readers."Frindle is Clements's highly acclaimed first novel for middle graders. The book was inspired by comments Clements once made when talking to students at a Rhode Island school, "teaching them a little about the way words work," as Clements once told SATA. "I was trying to explain to them how words only mean what we decide they mean. They didn't believe me when I pointed to a fat dictionary and told them that ordinary people like them and like me had made up all the words in that book—and that new words get made up all the time." To illustrate his point, Clements pulled a pen from his pocket and told the students that they could change the name of this instrument from pen to anything they made up. Clements chose a made-up word, "frindle," and challenged students to start calling it by that name instead of "pen" to see if such a name would stick. "The kids loved that story, and for a couple of years I told that same story every time I went to talk at a school or a library. Then one day in 1990 as I was sifting through my life, looking for a story idea, I wondered what would happen if a kid started using a new word, and other kids really liked it, but his English teacher didn't. So the idea for the book was born."

In the novel, Nick, who always stays one step ahead of his teachers, can usually manage to sidetrack homework assigments from being made. However, when he meets Mrs. Granger, his new fifth-grade language-arts teacher, this simple ruse breaks down. To irritate her, he invents the word "frindle" for pen and convinces other kids in the school to use the neologism. Soon the word spreads to the city, the state, the nation, and ten years later "frindle" has even made it into the dictionary. Only then does Nick realize that Mrs. Granger has secretly been rooting for him and his new word all along.

"The chesslike sparring between the gifted Nicholas and his crafty teacher is enthralling," commented a Kirkus Reviews critic, who called Frindle "a captivating tale—one to press upon children, and one they'll be passing among themselves." A Publishers Weekly commentator remarked that "dictionary lovers will cotton to this mild classroom fantasy, while readers who have a hard time believing that one person could invent a word out of thin air will be surprised to learn that the word 'quiz' was invented the same way." Elizabeth S. Watson, writing in Horn Book, remarked that Clements "has created a fresh imaginative plot that will have readers smiling all the way through, if not laughing out loud." Award committees agreed with the critics: Frindle garnered more than thirty award nominations, and won the 1997 Christopher Award.

In the same tradition as Frindle, The School Story finds a middle schooler challenging the system and winning. Twelve-year-old Natalie has an advantage in her dream of becoming a writer: her mother is an editor at a publishing company. When she finishes the novel, her best friend Zoe channels her enthusiasm into getting the book published, a difficult task given Natalie's age. The savvy Zoe devises a scheme whereby both girls work under assumed names and hide their ages, then, with the help of their English teacher, sell the book to Natalie's mother and stage a publication party to celebrate their success. "Be prepared for kids lining up to read this one," warned Booklist contributor Chris Sherman, noting that readers will identify with "thoughtful, talented Natalie" and "brash, loyal Zoe." School Library Journal reviewer Terrie Dorio praised The School Story as "a comic novel that's a sure winner," while in Horn Book Roger Sutton wrote that "Clements' storytelling is as good as Natalie's as he confidently charts the motives . . . of the two girls . . . to make the scheme seem entirely plausible and its deviousness almost wholesome."

In the young-adult novel Things Not Seen fifteen-year-old Bobby Phillips awakens one morning to find that he is invisible, and his plight seems hopeless when his academic-minded parents, who ignore him most of the time anyway, decide that their son's condition must remain a secret in order for the family not to be hounded by the media. Visiting the library, Bobby finds a friend in Alicia Van Dorn, a blind girl who is not put off by his condition. With her help, and as the authorities begin to suspect Bobby's parents of foul play in their son's disappearance, the teen learns to stand up for his own best interest."As preposterous as the teen's predicament may be, the author spins a convincing and affecting story," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor, while in School Library Journal Saleena L. Davidson enthused that Things Not Seen is "full of life; it's poignant, funny, scary, and seemingly all too possible." "As the title hints," wrote Kliatt reviewer Paula Rohrlick, "this is a tale about sight and insight, as well as the fanciful theme of actual invisibility." The author's sensitive portrayal of the developing relationship between Bobby and Alicia was commended by several reviewers; as Hazel Rochman noted in Booklist, "with all the play, there's an underlying realistic theme that's heartbreaking: . . . to [Alicia] Bobby will always be . . . invisible." In the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Michael Jung praised Things Not Seen as "a superb story with an emotional complexity that will be appreciated by readers in grades 5 and up."

A Week in the Woods finds eleven-year-old student Mark Chelmsley, a new student of wealthy parents, riding out a semester at his local New Hampshire public school before leaving to attend an exclusive prep school. When his fifth-grade science teacher becomes annoyed, Mark attempts to shape up, but it is too late: his teacher, Mr. Maxwell, has already pegged Mark as a slacker. The friction between student and teacher comes to a head In this 2002 novel, when a spoiled student stomps off into the forest in annoyance during a school camping trip, he finds himself forced to rescue the very teacher he had come to despise. (Cover illustration by Brian Selznick.) during a school camping trip, when Mark stomps off into the woods after being caught with a camping knife. Going into the woods to retrieve the sullen student, Mr. Maxwell breaks his ankle, and must depend on the now-lost Mark to find the way back to the students' campsite. Clements is "playing on his customary theme that children have more on the ball than adults give them credit for," noted a Kirkus Reviews contributor, adding that A Week in the Woods would appeal to fans of books by Gary Paulsen and Will Hobbs. In Booklist Francisca Goldsmith praised the author's "compassionate character studies" as "realistic and hopeful," noting that the power struggle between adult and teen leave both men changed at the end of their overnight ordeal.

