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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Review: EllRay Jakes in Not a Chicken by Sally Warner

First off, I must admit to being a relatively new reader in the world of children's or middle-grade books. When I do read them they tend to be more along the fantasy track, thus a middle-grade book about a normal, contemporary kid is a very new thing for me. So when I say that Sally Warner's "EllRay Jakes is Not a Chicken" surprised me, I'm not sure if it is because I am new to this or if elements of this book are truly surprising.

EllRay Jakes is eight years old. He's also the smallest kid in his class, so it comes as no surprise when he has problems with a bully. EllRay has kind and attentive parents and teachers, even many of the girls in his class tend to look out for him (including Emma McGraw of Warner's Emma series), but there is no escaping Jared Matthews - the class bully. EllRay doesn't know what he's done to cause this war with Jared, some kids are just mean he guesses, but if EllRay wants to make it to Disneyland he's going to have to stay out of trouble. That means staying away from Jared.

All of this sounds pretty typical, right? A cute story with funny illustrations (by Jamie Harper) and a bullying theme. What struck me about the book were EllRay's observations. He's at an age where he is recognizing the subtle differences between the interactions of girls and those of boys, mainly being that girls talk about their problems while boys ignore them. EllRay also makes clever judgments about the thoughts and lives of his teacher and parents. I guess what I'm trying to say is that Sally Warner has written a book that says to kids, "hey, this is how life is, so let's be nice to each other" without being overbearing about it (and consequently being ignored).

The other thing that really surprised me about this book was the mention of racism. Of course this is something that kids deal with, but how many middle grade authors can deal with it without racism becoming the story or worse yet becoming the soapbox that kids will ignore. EllRay Jakes is an African American kid new to a majority Caucasian town and school; when his father finds out about the bullying he worries that race may be the reason behind it. I didn't expect to see this touched upon and then handled so well by the author and her characters. "EllRay Jakes is Not a Chicken" is a lessons book without feeling like one. It outwardly teaches about bullying, how and why it happens (hint: in EllRay's case it has nothing to do with race). However, it teaches more subtle lessons about communication and equality, from the biggest and lightest to the smallest and darkest, in a fun and often funny package. This is a great book for kids to read on their own and learn from or to discuss with their parents.

Advance Reading Copy reviewed from Penguin Group

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