Last summer, my middle-graders and I spent the better portion of our classes exploring the world of Clarissa and Benji in Words that Start with B, Love Is a Four-Letter Word, and Days that End in Y, as well as getting lost in the mystical Northern Ontario resort of Sandy Shores in Summer Days, Starry Nights. It was the perfect way to spend July and August, so let me share with you the wonderful ways that Vikki VanSickle made us laugh and touched our hearts.
After reading all three books, I must say that VanSickle definitely does not shy away from difficult topics. In fact, of all three books, I think Words that Start with B is the one that cements Clarissa as one of the best narrators on my MG shelves. She is thoughtful and thought provoking, a typical seventh-grader though with a clear foot in the door of adulthood. Clarissa has to tackle some monumental problems in this novel—from having a long-awaited dream dashed on the first day of school, to defending her best friend from bullies, to that B word that looms over Clarissa’s head for most of the year. But she overcomes her obstacles … not with the grace and aplomb that some other characters do, but with bumps, bruises, setbacks, and tears—all of which make her so real and admirable a character. You can’t help but feel every bit of emotion that Clarissa feels, which means you’ll have no trouble rooting for her as the climax of the novel approaches. She handles Terry, the school bully, with a finesse that’s all her own, and the fact that she doesn’t think to do anything less to avenge Terry’s victims makes me just a little jealous of Clarissa. I don’t know if I would have the courage to do what she does, though I’d like to think that I’d defend my friends with the same ferocity.
There is one scene, in particular, that I really enjoyed, which doesn’t have anything to do with Clarissa and the bully at all. It’s a moment when Clarissa’s teacher, Mr. Campbell, talks to her after school because of some less-than-admirable behaviour. Rather than telling her mom about what she did, Mr. Campbell does two things: He tries to understand the real reason for Clarissa’s actions, possibly even enlightening Clarissa in the process, and he judges her behaviour in context of her entire character, doling out his punishment accordingly. Too often, teachers punish students without giving much thought to the circumstances around their dishonourable behaviour, but it was great that VanSickle highlights an alternative to that ubiquitous and ominous phone call home through Mr. Campbell’s reaction. Sometimes, the self-induced embarrassment of knowing that your teacher has forgiven you for that really senseless thing you did out of anger is more than enough to prevent future delinquencies. This scene really stuck with me, and I’m so thankful to VanSickle for having written it.
For those of you who haven’t read Words that Start with B, I highly recommend it. You’ll fall in love with Clarissa as much as our class did, and you’ll wish you had a friend just like her. Stay tuned to find out our thoughts about the sequel, Love Is a Four-Letter Word.
Have you read this first book in Clarissa and Benji’s adventures? What did you think?
Vikki VanSickle’s Online Corners