The School Story by Andrew Clements, illustrated by Brian Selznick, 196 pp, RL 4
Andrew Clements is known as the master of the school story and rightly so. His first and most popular novel, Frindle was published in 1996. Since then he has written fifteen young adult novels, many of which are illustrated by Brian Selznick the Caldecott Award winning illustrator and author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Clements has written even more chapter books, beginning reader titles and an handful of picture books and has definintely staked out a place on the bookshelf right after Beverly Cleary and her Ramona books and just before Eoin Colfer and his Artemis Fowl series.
The covers of Clement's books, when illustrated by Brian Selznick, always have the main character holding something representative of the story. The cover of School Story reflects back upon itself, like standing between two mirrors, and the story inside proves to be a bit like that as well. Sixth grader Natalie, is the daughter of Hannah Nelson, editor at Shipley Junior Books in New York City. The two have been on their own since Natalie's father died in a car accident four years earlier. One day while riding the bus home from the city to New Jersey, Natalie asks her mom about her day at work because, "when her dad died, Natalie had decided she needed to talk to her mom more. Sometimes she pretended to be interested in her mom's work at the publishing company even when she wasn't." Natalie's mom tells her about a six hour that could have been summed up in three sentences: "People, we need to publish more adventure books, more series books and more school stories." This gets Natalie thinking, "who knows more about school than someone who's right there, five days a week, nine months a year?" When Natalie shares a few chapters of her book with Zoe, her best friend since kindergarten, the story takes off.
One of the reasons I love School Story is that it is actually a book about books, authors and publishing more than it is about kids in school. My favorite kind of book is one that mentions other authors and other books because I love being exposed to new things. Like Jeanne Birdsall's wonderful instant classic (which also includes a young author and excerpts from her writing,) The Penderwicks, School Story mentions other authors and other books and the best part is that these are likely to be familiar to most young readers who will experience a sense of recognition when reading School Story, especially chapter two titled, "A Portrait of the Author as a Young Girl." They may not catch the James Joyce reference, but readers will appreciate the chapter in which Natalie's love of reading, passed on to her by her mother and father, and her gradual growth into a writer is detailed, having as much to with the books that surround her as the absence of her father. Chapter eight, "Portrait of the Bulldog as a Young Girl" sheds some light on the character of Zoe Reisman and her motivation for convincing Natalie to take part in her scheme to get her book, The Cheater, published. Natalie is the daughter of an entertainment lawyer and a talker and arguer who never loses. Zoe is also a thoughtful and observant child. After reading a book she wants to talk to the author ask tactical questions like, "Why a peach and not a pickle?" after reading James and the Giant Peach. Shortly after Natalie's father dies, Zoe notices the look on her face when, during a sleep over Mr Reisman comes in to kiss his daughter good night. When Zoe reads Natalie's book she realizes that, while it is a school story, it is also a story about a father and a daughter and this, more than anything, makes her want to bring something good into Natalie's life like having her book published.
Although it seems like the easiest thing would be to give the manuscript directly to Natalie's mom for consideration, Natalie doesn't want their relationship to influence the success of her book one way or another. While Zoe does quite a bit of research in her efforts to help Natalie get her book published, there is only so much two kids can do on their own. Thus, they recruit (well, really bully on Zoe's part) their writing teacher Ms Clayton into helping them set up a phony office for the literary agency that supposedly represents Cassandra Day, Natalie's pen name. Ms Clayton is wary at first. She has sees the value in Natalie's manuscript from the start and she eventually comes to see the potential in Zoe's scheme as well. Natalie, who spends the afternoon at her mom's office every day after school, gets an insider's view of the publishing world as she watches her manuscript make the rounds. One of my favorite aspects of the book is the sense of impossibility that she experiences when she sees the piles and piles of manuscripts sitting on her mother's and the desks of the other editors at Shipley Junior Books. Clements also subtly exposes readers to the process of publishing a book, even describing the ways a book is publicized (ARCs or advance reader copies that are sent out to librarians and booksellers) as industry magazines like Publisher's Weekly that review books and the New York Times Bestsellers list that tracks sales.
The relationships and interior lives of the characters are well developed. Even Ms Clayton has some background story that makes it into the text, and makes you root for her as well as the girls and Mrs Nelson, who has an egotistical, attention grabbing boss who repeatedly threatens the path of Natalie's book. Brian Selznick's warm pencil illustrations are spot on, making the characters seem even more real. Of course this is going to be a book that I love, but I genuinely feel that any girl who loves to read will enjoy this book and any girl who loves to write will come away from it with a sense of inspiration and purpose.