Dear Substitute by Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Chris Raschka
Dear Substitute by Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick with illustrations by the inimitable Chris Raschka is a joy to read, although if you are not a kid, a teacher or a substitute teacher, you may not embrace it as readily. As an elementary school librarian, I get to play the "grandma" role: I see classes once a week for a short time and the kids come over to play games and check out books at recess. I don't do the heavy lifting of classroom teaching and disciplining; mine is a more gentle, but firm lifting. But, I do see plenty of classes arriving with substitutes and I can tell by the way a class walks into the library what kind of substitute they have.
A change in the person you spend your day with is a struggle no matter what the temperament and preparation a substitute brings to the classroom. Scanlon and Vernick capture this perfectly with their poems that build on each other, telling the story of a day without Mrs. Giordano. Raschka's two page illustrations are bold, bright and filled with the emotions and energy of the moment. Narrated by an unnamed student in the class, each epistolary poem begins with, "Dear," and addresses a different part of the daily routine. Starting with, "Dear Substitute," the day moves on quickly to, "Dear Attendance," where the narrator notes that the substitute doesn't know how to pronounce anything, "Poor Charvi and Betje. Poor Eliandra." On through the pledge and the homework that won't be graded to the scheduled library visit...
Schedules are thrown off, class rules are frustratingly ignored and the appointed leader is not at the head of the line. At least lunch brings familiarity and continuity and, "trading food with Connor. (Even though trading food / is not exactly allowed.)" Of course, the one thing that the substitute does do is enforce the lunchtime rules, with this poignant poem following:
The day does take a turn for the better and the narrator comes to appreciate the substitute, even when she reads, "strange little poems instead of / the chapter book we were reading before" at story time. It turns out that the narrator likes poetry and even writes some, with the help of the substitute. Dear Substitute ends with a poem to Mrs. Giordano, the teacher, letting her know that, "it's okay if you're not quite ready / to come back tomorrow."
I happen to work in a school district that is dangerously short on eligible substitutes and am often surprised and concerned about those I do interact with. Along with all the other dreams and wishes for equity and opportunity for my students, I also wish them a substitute as present, committed and lovely as the title character in this marvelous book.
Source: Review Copy