Wednesday, January 15, 2014

EllRay Jakes and the beanstalk by Sally Warner, illustrated by Brian Biggs

In EllRay Jakes' fifth adventure, he and his friends are tackling some new third-grade problems. The popular thing at school is skateboarding, but EllRay doesn't know how. He's not even sure he really wants to learn, but his best friend Kevin is hanging out with Jared just because they are both learning to skate. Jared, the almost-bully who is practically EllRay's worst enemy! To make matters worse, EllRay's dad tells him he can't go over to the neighbor's house when Fly Reilly is there - but he's the only older kid that can teach him how to skateboard so he can get Kevin back again.

EllRay's problems and how he works things out, after some bad choices, are hammered home with the school assignment all the kids are working on; picking fairy tales and explaining what they mean to them personally. In the end, friendships aren't the same but they're still there and both EllRay and Kevin have had the chance to try something new.

I was really excited about the first book in this series and I think it's still living up to its promise. It's not a perfect book, but it fills a niche, speaks to kids about what's really going on in their lives and at school, and has a steady circulation at my library. At some points it feels a little overly didactic and EllRay is much more thoughtful than any other third grader I've ever met. Also, the school assignment feels a little contrived, just there to help the plot along. However, the pros of the story - the real lives and problems the kids face, the way they think about things, and how they work stuff out - outweigh the literary drawbacks. Some adult readers will probably be uncomfortable at how divided EllRay's class is along gender lines and how he and his friends worry about being "girly", how EllRay worries about having to read words like "ass" or "abreast" aloud in class, but things like this are what make the story so realistic. The characters - like Kry Rodriguez, whom everybody likes and is actually a better skater than any of the boys - are not held to the stereotypes, but having talked to a lot of third graders (and had some very vigorous arguments with third grade boys about having girls in Lego Club) I can definitely say this is realistic. And, of course, this is a unique book that I'd push for no other reason than that it features a kid of color as the main protagonist, not as a friend of the main character, and he's suburban and modern, not historical or urban. Mostly boys read this series, but some girls enjoy it too and it really does offer experiences that pretty much all third graders can relate to.

Verdict: This isn't at all an additional series since there's really nothing else like it on the market, that I have seen anyways. Large or small, every public library should carry it.

ISBN: 9780670784998; Published 2013 by Viking/Penguin; Borrowed from the library

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