Tuesday, 29 March 2011

review: Words That Start With B

by Vikki VanSickle
Scholastic, 2010
contemporary middle-grade
book received from publisher (thank you!)


Clarisse Delaney's expectations for seventh grade are high. That’s the year she’ll be in Miss Ross’s class, a teacher who loves birds, adopts belugas and plants wildflower gardens in the schoolyard. But on the first day of school, it’s a Mr. Campbell who breezes into the room. From then on, life for Clarissa goes awry. Her best friend Benji gets bullied worse than ever, Michael Greenblat continually bestows awkward presents upon her and Clarissa blooms into a butterfly or at least, that’s what over-enthusiastic Mattie Cohen calls getting your period. But then the worst B word, breast, is attached to the words cancer and Mom has, and “life for Clarissa goes awry” becomes the understatement of the century.
The cover:

The words’ chalky effect is about the only eye-catching aspect of the cover. Having a solid colour for the background always seems like an easy way out to me (unless it’s an integral part of the bigger picture), and the bottom black edging looks like it’s there just to break up the monotony. The direction the girl’s looking, to the top-right, kind of suggests a hopeful expression, but I wouldn’t say the drawn style of the girl appeals very much to middle-graders.

The book:

The first chapter (a single paragraph) acted like a prologue and set me up with the assumption that this would be a “school” story. Wrong, and I loved Words That Start With B for it. Although the beginning pages are heavy with narration, the brisk yet effective characterization of Benji, Mom, Miss Ross and Denise, her mom’s best friend, makes up for the lack of dialogue. Denise’s character development through Clarissa’s eyes is particularly significant; at first, Clarissa regards her as a “honking goose” with “horse legs”; she understands Denise’s true colours better once Denise proves to care about her mother just as much.

Clarissa herself is as well-developed: “Mom is careful not to say anything too nasty about him [Clarissa’s estranged father] in front of me, but once I overheard her talking with Denise and she called him a piece of human lint. That’s definitely not Dairy Queen talk.” (22) Her rants are hilarious this one’s about astrology: “‘Well, it’s a lot like stereotyping, and we learned last year in Mrs. Miller’s class that it is wrong to judge individual people based on group assumptions. That is how things like racism and sexism get started. Are you telling us to be prejudiced, Mr. Campbell?’” (40) Reactions to Michael’s (admittedly gauche) advances are equally funny.

The cancer plotline seems subdued compared to Clarissa’s other school-related woes; I would’ve expected a bigger reaction. With the lesser emphasis on Clarissa’s mother’s sickness, it was inevitable that she would recover. It’s Benji’s bullying problems and the Mr. Campbell-who-is-not-Miss-Ross which claim the front seat. The justice wreaked by Clarissa, Michael and Mattie on Terry DiCarlo, Benji’s tormentor, makes for a thoroughly enjoyable climax, complete with surprises and secret plans.

Rating: 4 out of 5