My first day of school last week went well. I love reuniting with my students, now all a grade older with teeth missing or new front teeth, braces on, shorter hair, longer hair, new glasses, big smiles, new clothes...We all hope for great first days of school but when an evil seat stealer, Mary Sue, who knows film star, "Jessica Walsh", out-interests a Zombie frog in the annual first day summer speech "contest", things just go downhill from there for our friend, Gertie.
Gertie lives with her great Aunt Rae. Her dad works on an oil rig off the coast of Alabama and gets to come home for two weeks at a time. He enjoys his job and it provides for his family. Embedded nicely as a second theme in the story, you would never guess this occupation could cause such distress for innocent Gertie.
It's hard to imagine any mother leaving their child, especially Gertie. So when Gertie notices the "For Sale" sign out on Rachel Collins's (it pains me to call her Gertie's mother, but she is) lawn of her house on the "impressively housey Jones Street" Gertie embarks on her mission to show her that she is the best fifth grader ever. As adults we can only imagine how badly this could end up and how Gertie must be feeling. It certainly doesn't help that Audrey, the kindergartener Aunt Rae watches after school, absolutely loves "The Waltons." I can completely relate. My parents divorced when I was really young and I spent my entire childhood wishing we'd somehow become "The Brady Bunch."
Phase after phase, Gertie perseveres to become the best fifth grader ever. But things just keep getting in the way. Career day. A lobbyist. Mary Sue's party. Evangelina and an unforgettable visit to the office.
Debut novelist, Kate Beasley has done it! How much more poetic can her descriptions within this prose get? There is the "crackling category 5 speech" and the "twinkies that tasted like despair" and saying something "quickly like she was ripping off a Band-Aid" and "Fifth grade was a dragon, and she had beaten it like a pinata." Those are just the ones I caught because I actually stopped reading for a moment to get a sticky note or jot them down. The book is filled with them.
The character descriptions are incredibly vivid and spot-on genius, too. And although, Caldecott honor winning illustrator, Jillian Tamaki, has some lovely illustrations sprinkled throughout the book, they really aren't necessary. I can picture Aunt Rae, Audrey, best friend Junior, teacher Ms. Simms, seat stealer Mary Sue, and especially Gertie, with her "brown hair which she wore in a ponytail that stuck straight out the top of her head, which encouraged blood flow to her brain, which made her have lots of ideas."
There are times tears will well up in your eyes and other times you will laugh out loud. Your stomach may get in knots sometimes and you may hold your breath there at the end. You will want to brush up on your capitals and buy some twinkies and gold wrapped chocolates to have nearby when you get the craving. A little Kevin Henkes's, The Year of Billy Miller feel with the southern twang of Mo and Dale from Sheila Turnage's Three Times Lucky, this book is a winner.
My name is Rattner. Stacey Rattner. And I say LEAP don't walk to get your hands on a copy of this book as soon as you can.