Pros: well developed characters, an unlikely heroine, moving story, unpredictable ending
Cons: Absolutely, positively, NONE
Colorado Children's Book Award Richly Deserved!
Imagine this scenario: You're a fourth grade teacher trying to stimulate a dialogue between students in your Language Arts class and second graders, who are practicing their nascent writing skills. You think of an engaging premise ~ you tell your fourth graders to write letters to their second grade penpals, but to make their letters from a pretend mouse that lives in their younger penpal's desk. Fourth graders get to exercise their creativity and letter-writing skills; second graders also practice their skills and gradually get to know their older role-models. Sounds like a promising lesson plan? Well, it's not only an astute learning device, but it's also the backbone of a heartwarming and charming story which any elementary-aged child will adore.
Here's our main cast of characters:
Jenny ~ a fourth grader who is looking for an opportunity to shine in her class. She has difficulty at first with the letter-writing assignment ~ not everything comes as easy to her as it does to...
Susan ~ Susan is that girl that is always raising her hand and always has the correct answer. She writes the most perceptive letters. She has perfect spelling. She's a great mentor ~ she knows exactly what to say that will make her new penpal Daniel write clever letters back!
Sameera ~ Sameera has just moved to Jenny's school from Saudi Arabia. Sameera is the lucky second grader who got Jenny for a penpal... the only problem? Sameera doesn't understand English very well, and she certainly can't write Jenny a letter back ~ at least, not at first. The other second graders have a difficult time relating to Sameera, and it would be nice if someone could mentor her and help her come out of her shell.
If this sounds like a terrifically interesting friendship triangle, you've been bitten by the mouse who lives in Sameera's desk! That "mouse" is Jenny, and Jenny finally discovers a way to make a difference at school, and that in some ways, she really IS as clever as Susan. It's not easy though, and you'll grow to respect Jenny for her perseverance in overcoming obstacles in this book, and ultimately, her thoughtful handling of a situation that wasn't mail-ordered.
My thoughts about Dear Whiskers ~
First of all, my 9 year old checked out Dear Whiskers from her school library. It doesn't exactly have a cover that grabbed me at first, but I noticed that it won a Colorado Children's Book Award. The CCBA award is meaningful, because it means the book was selected for the honor by the children of Colorado ~ instead of by an adult committee.
After my daughter read Dear Whiskers, she begged me to read it too. That's not something she does very often, so I took her request seriously. As soon as I began, I immediately saw the book's appeal. From the first page, the protagonist (Jenny) struggles with her assignment. Things don't come super smoothly or easily to her, which makes her very easy to relate to. Also, she's the only one whose penpal doesn't write back at first ~ she wonders why, and if she did something wrong. Almost every person can relate to those feelings ~ we all feel like we've missed the boat sometimes, and why me??
I love how this story tracks the letter-writing unit over many months. It gives readers the notion that problems aren't always solved right away. Also, in the book, Jenny doesn't hit the nail on the head at first. Actually, she tries quite a few solutions to Sameera's situation before she finds a strategy that gets some results. Jenny shows so much tenacity and inner motivation ~ but she also has her self doubting moments. All in all, Jenny is a wonderful heroine in this book, but I was struck by how "ordinary" she really is. Indeed, this book goes out to all those ordinary kids who end up doing extraordinary things to make a difference!
Sameera is a wonderful foil to Jenny's character. She is truly a fish out of water at first, and I felt a lot of empathy for her situation. It would have been easy for Sameera to be lost in the shuffle as she struggled with learning English and making friends. But, Jenny somehow sensed that her role in Sameera's life was more than just a penpal. The book's ending was not only surprising, it brought tears to my eyes (and, indeed, even now while I'm writing this). It's not often that a chapter book with such a simple premise can have that kind of profound effect.
I won't reveal the ending ~ it's definitely worth finding out for yourself! If you have an elementary aged son or daughter, I highly recommend this chapter book. It would also be wonderful for a classroom read-aloud.
Author: Ann Whitehead Nagda
Illustrated by: Stephanie Roth
Hardcover: 64 pages
Publisher: Holiday House; 1st ed edition (October 2000)
keywords: "dear whiskers", "ann nagda", review
Note: I'm checking this book review into Laurashriti's Library writeoff. Laura ~ I'd love to hear your thoughts about Dear Whiskers if you've read it!