“Can we be done now?” (A CLW review of “Clementine”)

Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker, illustrated by Marla FrazeeIt might seem odd to call Clementine (2006) by Sara Pennypacker (with illustrations by Marla Frazee) a chick lit book. Chick lit does not conventionally refer to children’s literature, it barely makes it into the young adult genre. But, when I say chick lit I don’t mean a romantic comedy book. Instead I am referring to a novel written by a woman with an empowered female protagonist. Using this modern definition of chick lit, Clementine definitely fits the bill.

Find it on Bookshop.

When the book starts, third-grader Clementine is having a not-so-good day at school. Okay, fine. It’s more like a not-so-good week. Really, it might be a downright bad week. (Incidentally, the story style here might remind readers of “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” a picture book, written by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Ray Cruz, in which a boy slightly younger than Clementine works his way through a lousy day of his own.) It starts when Clementine has to miss out on recess to catch up on writing in her journal (she hates her journal) and only gets worse when she tries to help her best-friend Margaret, a girly fourth-grader, get gum out of her hair.

Clementine is used to getting in trouble and spending time with the principal of her school though so she tries to make the best of the situation, which in the fine tradition of children’s literature eventually brings Clementine out on top. The whole “trouble” aspect of the book is the only thing that bothers me about this series. Other reviewers often refer to Clementine as a child with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or similar problems, which I find irritating because it is not accurate and is, frankly, merely the problem-du-jour that drug companies are using as excuse to medicate children. The anarchist in me also rankles at the idea of a child as young as Clementine being sent to the principal for asking questions and being otherwise engaged with her surroundings. (I noticed that this aspect of plot was already mellowed in the second book in the series The Talented Clementine which leads me to believe I am not alone in my criticism).

Here’s what Clementine is really like: an exuberant, imaginative, creative child. Clementine’s teachers often accuse her of not paying attention, but as Clementine points out she notices lots of things that no on else even thinks to watch for. That’s on top of her great ideas that just pop into her head.

If you aren’t in love with this little girl yet, you will be once you start the book. The story is what I would consider a lower-level chapter book. The chapters are a few pages, but the print is large and broken up by Frazee’s wonderful illustrations that really bring Clementine and her family to life making this book ideal for a child to try to read themselves or to work through with a grown up.

Pennypacker does a great job here of capturing a real authenticity in Clementine’s narration. Her prose is child-like with a keen sense of perception and, even better, empathy and humor (readers never learn the name of Clementine’s baby brother because she insists on calling him names like “Rutabega” because it’s the only thing worse than being named after a fruit). Comparisons have been made between Clementine and Beverly Cleary’s Ramona. I am inclined to agree with the comparison and hope that Clementine will have the same staying power that Ramona has been lucky enough to enjoy.