The tyranny of childhood takes many forms: penmanship counts, as does neatness. Both daydreaming and doodling are discouraged. Poor Rose — the scattered, imaginative protagonist of "I Will Never Get a Star on Mrs. Benson's Blackboard" — is suffering from these common varieties of childhood blues, out of synch with her teacher, Mrs. Benson, and her classmates. Rose stares dreamily into space while children around her eagerly raise their hands. She sketches a charming row of vehicles and animals on the chalkboard instead of listening to Mrs. Benson dictate a math problem.
It takes a visit from a painter with a Miro-like style to set Rose on the road to discovering her gifts and earning her star. But you don't have to be a visual artist to identify with Rose — shoelaces untied, braids askew, face adorably smudged. Being misunderstood and feeling out of step with your teacher and classmates is a feeling all children can keenly relate to. Many days even the kindest teachers can seem full of reproach.
Remember the James Marshall classic, "Miss Nelson Is Missing," the book about the docile teacher bullied by her students? The recalcitrant kids get their comeuppance when the severe "substitute," Miss Viola Swamp (spoiler: she's really Miss Nelson in a clever disguise), is dispatched to school them in manners.
On the cover of Mann’s book Mrs. Benson has a distinct, Miss Nelson vibe, post witchy makeover. The sketchy pen line and wash of watercolors are delightfully Marshall-esque. But Mrs. Benson isn’t as harsh as Viola Swamp. She laughs with her head thrown back and she knows a true artist when she sees one. In fact, by the end, Mrs. Benson even gets a star of her own.