Friday, August 1, 2008

Book of the Semi-Month Club

Chapter books are the skinny books second and third graders read before they move up to longer middle grade novels. -- Anastasia Suen

Thank you, Anastasia. Let me explain.

I'm a bit of a purist about language. Not that I never enjoy its evolution. I find it interesting, say, that "include" has morphed to mean not "designate as part of a group" but "designate the group in its entirety." I mean, at one time you could say, "The spectrum includes red, green, and blue," and be completely correct. Now, in order not to be misunderstood, you'd better say the spectrum "includes" the entire ROY G. BIV, well, spectrum (ignoring the fact that as of late poor indigo has been receiving the Pluto treatment). And while I find some verbing of nouns pretty cringe-worthy (I drag my feet about accepting "we partnered together"), I have no compunctions at all about saying I "Google" this or that. And I jump on the buzzword and acronym bandwagons pretty quickly. Efficiency and all that.

But there are at least two definitions in children's literature that are slip-sliding all over the place to the degree that nobody knows what they mean anymore. I may vent about the other one another day, but today's subject is chapter book.

A chapter book is NOT "any children's book with chapters." A chapter book is exactly what Anastasia says it is. It's a bridge book between higher-level readers and true middle-grade novels. It's not that the edges of these categories can't blur; I can deal with that. You know what I think it is? It's condescension. The use of "chapter book" to cover anything with chapters (sometimes even YA novels!) assumes that no book for children could be an actual novel, because aren't novels for adults? Kiddie books are, well, kiddie books. It's the condescension that really gets my goat.

So, with that lengthy introduction I will now turn to today's book, which is a chapter book. I think I'd probably better give a SPOILER alert here, too. Martin Bridge in High Gear by Jessica Scott Kerrin is another installment in the adventures of Martin Bridge, elementary schooler and greatest fan of superhero Zip Rideout, Space Cadet. In the story called "Science Fair" Martin faces all the problems inherent in group projects. Working with Alex is a piece of cake; they're best friends. Adding Laila to the group is iffy but in the end okay; she may be bossy but she's dependable and gets the job done. But then there's Gibson. Gibson the lucky. Gibson the lazy. Or is he? Gibson doesn't always show up when he's supposed to. But when he does, he delivers. Need some research books? Gibson will bring you a whole library -- because he got them off a special display rather than having to hunt for them one by one. Need to print labels in your not-so-neat printing? Gibson gets the job -- and shows up with a label-maker. When the teacher comes along to check on them, Gibson manages to say something that gets him the credit for a great idea. What Martin never quite grasps is that Gibson might be working smarter rather than harder, and Kerrin has captured the irrational anger we often feel toward people who don't work as hard as we do but get better results. It's comforting that the teacher does listen to the group's complaints, and in the end says, "Gibson will get a separate grade" while awarding Martin, Alex and Laila an A++. Readers are left to wonder what mark Gibson might have gotten, but they will enjoy seeing how Gibson's luck runs out at the end. Whether Gibson is truly avoiding work or is a master of efficiency may be a matter of opinion, but nobody sails down the road of life without hitting a few mud puddles.

In the second story, "Bicycle," Martin's family gets a visit from Great-Aunt Laverne, who is always "wagging her knobby finger" and telling everyone they need to "learn a thing or two." Martin's bike is falling apart, and much to the dismay of G-A Laverne, his parents have just now saved enough to buy him a new one -- which is promptly stolen when someone cuts the chain for the lock. Clucking her tongue all the while about how kids today are spoiled, Aunt Laverne puts the family onto Bicycle Recycle, a shop where Martin becomes a volunteer fixing up bikes to give to needy kids with the understanding that he'll receive one on his last Saturday there. The day comes and he gets his bike -- bright blue with flame-orange decals -- but at that moment another boy bursts into the shop, eyes all aglow because he's sure the bike is his. The other boy, though, got his dates mixed up. He's a week early, and devastated by the news. Martin, realizing that Cameron is a boy who doesn't get a lot of things, much like Aunt Laverne when she was a girl, intervenes: "I'm pretty sure this is Cameron's bike." By this point, readers will be cheering loudly. Martin Bridge is one cool kid.


Anonymous said...

You're very welcome, Marcia!

:-) Anastasia

Marcia said...

Glad you visited, Anastasia!