It’s really hard to keep up with all my reading—I’ve been reading a lot, mostly picture books and poetry for kids. I had 26 books checked out, but then I had to return them, having renewed them all twice, without really reading them as thoroughly as I had hoped. I have the printouts from the checkout machine, so I can track them down again. Meanwhile, this is what I’ve read most recently:
By Esme Raji Codell
Hyperion Books For Children, New York, 2003
Middle grade novel, 175 pages, no illustrations
Sahara Special is the story of a girl who has to repeat 5th grade. She writes in her journal that she wants to be a writer and her teacher, new to the school, writes, “I believe you.”
I love this book. I have read it 3 times. I study it to see how Esme has developed the characters—there is no “information dump”, as Arthur Levine called it at the recent SCBWI-IL Spring Thaw. We jump right into the story and into the problem of the story (Sahara misses her father, who abandoned her and her mother) and we are drawn to Sahara immediately by her unique and compelling voice.
Sahara is called “Sahara Special” because she was required to sit in the hall with the special needs teacher the year she failed fifth grade. The way the story is told, we, the readers, know something that the other characters do not. We share the secret with Sahara, that she is really smart and articulate, which we know through her first-person narration of the story. Her descriptions and ability to draw characters, and ultimately her essay about her name reveal her to be a gifted writer. But she hides this from all her teachers and classmates. It is only Miss Pointy, the new fifth grade teacher, who does not know Sahara’s history, who makes up her mind for herself, who suspects that there are sides to Sahara which have not been revealed.
This is a warm and unsentimental school story. I loved the setting—an urban school--, Sahara’s classmates, her teachers, and her mother. And I was rooting for Sahara all the way through. Even though I have never flunked a grade and my father never left us, I felt Sahara’s emotions and I identified strongly with her at every turn. It did not hurt that I, too, wanted to become a writer. This book is worthy of a Newbery.