Friday, August 10, 2018

Beatrice Zinker--and Stories of Friendship

A few grad school friends and I continue our passion for children's literature by having a monthly book club. We read everything from picture books and early readers through young adult fiction--generally focusing popular titles that have been published in the last few years. One of this month's selections was the chapter book Beatrice Zinker, Upside Down Thinker by Shelley Johannes.

Quick Plot: Beatrice is an unusual middle child who does her best thinking upside down. At the end of second grade, she and her best friend Lenny agree to wear their ninja costumes to school on the first day of third grade to begin a top-secret operation. But, Lenny goes to the Philippines to visit family for the summer and comes back to school with a new friend Chloe--who definitely does not think upside down. Beatrice and Lenny's top secret operation and their friendship seem to be on the line, and it takes some deep thinking and clever planning for Beatrice to pull everything all together.

Of all the chapter books we've read thus far, I enjoyed this one the most. The protagonist Beatrice had a spunky off-kilter personality that reminded me a lot of another chapter book favorite, Clementine by Sara Pennypacker. Johannes's illustrations do what great illustrations should do--they compliment and enhance the text. Adults were present in Beatrice's world, loving and full of personality but never pedantic. Beatrice used her knowledge of Lenny, her own quirky interests, and a little bit of thinking time to come up with solutions to her problems independently.

Near the end of the book, Beatrice recounts her school day to her neighbor Mrs. Jenkins, Mr.s Jenkins says this about friendships: "Life's like that. It's always shifting and changing. That's why most friendships last only for a season. But occasionally you find a really special one--and you grow with each other, instead of apart."

And that, naturally, got me thinking about my friendship with Rachel and the whole premise of this blog. It also got me thinking about the nature of friendships.

A lot of chapter books, generally aimed at lower elementary school students who are moving up from tiny early readers and developing their reading endurance skills, deal with issues of friendship or family. It can become a little bit formulaic--predictable for an adult reader--but these are real issues for kids in second and third grade.

What age do we stop talking about friendships as a central focus of the plot? I'd hazard a guess that it happens around the time when first crushes come stumbling out in middle grade fiction (and in real life). Life's seasons move on from "Kissing is gross" to "Huh, this kissing thing sounds interesting, and maybe I should investigate it firsthand," and suddenly friendship seems to matter less.

I can honestly think of more instances in modern movies of male friendships that endure long-term than female friendships (but that's probably at least in part because I watch more action flicks than any other genre). So often, the female character's romantic relationship seems to be the central focus of her life. See also: The Bechdel Test. How often are two women in conversation about anything other than a man? The Best Friend is the person who has the Female Protagonist's back when she is trying to decide what to do about her romantic relationship.

I would love to see more, and more, and more female characters who get to be friends and face friendship challenges that don't have to do with romances. I'd love for more friendships in fiction to be the really special ones instead of the ones that last only for a season. Not only female friendships, but also enduring female romantic relationships would be spectacular <3

In that spirit, here's one book I'm looking forward to: EK Johnston's The Afterward. Just take a look at all the epic fantasy ladies in practical armor on this cover:


Then go read the excerpt!


This transformed from a response to a chapter book to a tumble into books I'm excited for, so it's definitely time to sign out. Got any favorite books or movies where friendship is a central focus?

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