The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School by Candace Fleming, 192 pp, RL 3

The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary by Candace Fleming is nothing short of brilliant. Everyone has heard of Aesop and his fables and, if nothing else, most people know the big three: the tortoise and the hare (slow and steady wins the race), the story of the ant and the grasshopper (there is time for work and time for play) and the story of the lion and the mouse (a kindness is never wasted.) But how many others can you actually recall? Of course, we have two fabulous picture books to keep these fables fresh in our minds. Arnold Lobel's Caldecott winning collection Fables from 1980 and Jerry Pinkney's gorgeous, wordless Caldecott winner from 2010, The Lion and the Mouse are wonderful for story time. However, the most popular and widely read retellings of the fables are for very young readers while the messages in these stories are pertinent for readers of all ages and probably best suited to the target audience of Fleming's superb book.

In The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary each chapter features a different character and ends with a moral first popularized by Aesop. For those of you interested, a great list of Aesop's fables and morals can be found at Fairy Tales, Fables and Stories. In the first chapter, "The Principle Struggles," we learn that the soon-to-be fourth graders at Aesop elementary have a reputation and it is not a good one. Fleming has a Dickensian gift for naming her characters and I suspect she had many a good laugh as she wrote this book and chose the names. Mrs Struggles, the principal, is in a desperate situation without a teacher to take on the fourth grade and only a day before school starts. That is, until Mr Jupiter shows up at the last minute with a list of credentials that would make Maria Montessori and Indiana Jones feel inadequate. He has a degree in nanothermal economics from Dummer University, worked as a translator for Big Foot, collected mummified cats in Egypt and discovered the lost city of Atlantis. Mr Jupiter has taught Swahili as a second language at Dooglehorn Elementary in Switzerland, hula dancing at Balderdash Academy for Boys in London, organic geochemisty at Harvard and has been the head tetherball coach at Matilda Jane's School for Prim and Proper Girls in Las Vegas. On top of that, once in the classroom he exhibits a wonderful creativity, patience and generosity in dealing with the unruly bunch of troublemakers he teaches.

And what a bunch of troublemakers it is! Also amusingly and aptly named, we have Bernadette Bragadoccio, Humphrey Parrot, Lenny Wittier, Jackie Jumpbaugh, Amisha Spelwadi, Victoria Sovaine and Rose Clutterdorf are among the many students who exemplify the various morals of Aesop's fables. But my favorite, and the one kids will not get the full humor of, is Stanford Binet, a conscientious, well behaved, forward thinking child who has his eye on a college education. In the chapter titled "Dance Stanford, Dance," practicing for the fall musical with the traveling drama teacher Miss Playwright leads to unexpected results while also teaching that "It it wise to prepare today for the wants of tomorrow." With six weeks to prepare, Stanford spends every moment he can find practicing while his classmates think it's much too soon to worry about the performance. Being the only one who knows his part on the night of the performance, Stanford steals the show then rushes off to work on a book report that's due in six weeks. Another great story involves Calvin Tallywong who, exhausted by the hard work of fourth grade, gets his wish to return to kindergarten. The moral, "Be careful what you wish for - it might come true," is wonderfully illuminated by Calvin's horrible experience when he is sent to the kindergarten class to be a helper but is mistaken for a new student and treated like a baby.

I could go on with all the clever, funny ways that Flemming finds to illustrate Aesop's fables, the stories are so fun to share, but I won't. With short chapters, The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary makes for a great read out loud but also an easy read for kids ready to move from Magic Tree House-type books into something a little more difficult. And, far from being a loosely connected series of stories, The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary does have a story arc that includes a budding romance between Mr Jupiter and the once mousy-but-strict librarian, Miss Paige Turner. There is also a mystery, the seed of which is planted in the very first chapter of the book when Mr Jupiter reveals that he attended fifth grade at Aesop Elementary, but blanches when Mrs Struggles asks who his teacher was. We learn why in the final chapter of the book when Mr Jupiter reveals that he has been invited by the International Space Academy to establish a colony on Mars. However, his plans change when Mr Jupiter's old fifth grade teacher, Mr Kinderschamaker, returns to Aesop Elementary to fill the vacated fifth grade teaching spot. Mr Jupiter finally stands up to the teacher who terrorized him and, in the process secures himself a job at Aesop for the following year as well as another great book from Candace Fleming!

The Fabled Fifth Graders of Aesop Elementary School

Readers who enjoy this book might also like Louis Sachar's Wayside School books:
Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar: Book CoverWayside School Gets a Little Stranger by Louis Sachar: Book Cover

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming: Book CoverCandace Fleming is a diverse writers who's newest book, Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart, which is filled with fascinating facts and photos about this trailblazing American hero.

Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and MaryFleming is also the author of the stunning The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary, which I reviewed in 2009.

On top of that, she is a fabulous picture book author with three of my story time favorites, the bunny tales, Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! and Tippy-Tippy-Tippy, Hide, and the much lauded Clever Jack Takes the Cake,  all of which are illustrated by the marvelous G Brian Karas.

Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!Tippy-Tippy-Tippy, Hide!Clever Jack Takes the Cake

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