Monday, May 26, 2014

Book Review: Clementine's Letter

Clementine's Letter by Sara Pennypacker, pictures by Marla Frazee

I picked up this book to introduce myself to the Clementine series, which I thought might be a good one for First Daughter. She loves books about precocious little girls and she loves books in a series so she can read a bunch one right after another.

The illustrations in this book are adorable; I love Marla Frazee, and so do my girls who recognize her style instantly from the many times they have gazed lovingly at her illustrations in The Seven Silly Eaters. I also loved how Clementine teasingly calls her little brother vegetable names (because her name is a fruit), different each time. They even take a trip to a Chinese grocery so she can learn new vegetable names. Her description of her brother's morning ritual of saying hi to each of his feet made my mother's heart happy.

Do you sense the "but" coming?

Right away I was a little concerned about the family of Margaret, Clementine's best friend. Her parents are divorced with her father living in Hollywood (making commercials) and visiting them in Boston one week out of the month. Divorced parents of friends in books is not great, but I could probably let it slide. What's more problematic is the mom's boyfriend, who seems to live with them. I'm not sure I want my seven year old daughter to think that's acceptable or normal, even though I realize out in the world that kind of thing is not uncommon anymore. Still, it makes me uncomfortable.

Even then, I thought...maybe...after all,  First Daughter is unlikely to really think the boyfriend is living with them since it's not overtly written in the story and she doesn't know about that sort of thing.

A subplot of the book, which isn't mentioned anywhere in the blurbs, is that Clementine would like to earn $20 to surprise her mother with an organizer for her art supplies. In itself, this is a great idea and could be a nice way to show how Clementine learns the value of hard work and perseverance. (Sense the "but?")

But, instead of working to earn the money, Clementine finds some bags in the basement under a sign that says "CHARITY COLLECTION - DONATE YOUR UNWANTED ITEMS FOR A GOOD CAUSE." It's even in all capital letters like that in the text. She pulls the stuff out of the bags and sets up a little rummage sale table in the lobby, quickly making $22 by selling it to other people in the building. She happily pockets the money, because buying her mom an art supplies organizer is a "good cause."

That's right: She steals from charity to buy her mom a present.

She does end up in trouble for this little escapade, but not as you'd expect. Are you ready for it?

The neighbors find out their friends were discarding what had been gifts from others in the building and were angry. They were angry at their friends for donating the gifts they had given and they were angry at Clementine for showing the whole building they had given away gifts they received. Clementine goes door-to-door, apologizing to all the tenants, not for stealing but for revealing their decision to donate the gifts.

Then Clementine and her father have a long talk about how she doesn't think through her actions. It's really sweet, actually, how he tries to guide her to being a better person, but he's oblivious. Clementine's transgression was not showing off what others had decided to do with their own belongings; it was taking the items in the first place.

Sigh, and then it gets a little bit worse. (Didn't think it could, did you?) When Clementine's father sees what she has bought with the money (which no one even contemplated asking her to give to the charity; he told her she had to offer to return the money to those who bought from her, but they all loved what they bought), he says, "Well, I guess it makes it better then--what you did. It's a good reason...wanting to make someone happy."

Oh dear.

A third grader's culpability for stealing charity items to see to buy her mother a present is certainly less than that of an adult stealing millions of dollars from an organization to buy illegal drugs and a mansion in the Canary Islands, but that's not the right response. Maybe something more like, "I understand you thought you had good reasons to do what you did, but it was still wrong to steal from the charity. What do you think you could do to make it right?"

In the end, Clementine asks if they can build a wall around the charity donation area so no one can see what others are donating.

Really? How about so no one can steal the donations?

She does put the extra $2 she earned inside the wall, for what that's worth. (Apparently, in Clementine's imaginary Boston, there's no sales tax. I wish there hadn't been sales tax when I lived in real Boston.)

To sum up, the rest of the Clementine books may be adorable and lovely, but we won't be reading them. I don't want to have to read them all and I wouldn't be comfortable putting any of the others in First Daughter's hands without reading them first.


  1. I often find myself looking books up on our library website when reading your posts, but not after this one. Thanks for the warning. Seems like I had seen these recommended somewhere.
    Love the new pics of the kids!

    1. I'm glad you often check out the books you read about here!

  2. That is a very helpful review. I appreciate that you took the time to be thorough about all of the questionable parts and why the presuppositions are all skewed from a Christian perspective. It's really too bad that the author failed again and again to realize the potential of this story. This is the kind of book that makes you want to write a better book yourself.

    1. Thanks for visiting my blog! When I was little, I used to think I'd write books someday, but now I think I've read enough really amazing ones to know I could never write something that would compare to those. Ah, well. I do wish this was the sweet little series I had anticipated it to be. I was surprised at all the reviews I read written by adults who read this book and not one of them seemed to see anything at all amiss.

  3. Is this the one that starts in the first couple of pages talking about how her teacher's name sounds like two different swear words? I stopped reading there. I was disappointed, because a couple of people had recommended this series to me.
    Have you seen the Amelia Bedelia chapter books? It's a newer series about a child Amelia Bedelia. I just bought the first three for Eliza and I'm pleased with them so far.

    1. I think that is an earlier book in the series, though there is mention of it in this one, too.

      I haven't seen any new Amelia Bedelia books. I was indifferent to the original books, but maybe I should check out the new ones.

  4. Hmm... seems my first comment didn't appear. I haven't read this Clementine book! My interest is piqued. I didn't get quite this vibe from the other books. I need to check this one out, it sounds like. I don't remember her friend's mom having a boyfriend--and certainly not one that lives with them. Either I missed it in the others or it's not played up as much perhaps? I do know that the last Clementine book is coming out this spring, and I plan to read it. I'll be watching for these issues.

    1. It's possible that the boyfriend doesn't live with them. It's not a big deal in the book, he just always seems to be there and there were some sentences that made me think he stayed overnight. I think my daughter would totally miss all of that, though. Really it was the whole stealing from charity thing that got me. I suppose I should try the other books because the problems may really be inherent in only this book. I'm looking forward to reading what you have to say about the new one.


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