Clements continues his commitment to the world of children's books with classroom appearances and the writing and/or illustrating of early readers, picture books, and more novels for middle graders. "There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the decline of reading," he told SATA, "the overpowering influence of the television and multi-media screens, even a national descent into illiteracy. Everyone is so upset when these ideas are voiced, and everyone feels sure that reading and books are important—but why? Apart from the basic skill of functional or task-related reading, why is there a universal conviction that books and literature are indispensable? I think it's because when we read, we're in charge. That's probably the most significant difference between page-time and screen-time. When we read, we decide when, where, how long, and about what. One of the few places on earth that it is still possible to experience an instant sense of freedom and privacy is anywhere we open up a good book and begin to read."

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Booklist, February 15, 1985, p. 842; December 15, 1990, Ilene Cooper, review of Santa's Secret Helper, pp. 860-861; September 1, 1996, Kay Weisman, review of Frindle, p. 125; September 1, 1996, Shelley Townsend-Hudson, review of Bright Christmas: An Angel Remembers, p. 136; December 15, 1996, p. 734; June 1, 2001, Chris Sherman, review of The School Story, p. 1879; November 1, 2001, Linda Perkins, review of Jake Drake, Know-It-All, p. 474; January 1, 2002, Catherine Andronik, review of Jake Drake, Teacher's Pet, p. 856; March 1, 2002, Hazel Rochman, review of The Jacket, p. 1136; April 15, 2002, Hazel Rochman, review of Things Not Seen, p. 1412; June 1, 2002, Ilene Cooper, review of Dolores and the Big Fire, p. 1733; October 1, 2002, Francisca Goldsmith, review of A Week in the Woods, p. 324; February 15, 2004, Lauren Peterson, review of The Report Card, p. 1059; October 15, 2004, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Last Holiday Concert, p. 403.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, October, 1995, Deborah Stevenson, review of Who Owns the Cow?, p. 49; February, 1996, p. 186; October, 1996, pp. 51-52.

Horn Book, spring, 1996, review of Who Owns the Cow?, p. 23; December, 1996, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of Frindle, p. 732; July, 2001, Roger Sutton, review of The School Story, p. 448; March-April, 2002, Roger Sutton, review of Things Not Seen, p. 210; November-December, 2004, Roger Sutton, review of The Last Holiday Concert, p. 657.

Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, November, 2003, Michael Jung, review of Things Not Seen, p. 271.

Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 1995, p. 944; December 15, 1995, review of Temple Cat, p. 1768; July 1, 1996, review of Frindle, p. 965; October 1, 1996, p. 1475; November 1, 2001, review of Jake Drake, Teacher's Pet, p. 1546; February 1, 2002, review of The Jacket, p. 177; July 1, 2002, review of Big Al and Shrimpy, p. 951; August 1, 2002, review of A Week in the Woods, p. 1124; March 1, 2004, review of The Report Card, p. 220; February 1, 2005, review of Naptime for Slippers, p. 175.

Kliatt, March, 2002, Paula Rohrlick, review of Things Not Seen, p. 7.

New York Times Book Review, March 16, 1997, p. 26.

Publishers Weekly, September 14, 1994, p. 31; September 30, 1996, review of Bright Christmas: An Angel Remembers, p. 90; July 15, 1996, review of Frindle, p. 74; October 6, 1997, p. 50; October 13, 1997, review of Double Trouble in Walla Walla, p. 74; April 27, 1998, p. 66; December 17, 2001, review of The Jacket, p. 91; January 28, 2002, review of Things Not Seen, p. 291; April 1, 2002, Sally Lodge, interview with Clements, p. 25; August 12, 2002, review of A Week in the Woods, p. 301; March 8, 2004, review of The Report Card, p. 75; October 11, 2004, review of The Last Holiday Concert, p. 80.

School Library Journal, June, 1989, Gratia Banta, review of Big Al, p. 86; July, 1990, p. 59; June, 1993, Steven Engelfried, review of Mother Earth's Counting Book, p. 72; January, 1994, Jeanne Marie Clancy, review of Billy and the Bad Teacher, p. 87; October, 1994, p. 39; March, 1996, Susan Middleton, review of Temple Cat, p. 167; December, 1995, p. 73; October, 1996, review of Bright Christmas: An Angel Remembers, p. 34; November, 1996, p. 87; January, 1998, Barbara McGinn, review of Double Trouble in Walla Walla, p. 81; July, 1998, p. 74; June, 2001, Terrie Dorio, review of The School Story, p. 144; September, 2001, Maura Bresnahan, review of Ringo Saves the Day!, p. 212; February, 2002, Holly T. Sneeringer, review of Brave Norman, p. 117; March, 2002, Saleena L. Davidson, review of Things Not Seen, and Lucinda Snyder Whitehurst, review of The Jacket, p. 226; April, 2002, Pat Leach, review of Jake Drake, Teachers's Pet, p. 102; May, 2002, Jessica Snow, review of Dolores and the Big Fire, p. 135; July, 2002, Kay Bowes, review of Jake Drake, Class Clown, p. 86; November, 2002, Kathleen Simonetta, review of Big Al and Shrimpy, p. 119, and Jean Gaffney, review of A Week in the Woods, p. 160; March, 2003, Marilyn Taniguchi, review of Tara and Tiree, Fearless Friends, p. 179; April, 2003, Tina Hudak, review of A Week in the Woods (audiobook), p. 88; March, 2004, Lee Bock, review of The Report Card, p. 204; October, 2004, Debbie Whitbeck, review of The Last Holiday Concert, p. 159; January, 2004, Bina Williams, review of Slippers at Home, p. 88; February, 2005, Christine E. Carr, review of Naptime for Slippers, p. 96.

ONLINE

Andrew Clements Home Page, http://www.andrewclements.com (January 21, 2005).

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