A Book of Coupons by Susie Morgenstern, illustrated by Serge Bloch, translated by Gill Rosner, 62 pp RL3,

A Book of Coupons is too short. I can't believe that I am saying this about a kid's book in this time of Cornelia Funke, JK Rowling and many other show-offs who think nothing of publishing 500+ page doorstop for children. And, as much as I love these authors and their books, I think that there is almost no reason to write books over 350 pages for children. If you can't tell your whole story and tell it well in that space then you have no business writing kid's books. Ok, maybe that's too harsh, but it really makes you think when you read an amazing book that packs a whole, satisfying story into less than 150 pages. Of course, Morgenstern's own Secret Letters from 0 - 10 fits this bill, as does most of the work of Polly Horvath, including the two incredible books, Everything on a Waffle and My 100 Adventures. This is why I've created the label short books - BIG IDEAS, which is comprised of fantastic books that range from 100 to 200 pages and cover some major themes in miniature.

But an amazing story in 56 pages? I have to admit, this clever plot idea of the title is so rich with possibilities that I was left wanting more - maybe 50 pages or so more. In spite of this, Morgentstern gives a well thought out story with a tiny arc that ends with a tear or two. Hubert Noël has been called  "Santa" ever since he was a child. In addition to his name, the French word for Christmas, and his nickname, he fits the bill as he is an older gentleman with white hair and a big belly who loves to give presents. This is precisely why he became a teacher. He considers every thing he teaches his students to be a gift from him to them. On the first day of the new school year at a new school, without even a word of greeting, he presents his students with gifts. This first gift is a book filled with coupons for things like sleeping late, skipping a day of school, losing your homework, not listening in class, copying from your neighbor, dancing in class, telling a lie, and many creative others, including a wild card coupon. The students are puzzled initially, but eventually excited by the possibilities the present. Next, Monsieur Noël gives them the gift of the word "cataclysm," which, he assures them, "when used three times will become yours - a present from me and the dictionary to you!" When Constance asks what that word means, he gives her yet "another magical gift" - a dictionary.

Morgenstern uses this joke one last time before it gets old. Monsieur Noël gives his students another wrapped package containing a copy of Charles Dickens' David Copperfield, one for each of them.  When Charles informs Monsieur that this is not a real gift because it's got "school property" stamped in it, Monsieur Noël insists, "even if this book does not legally belong to you, it is yours from the moment you read it. My gift to you is the story, the characters, the words, the ideas, the style, the emotions. Once you have read the book, all these things will be yours for life." Monsieur then tells the class he will begin reading it to them and they must finish it by the end of the week. Brilliantly, Morgenstern includes the first paragraph of David Copperfield in her book, hopefully enticing her own readers to give it a try.

The oh-too-brief book continues with the use, non-use or trading of coupons among the students. Charles uses his "coupon for sleeping late" the very next day when he stays up late the night before reading David Copperfield because he is enjoying it so much. Monsieur Noël gives his students other gifts, like toothbrushes and mini tubes of toothpaste after lunch, and a field trip to the post office right before Christmas which, after a very long time and the use of a few coupons for singing and dancing, ends with Monsieur Noël saying, "See how hard it is to wait your turn? You need a lot of patience in this life." To create drama, there is the Principal, Incarnation Perez, an older woman whom Monsieur had planned on befriending, but who ultimately proves too rigid and insistent on the adherence to rules to even allow Monsieur Noël to continue teaching. When she sees his class empty but for one student on Valentine's Day because all the students who had a "miss a day of school" coupon decided to use it on that very day, she is pushed over the edge. Incarnation Perez is a good foil, but the story is so short there is not much time to become attached to any of the characters or too sad for their losses. Monsieur is forced into retirement by the Principal, but is honored and feted by the students and the story, along with all the gifts, coupons and their symbolism are wrapped up and explained for the reader in a gratifying way.

Monsieur Noël teaches a fifth grade class, but I think that these children could easily be third or fourth graders and the reading level is appropriate for all. I can easily imagine this book becoming a kind of Flat Stanley for the upper grades. Flat Stanley is a second grade reading level book about a boy who, after his bulletin board flattens him in his bed one night, finds a multitude of benefits to being flat, including doubling as a kite, posing as a painting in a museum to catch a thief and being mailed across the country to visit a friend. Many teachers have their class read the book then make a "Flat Stanley" to be mailed off to friends and relatives. Stanley's travels are then charted. I am sure there is an inventive teacher out there willing to tackle the coupon book. I know my kids have been lucky enough to have a few teachers who have been gift givers - of the love of learning and life - like Monsieur Noël.

Don't miss Morgenstern's Secret Letters from 0 to 10, which is available for purchase new and in paperback. Almost as short as A Book of Coupons, the story is for slightly older children. Sadly, A Book of Coupons is no longer available new in the US. Morgenstern, an American who has lived in France for all of her adult life, is a prolific, award winning author in her adopted country.

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