Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Book Review: About Average by Andrew Clements (2012)

About Average, Andrew Clements’s latest school story, is about Jordan Johnston, a girl who feels terribly average. She’s okay at a lot of things, but feels great at only a few, and those things are continually mocked by a mean girl in her class who found her “Things I’m Good At” list in the trash. Jordan tries her hardest to be nice against all odds and basically kill her classmate with kindness, but it’s difficult, and Jordan doubts whether it will work. She also doubts that she will ever discover the great talent that will prove she is extraordinary. Little does she know that disaster will strike, and she, Jordan Johnston, will be the one with the skills needed to save the day...

I can always see the influence of Clements’s teaching career in his stories. Every child he creates is so real, and whenever I visit classrooms or see groups of kids in my library, I can pick out the kids who resemble his characters in some way. This time, he’s written about that introverted, sweet kid who wants to be special, but can’t see past her shortcomings, and who bullies make their easy target. In some ways, Jordan reminds me of Mattie Breen in Linda Urban’s Hound Dog True. She’s a character you want to root for, and whose innate goodness and sweetness are her most appealing qualities, but also the qualities that make her the most vulnerable.

As in his other books, Clements fleshes out this story by occasionally switching to an adult’s point of view. The climax of the story is set up by brief chapters featuring a weather forecaster from the local radio station. Jordan’s teacher, Mrs. Lermon, also gets to have her say, which helps the reader understand Jordan’s role among her classmates. I think this technique works so well in each of Clements’s books, and it’s successful again in About Average.

I think my favorite part of the entire story is the connection to Sarah, Plain and Tall. Because of that book, Jordan begins to think of herself as “Jordan, Plain and Average” and Kylie, a pretty girl in her class, as “Kylie, Cute and Tall”, “Kylie, Kind and Cool” and “Kylie, Strong and Skilled.” These labels work really well to help the reader understand how Jordan sees herself in relation to the rest of the world. It’s also really emotionally satisfying when the “plain and average” label recurs on the last page of the book, with a transformed and positive connotation.

This is a gentle book, with an emotional ending that brought very surprising tears to my eyes. Clements fans won’t be disappointed, and any girl feeling useless or left out will take heart after learning what happens to Jordan. In addition to Hound Dog True, this book also compares well to some of the contemporary American Girl books, including the Kanani and McKenna books.

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