Book Review: School Story, by Andrew Clements

September 5, 2012 at 8:04 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

Natalie is a writer, one with a wonderful book pouring out onto the page, one her friend and teacher are sure should be published. Natalie is twelve years old. With hard work, determination, and more than a few pushes from her bossy friend, Natalie just might be able to pull off the improbable, but what she learns along the way? Is worth so much more than a book deal.

This is one of those stories that seems light and sweet while you’re reading it, and then clobbers you with deeper layers a few hours later. I picked it up a few years ago because one of my coworkers, herself a former Children’s Lead, told me I absolutely had to be able to talk intelligently about Andrew Clements. He’s a staple, she told me. Teachers love him, parents love him, kids love him. Learn him. So, given my interest in writing and publishing, picking up School Story seemed like a no-brainer. I read it, loved it, promptly lost it in a sea of books.

But the other day, as I was pulling books out of the boxes and sorting them to make alphabetizing and shelving an easier task, I came upon it again. It’s a thin book, the kind that bridges perfectly between chapter books and middle grade so the reluctant readers aren’t as scared and the stronger readers can trust an author they love to deliver, so when it was time to take a break, I took the book with me.

And fell in love with it all over again.

On the surface, I love the basic walkthrough of publishing. For any kid who has ever dreamed of being a published writer, it’s a gentle wake up call. At no point does it say “You can’t do this”. At every step, it says “This is work, but it’s wonderful”, encouraging and inspiring. Though from a purely selfish point I would have wished to see self-revision before submission, we get to go with Natalie from first reader to second reader, to submission reader, to acquisition, and beyond that to some of the numbers of a deal, the levels of a publishing house, and all the steps that go into making a manuscript into a book. We learn, as Natalie and Zoe do, that it truly is a process- you can tell the kids who’ve read this book because they’re the ones who aren’t surprised that their favorite series only come out with one book a year. They know all the things that are happening behind the scenes to fill that year.

Natalie is a wonderful character, a little timid, a little down on herself, but full of a cautious optimism at seeing her book come out into the world. Even as a twelve-year-old, the neurosis is there a little, and frankly, that won me over in a heartbeat. Most writers are neurotic people, especially when it comes to our writing, and re-reading some of the scenes in this book made me think of Rapunzel leaving the tower in Tangled. we want to send our books out into the world, but at the same time, we really don’t want to leave our safe little bubble of ignorance. Her relationship with her mother, her lingering struggle with her father’s death, they’re very real, and they invest both the story and her character with a more personal thread. Her best friend Zoe is a perfect match for her, brash and brazen and uber-confident, sure of getting her own way in everything, and not at all hesitant to go for what she wants. She and Natalie have a push-pull relationship, with Zoe tugging on Natalie to trust in her manuscript and Natalie pulling Zoe’s more out-there ideas to a more practical place.

One of the things I loved most- and not something you see all that often in kids’ books- was how important and supportive the adult figures are. Ms. Clayton, their teacher and eventual club sponsor, is young and starting to wear down a little under the grind of daily teaching, but despite feeling a little bewildered and over her head, she at no point tells the girls not to pursue their goal. She helps them with the more practical aspects, often mediating between the disparate personalities, and perhaps most importantly, she’s an adult they can trust and depend upon. She protects them and helps them, even at the risk of losing her job. Zoe’s father becomes someone else they can trust, and they also learn the nature of confidentiality. Some will keep your secrets purely because you wish them to; some will keep your secrets because they’re legally obligated to do so. Not that Mr. Reisman wouldn’t help his daughter and her friend of his own volition, but it’s another practical lesson in the process of publishing. And yet, his true importance to the story is less in what he does for the girls, but in the validation he gives to Ms. Clayton as a teacher and a role model- she is precisely the kind of teacher who changes lives for the better, the kind of teacher everyone wishes for their children. Parental acknowledgment of superior teaching helps so much in buoying up teachers who are constantly worn down by non-existent budgets, children who frequently don’t wish to learn, and the legion of parents who just don’t care. The interaction between these two adults is limited to a single phone call, but those few minutes are enough to reaffirm the faith and spirits of a young teacher.

I especially loved the relationship between Natalie and her mother, Hannah, who’s an editor. There’s a balance of curiosity in her work and the simple joys of being with her mother for movies and Chinese, but they don’t so much dance around the place where Natalie’s father used to be as they do embrace it. It’s hard and it’s painful, and sometimes the memories are heavier than others, but their connection is solid, which makes Natalie’s professional progress a beautiful mirror to her personal progress. And Hannah has her own progress to make within the workplace; Natalie came by her partial-timidity naturally. The adults in this novel (well, most of the adults in this novel; Letha is less than rounded) have their own journeys to make alongside the girls, becoming as real and as significant as either of the girls. That’s rare in this field.

I don’t care what age you are, this is a book to be read, treasured, and passed down and around.

Until next time~

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