by Sara Pennypacker
illustrated by Marla Frazee
Disney*Hyperion Books, on shelves July 27
review copy read in ARC received at ALA
Don't worry. There won't be a single plot spoiler here. Instead, let's consider the craft of a writer who can keep the fourth book in an "ages 7-10" series just as fresh and delightful as the other three.
1. She assumes you know the characters, so she digs deeper into what makes each character tick. She continues to make her characters more and more three-dimensional, not just "the younger sister who takes risks and the older brother who carries his backpack and research books everywhere." (Sorry Jack and Annie, but it's true. Except Jack left his backpack at home in the latest book, so that's a start!) Clementine and Margaret are complicated, quirky characters who make surprising and heart-rendering choices. Even Mitchell, Margaret's brother who is N-O-T not Clementine's boyfriend, comes into clearer focus in this book. (Margaret...Mitchell. I just noticed that. A quiet little homage by Ms. Pennypacker, or just two alliterative names?)
2. The plot structure of ALVIN HO seems to me to be "random and vaguely related stuff happens." (If I'm wrong, please enlighten me.) On the other hand, Sara Pennypacker has used plot and subplot in as sophisticated a way as Stieg Larsson. Pennypacker uses ONE plot (friend of the week) and ONE subplot (Moisturizer the kitten), rather than six or seven of each, but she makes plot and subplot mirror and resonate and foreshadow and dovetail.
3. She tackles big, serious issues in a way that makes it fun and unthreatening to think about. In this case, Friendship: what does it look like, sound like, act like? what is it? what is it not? how do you grow it?
(On a side note -- over the course of writing this post, I am hatching an idea for a beginning-of-the-year fourth grade unit of study on series books. If we can talk about plot and subplot, character development, and theme with Clementine (or Cleo, or Jack and Annie, or Alvin Ho, or Ting and Ling, or Sassy...), aren't children more likely to notice these things themselves when they read longer, more complicated chapter books? The catch-words "scaffolding" and "differentiation" are ringing in my ears...)