‘First Grade Dropout’
By Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Matthew Cordell, Clarion, $16.99, ages 4-8
Although his slipup didn’t involve nudity or bodily functions, the narrator of “First Grade Dropout” can’t bear to face the rest of his class at Lakeview Elementary after yesterday’s mortifying moment. Don’t mistake him for some oversensitive rube, though. The boy with the blushing cheeks has moved through extreme emotional states before: “I’ve been lots of things. Hungry. Four years old. Crazy bored. Soaking wet. Wrapped up like a mummy in toilet paper. (Don’t ask).”
Despite his worldly experience the boy is rattled. He can’t help reliving his shameful gaffe and his classmates’ reaction. The moments that led to his infamy were ordinary enough. At the ready with an answer to a question (“shish kabob”), the boy raised his hand, waited his turn, and called his teacher — Mommy. The whole class erupted in gales, including his best friend, Tyler.
Wallowing and yet feeling superior, he thinks of his own stoicism in the face of his classmates’ most embarrassing moments. He would never laugh at a kid slipping on a banana peel or someone whose drink spurted out of her nose. Or would he?
The first charm of “First Grade Dropout” is the appealing unreliability of the narrator — maybe he did laugh when Tyler’s turtle costume fell off last year after all. The second is his imagination — heightened, it seems, by desperation and shame. He thinks of his fellow first- graders, dressed “like a big marching band of laughing people,” hats emblazoned with the word “Mommy.” He dreams up innovative ways to avoid returning to school including time travel and the casting of spells. Ultimately, though, it is real-life friendship and a flash of self-awareness that redeem the narrator.
There is so much story depth and character development in this charmer about friendship, forgiveness, and flexibility that it reads like an excerpt from a chapter book. The comic illustrations match the text, capturing the narrator’s antics and panic with equal levels of perceptiveness and energy. “First Grade Dropout” is a just right book for sensitive grade-schoolers who like a good joke and are just learning how to laugh at themselves.