Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things by Lenore Look, illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House. 2008. Personal Copy.
The Plot: Alvin Ho, second grader, is scared of a lot of things. Girls. School. Stuff. He does his best to handle them; for example, school? With the help of his older brother, Calvin, and younger sister, Anibelly, he prepares a PDK (personal disaster kit), complete with emergency plans. And, of course, there is the whole "not talking in school" thing.
Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters
by Lenore Look, illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House. 2009. ARC.
Alvin's back; still not talking in school. Still sitting next to Flea. Still sort of hanging with the gang. Except now his father has decided camping is what Alvin needs. Camping!! That's a whole lot of things for Alvin to be afraid of, er, allergic to, from thunderstorms to running out of food to no TV to a "pit toilet."
Alvin is such a great seven year old! And Look does a masterful job of showing the complexities, humor, and politics of the elementary school world. Kids will be laughing and enjoying the typical things Alvin encounters: a friend with chicken pox, playing Houdini, breaking something he shouldn't have borrowed and dealing with the consequences.
Alvin doesn't talk in school; outside of school, he does. He is digging holes in the backyard, he is "Firecracker Man," he is playing with his friends and striving to "be a gentleman" like his father.
Alvin's not-talking is not part of the plot. Nope, it's just part of who he is. Flea (aka Sophie), his friend from school, wears an eye patch and has one leg longer than the other. There is no drama about that; no "life lessons". It's just who she is. Period. Which is great, and much better than turning Alvin or Flea (or their friend Jules who is just Jules, maybe a boy, maybe a girl, no one cares) into an "after school special" lesson.
These books are not "and then Alvin found his voice"; they are not "and here is the traumatic reason he cannot talk in school." These are books for younger kids; they don't need a found-voice moment. They don't need a reason. They all know - -school is scary. The idea of someone not talking in school? Scary ... but oddly, reassuring, to know that other kids are that scared. And to know that however scared they are, they are not as scared as Alvin.
Alvin cries. And never, ever, not even by his siblings, is he mocked or called cry-baby. Matter of factly he tells us, "crying is great. You always feel better afterward." And isn't that true?
For the grown-ups reading along with children, this also offers something deeper. Alvin lives in Concord, Mass. The first book touches on the kids recreating Revolutionary War battles on the schoolyard: "The best thing about history, as everyone knows, is that you can play at recess." The second, Henry David Thoreau. There is a great dream sequence with HDT.
Kids may not pick up on Alvin being Asian American. If they don't consciously notice, they will still pick up, even if they don't know it, that books (like life) contains people of all sorts of backgrounds, with different foods, and different nicknames for grandparents. Or, they may notice -- because they or a friend or family member is Asian American, and they have noticed not being reflected in the books they read. Either way, it's a win.
© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy