Background: I haven't had a chance to read Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen Will Travel (by Ruth McNally Barshaw), but I've heard great things. I first heard about this book from Betsy at A Fuse #8 Production, who called it "another example of the "illustrated novel" brought to brilliant, vibrant life." She recommended it highly, and I always kept it in mind. Then Bloomsbury was kind enough to send me an advance copy of the sequel, and I have just had a chance to read it.
Review: Ellie McDoodle: New Kid in School by Ruth McNally Barshaw is one of the most fun books I've read in a long time. It's a bit difficult to categorize, a combination of sketchbook and middle grade novel. Ellie McDougal is about to start 6th grade when her family moves to a new town, two hours away, too far to stay in close contact with her old friends. Ellie shares her thoughts about the move and her adjustment to her new school in her notebook. An aspiring artist, Ellie sketches as much as she writes, and the result is a heavily illustrated novel in which the pictures are as important, if not more important, than the words.
Although primarily about Ellie's adjustment to her new school this book is also about Ellie's delightful family. Her older brother Josh plays practical jokes incessantly. Her older sister Risa is a bit self-involved, but offers support when needed. Her preschool brother Ben Ben provides comic relief, shown playing with his food and undertaking odd acrobatic moves (in a helmet), always sketched with affection. Ellie's father is a coach, and speaks primarily in sports metaphors, while her mother is firm when necessary, but will also participate in practical jokes. They all play word games together around the dinner table. It's nice to see a family that, despite teasing, appreciates each other and has fun together, too.
Some of the details of the book are a bit over-the-top - there's definitely a comic book aspect to the whole story, especially a major plotline involving activism - but Ellie herself feels as real as any eleven-year-old girl. There's a page where she makes a list (the book has lots of lists) of "What I Want From School". It includes things like "Fast, easy friendships" and "No embarrassing events". Reading it, I felt like I was channeling my own inner sixth grader. In another scene, she interacts with a new friend's brother who has Down's syndrome, and she's realistically awkward and unsure how to react (but of course rises to the occasion). I also loved (and could personally relate to) the fact that Ellie's first friend in her new neighborhood is the children's librarian. Ellie's fears and insecurities around the move itself, and her sadness at leaving the house she's grown up in, also ring true.
There's a pretty wide cast of characters in this book - various neighborhood kids, teachers, kids from school, and families of kids from school. I think that the pictures will help kids to keep them straight, though. And the pictures are delightful, with captions and callouts and thought bubbles to keep things intimately connected with the text. My favorite is a sketch of a wealthy girl's younger brother "Wellington" in a little suit with a bow tie.
It's a bit tricky even to suggest an age range for this book. Ellie is in sixth grade, but the illustrations should make the book accessible to younger kids, too. I think this would be a perfect read for reluctant readers in later elementary school. And I think it's an essential read for kids who enjoy drawing and comic strips. There's a wonderful, picture-studded interview with the author at the end of the book that includes practical advice for aspiring writers and artists, and even a little section on how to sketch. I would have ADORED this book as a fourth or fifth grader. I have no doubt whatsoever that it would have inspired me to start a sketch journal of my own.
I can't recommend this book highly enough. If there are any elementary school librarians reading this, you simply must stock the Ellie McDoodle series. Ellie McDoodle: New Kid in School is entertaining from beginning to end, with clever illustrations, and celebrating both warm family and friend relationships and individuality. Don't miss it!
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books
Publication Date: June 24, 2008
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: The Reading Zone, Quill Inc., Shelf Elf, Fuse #8, Read, Read, Read
Author Interviews: Elizabeth O. Dulemba, Karen's News
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.