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Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Meanest Birthday Girl, written and illustrated by Josh Schneider. Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Thomas Allen & Son, 2013. $16.99 ages 6 and up

"In the morning, Dana made breakfast. She made the big white elephant an especially big and tasty breakfast, because it is important to take good care of one's pets. The big white elephant ate its breakfast. Then it looked at Dana. "Of course," said Dana, "an elephant as big and fine as you needs lots of food." She gave the big white elephant her own breakfast and it ate that, too."

Dana is not the kind of girl that many of us would like to meet...she only gets worse on her birthday! She is told that it is her day to do whatever she likes. That condition leads to some unpleasant moments for those who share her day.

At the bus stop, she begins by calling Anthony a name and then pinching him. To add further fuel to the fire, she eats her own two desserts at lunch and then eats Anthony's as well.
Anthony is some kind of special boy...he takes what she hands out throughout his school day; then, he arrives at Dana's house in the evening, with gift in hand. Well, not really in hand! It is too big a gift to hold, except by its large, white trunk.

Anthony leaves the gift with Dana, reminding her to take good care of it. Dana, who has always wanted an elephant, assures him that it is exactly what she will do. Easier said than done, it seems. Taking good care of an elephant is pretty hard work:

"They went for miles and miles, and still the big white elephant did not look tired. They went until Dana had to lie down for a bit. She had not slept well the night before, lying on the floor. She unpacked their snacks. The big white elephant ate its snack. Then it ate Dana's snack."

A bit of comeuppance? What do you think?

Exhaustion and an inability to react makes Dana a target for a girl named Gertrude. That gives Dana pause and leads to a heart-to-heart talk with Anthony. Their conversation gives Dana the out she needs from the bone-wearying work of being an elephant caregiver.

What a gift this is to beginning readers! A protagonist with little charm learns a gentle lesson in caring about others. The elephant helps with that, while never bullying her in any way. In the end, she is able to pay forward what she hopes Gertrude might learn in terms of her own treatment of others. The story is well-told, the ink and watercolor artwork entertains with clear images, clever expressive characters and humorous detail, and it begs to be read aloud.

How do you think Anthony got that elephant?

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