Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel

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My dad thinks that there are books out there being written just so that they will win prizes. (He’s speaking of grown up books, of course). This gets him all fired up. (He’s Irish, so it doesn’t take much). While I don’t agree with him completely, I do think he has a point, and I don’t believe that his comments need apply strictly to adult books. I had a conversation with a parent of a former student just last week. Her daughter is a tremendous reader – confident and with eclectic taste. This mother was bemoaning the fact that so many prize-winning books get recommended to her daughter by librarians and booksellers, and then her daughter can’t get through them. This concern is not one that should be ignored by those who read, sell and recommend books to children. It’s a big problem, because honestly, we must always ask ourselves, “Will a kid like this?” It can’t just be about whether or not we feel the book has something important to teach kids, or whether it is beautiful and moving. And a lot of the time, prize-winners may have worthy themes and gorgeous writing, but turn out to be about as interesting as a doorstop to a child (even a child who is bright and book-loving).

Enter Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel.  Now here is a book that deserves plenty of critical attention and kids will love it. Ruth McNally Barshaw has got the whole package with this one. Ellie McDoodle’s Mom and Dad have a funeral to go to, and so they send Ellie and her crazy little brother Ben-Ben to spend about a week with their cousins. Ellie is none too pleased about this, since she finds all of her relatives profoundly weird (and totally irritating). But at least she has her journal/sketchbook/spy book to record all of the family happenings, and to give her space for emotional and artistic release. The book traces the events of the trip, all from Ellie’s perspective. There’s a little adventure, humour, mystery and budding romance along the way.

The book is part graphic novel (more of a gentle introduction to the genre than anything else), part scrapbook / art journal, part middle grade story. What I imagine will be appealing to kids is the honesty and naturalness of Ellie’s voice. Ruth McNally Barshaw has it pitch-perfect. I love how Ellie completely judges her extended family, on very little evidence, and then just moves right along, confident in her judgment. This is what kids do! There isn’t a lot of time spent describing or characterizing Aunt Ug and Uncle Ewing – and yet we get them. I think kids will appreciate how concise it is, and I don’t think much is lost in the believability of the characters. Barshaw’s drawings are funny and understated.

There are plenty of books out there for “reluctant boy readers,” especially graphic novels. I like that Ellie McDoodle will be just right for so many early middle grade girls, who aren’t sure if reading is exactly their “thing.” It will also be perfect in the hands of girls who love to be creative, wacky and who have artistic aspirations.

Ellie McDoodle is up for a Cybils award in the Middle Grade category. If it wins, kids and kids lit lovers, will both have something to cheer about. (By the by… Bloomsbury people, if you’ve got a copy for me – Middle Grade panelist that I am – send ‘er over!) 

For other bloggers’ reviews, see:
Fuse 8
Becky’s Book Reviews
read, read, read

Ellie McDoodle is published by Bloomsbury.

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