Clarice Bean– Bridget Jones as a Youth? She’s Not Just for Girls!

You know what the Brits call pigs’ feet?  Trotters.  Are you picturing a bunch of pink pigs trotting around their pen right now?  I am.  I love that term!  It’s perfect.  I learned it reading Clarice Bean. Her stories are told in diary format, and have a sense of humor reminiscent of the Bridget Jones diaries.   “Clarice Bean!  Will you please come back down to Earth this instant!”  That would be British school marm Mrs. Wilberton, teacher of Clarice and possessor of trotters (according to our narrator).  Mrs. Wilberton is exasperated with Clarice yet again and old-school enough to broadcast it to the class every chance she gets.  But don’t worry about Clarice.  She’s a survivor.   In her first book, Utterly Me, Clarice Bean, she’s quite full of moxie indeed, modeling herself after her favorite book character, Ruby Redfort, school girl detective.  But when a book report contest provides an opportunity to win the class prize, Clarice is ready to rise to the challenge.  And though she’s no academic match for her rival, goody-goody Grace Grapelli, Clarice is at the top of her game when the prize trophy vanishes and the mystery needs to be solved.

At their core, the Clarice Bean books are not vastly different from Judy Moody books or Ramona books:  spunky, quirky character faces school daze problems and said spunk/quirkiness carries her through.  But, what was groundbreaking about author/graphic artist Lauren Child’s style, back in ’02, was that she creatively exploited every available feature of the book she presented to her young audience to bring Clarice alive.  That is, well before Dairy of a Wimpy Kid‘s Jeff Kinney brought us pages that have a sixth grader’s doodles in the margins and a font that looks like kid scrawl, Child infused the very print on the page– normal Times New Roman, or whatever– with an expressive quality reflective of Clarice’s unique voice.  Bold print, italics, yeah, but how about swirling print and sideways print, with font size adjusted to match Clarice’s frame of mind?  And using wonderful collage images in unconventional places to illustrate a point?  I wish I could show you an example, because that’s the only way to do Child’s work justice, but, bear with me and picture this page:

I can’t concentrate because I am busy imagining Mrs. Wilberton as a hippopotamus, and I am writing [childlike scrawl font here]: Mrs. Wilberton is a hippipotimis.  Mrs. Wilberton is a hippipotimis. over and over again without really meaning to.  And what I am unaware of is that Mrs. Wilberton is standing behind me, reading it.  She says, “Can anyone here correctly spell the word hippopotamus for Clarice Bean?”  And here, barging in from the right side of the page is a photograph of a hippo with hand-drawn cat glasses, a la Wilberton.  Clarice doesn’t say she pictured this.  She doesn’t have to.  The picture deepens our understanding of who Clarice is. And, personally, I can’t get enough of her.

Book two in the series, Clarice Bean Spells Trouble, won critical acclaim from librarians as well as kids.  In it, there’s a spelling bee, a musical theater rendition of The Sound of Music (alas, our Clarice is stuck playing one of the nuns), and most heartwarming, a blooming friendship between Clarice and the class trouble-maker, Carl Wrenbury.  Only Clarice, with her individualist nature and blatant disregard for authority, is willing to look beyond Karl’s behavior and extend the hand of friendship to a boy in need of understanding.  Fewer illustrations but more heart, it’s a fantastic read.

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