Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Review: Stinky Stern Forever

The early reader must be the most difficult book of all to write. To create something new, something real from so few words of such limited complexity is a challenge not every writer can meet. Sure, there are masters of the genre. Cynthia Rylant comes immediately to mind. But, it is unusual to come across a new(ish) author writing for the newly reading who writes with as much honesty and emotional depth as does Michelle Edwards.

Stinky Stern Forever is the fourth volume of The Jackson Friends series--a series of short chapter books designed for school-aged children working on reading fluently on their own. Jackson Magnet is a school populated by children of many different backgrounds and family situations. Our narrator, Pa Lia Vang, decorates her snowflake with Hmong patterns, for example. A boy named Vladmir Solbokin returns from ESL to Mrs. Fennessey's classroom. Another child, Bridgett, doesn't have a mother living at home. Mrs. Fennessey's class also has a resident bully, a boy named Matthew--or Stinky--Stern.

Stinky likes to tease the other kids in the class and make a scene. On the day Stinky Stern Forever begins, Stinky Stern ruins Pa Lia's snowflake with a glob of glue. Then, after school, Stinky Stern is hit by a van when he runs into the street without looking. Pa Lia witnesses the accident and wonders, "Will Stinky be okay? He is so quiet. So still."

Stinky isn't okay. Stinky dies. When Pa Lia returns to school the next day, Mrs. Fennessey tells her class the news and asks the children to share their stories about Matthew Stern. Pa Lia, a quiet, observant child, finds she can't speak right away. She feels confused because she didn't like Stinky Stern. She listens to her classmates' stories--some good, some bad, some funny--and draws, creating pictures of what Stinky loved in life. Finally, after listening to all the children in her class, Pa Lia admits, "'I was so mad at Stinky yesterday. He tried to ruin my snowflake. I was still mad at him when I saw the accident.'" Speaking the truth out loud, Pa Lia realizes, "a heavy bird had just flown from its nesting spot on her heart." Pa Lia is finally able to say what hurts her so much: "'Stinky, get up. This is not funny, I thought. But I knew he couldn't get up. And that was sadder and hurt more than anything Stinky ever said or did to me.'"

Wow. Consider the words Edwards uses here--short words most first graders can read on their own. Despite this limitation, she manages to create a story that is interesting, important, and relevant to children. And, because Stinky Stern Forever is for children, it ends on a positive and hopeful note. The children of Mrs. Fennessey's classroom celebrate their unique, multi-faceted classmate through story and conclude by showering his desk with their beautiful snowflakes.

Stinky Stern Forever
is a book you can share with any child experiencing a loss. However, I also think it will be appreciated by children who haven't experienced directly the death of a friend or classmate. We adults, more experienced in loss and death, are easily traumatized by the death of a child, even if that death is fictional. Children, on the other hand, may appreciate Edwards' message here--that everyone has value, everyone has a story and a talent, everyone is loved by someone. Even Stinky Stern.

Stinky Stern Forever is the first of Michelle Edwards' The Jackson Friends books I've read. I'm purchasing the first three as soon as I can bear to enter a retail establishment again. (Sometime in late January, probably.) I haven't been this impressed in ages. And, I'm not alone. Check out these other blog reviews:

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