Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Three timeless lessons from “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.”

image Some books never get tired.  I’m reading Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing with my kids right now as one of our chapter books, and it’s incredible how modern it is, considering it was first published in 1972.  Imagine – a book for kids in which:

  • there are no internet, cellphones, or mobile devices of any kind
  • the dad in the book isn’t used to looking after children, and hands off the kids to his secretary
  • the main character has an elevator man
  • the shoe store carries two styles in its children’s section – loafers or saddle shoes

Yet my kids are fascinated, and ask eagerly for this book every single night.  They’ve also been “sneaking” reads on their own during the more suspenseful bits.  Wow.

Here are three lessons we could all learn from Judy Blume, one of the masters.

1.  Have your characters do something – anything.

Talking heads are boring.  Situations and emotions aren’t enough if your characters don’t do something.  Even little things count, like this sequence, where Peter cleans out his turtle tank, can be fascinating.

Every Saturday morning I clean out Dribble’s bowl.  Sometimes, if Fudge is very good, I let him watch.  I do it in the bathroom.  First I take Dribble out of his bowl and let him crawl around in the tub.  I’m afraid to put him down on the floor – somebody might step on him.  But in the tub I know he’s safe.

Next, I take the rocks out of his bowl and wash them.  The last thing I do is wash the bowl  itself.  I really scrub it.  I even rinse it two or three times to make sure all the soap is out.  When I’m done with that I put the rocks back in and fill it with just the right amount of water.  After I put Dribble back in his bowl I feed him and he goes right to sleep on his favorite rock.  I guess running around in the bathtub really makes my turtle tired.

(click here to view/buy Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing on Amazon)

Who cares about cleaning out a turtle tank?  With the right setup and tension in the story (in this case, the tension over what Peter’s pesky younger brother will do next!), we do – certainly, my kids never noticed they were basically hearing a set of instructions for cleaning a turtle tank.

2.  Use character “tics” – kids love them!

It’s okay to give your character an expression, a saying, a twitch, something that he does over and over in a predictable way.  In Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Fudge, the 3-year-old younger brother, is always saying “See?”  He says it every time he is particularly proud of himself… which is usually when he’s gotten into the most trouble.  “See… see.”

He jumped off my bed and crawled underneath it.  He came out with our poster.  He held it up.  “See,” he said.  “Pretty!”

“What did you do?” I yelled.  “What did you do to our poster?”  It was covered all over with scribbles in every color Magic Marker.  It was ruined!

(click here to view/buy Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing on Amazon)

Now that we’re more than halfway through the book, my kids know enough to chortle every time he says it, anticipating the mischief that’s probably going to come next.

3.  Don’t be afraid of grit!

We may think of older books as being kinder and gentler… but that’s not always the case, as Judy Blume shows here.  The main characters live in New York City, in very small, crowded apartments.  When it’s time to work on a school project, Peter’s actually the only one among his friends who has his own bedroom.  And life is not always safe and friendly for these urban kids.

We live near Central Park… My mother doesn’t want me hanging around the park alone.

For one thing, Jimmy Fargo has been mugged three times – twice for his bicycle and once for his money.  Only he didn’t have any to give the muggers.

I’ve never been mugged.  But sooner or later I probably will be.  My father’s told me what to do.  Give the muggers whatever they want and try not to get hit on the head.

Sometimes, after you’re mugged, you get to go to police headquarters.  You look at a bunch of pictures of crooks to see if you can recognize the guys who mugged you.

(click here to view/buy Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing on Amazon)

OMG.  This prompted a discussion with my kids that I wasn’t exactly ready to have at storytime… but it also opened their eyes to the idea that there are kids who lead very different lives.  In this case, also, the gritty “exoticism” of life in such a crazy, dangerous place as New York City has only added to the book’s ongoing appeal.

(Want to add more texture to your own writing, and reach kids who might be alienated by stories about white picket-fenced suburbs?  In this post, I offer five quick tips for adding grit and inclusiveness.)

I also love, by the way, seeing how the covers of evergreen books like this and the Ramona books have been updated over the years.  Isn’t this a fascinating progression???

image image image imageimage  image image image

That’s my guess at the chronological sequence of the covers.  Ours, by the way, is the yellow one, although the starburst cut-out shape on the cover was already pretty badly torn by the time it arrived from Better World Books.  We have, funnily enough, never owned this book before.  Why? 

0142408794Well, it’s one of those classics that you can always get out from the library… until, that is, you’re living thousands of kilometres away from the nearest library with an English language kids’ book selection.  And then you can’t, and you put in an emergency order for that plus our next book, Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great… also from BWB

(How did I know that the “Sheila” book would have a pink cover???  More about that in this post.)

I have promised my kids there are lots more books about Fudge, and they are eagerly looking forward to reading them.  NOT because they’re classics – but because they’re darn good books and always will be.

Is Fourth Grade Nothing one of your favourites?  What makes some books perennially appealing, while others don’t age well at all???


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