As a kid, most of my favorite authors wrote funny, fast-paced romps. If you'd asked me my favorite author when I was between the ages of eight to thirteen or so, I almost certainly would have told you Gordon Korman. His books were (and are, for the most part) hilarious, and I'm sure I'll be featuring one of his titles in the near future.
When my fourth grade teacher tried to introduce me to some children's literature with more serious themes, I'll have to admit that I wasn't overly receptive. In fact, I think I more or less told her I liked to pick out my own books, thank you very much. I kind of thought I was a hot shot in fourth grade, and it still haunts me a little because my teacher died when I was eleven. I didn't realize what a rare and kind teacher she was at the time. One day I got all upset because she called me "Katherine" instead of Kate when I was goofing off with the kid who sat next to me. I demanded that she make me a new name tag. I think she must have been used to fourth graders because she didn't really respond to my attitude--she just made the new name tag for me; one that said Kate instead of Katherine. I wasn't really expecting her to actually do it, and many teachers would have ignored my request.
She also had excellent taste in books. One of the books she tried to get me to read was Michelle Magorian's Good Night, Mr. Tom. I read it after she died, and it became one of my favorites. She even read our class a chapter of The Bears' House, which was a bold move.
The Bears' House is depressing and extremely realistic, especially considering its young audience. I think my teacher may have only read a chapter of the book to us because she was worried we couldn't handle it, and she may have been right. I remember very distinctly what happened when she read us the first paragraph of the book:
"Everybody in my class knows my name. It's Fran Ellen Smith. I'm nearly ten. I suck my thumb, and everybody says I smell bad" (1).
We laughed at this, proving that kids really can be a bunch of insensitive bastards. Our teacher pointed out that it wasn't at all funny. It was sad. In my memory, there's a bit of silence as we all realized she was right, this was sad.
Fran Ellen doesn't just smell bad and suck her thumb. Her dad is AWOL and her mother is "sick." It's vaguely implied that her mother has a substance abuse problem. They're on welfare. Her brother Fletcher, a junior high schooler, tries his best to hold things together for his four little sisters. Fran Ellen cares for infant Flora, even running home from school at recess and lunch to check in on her.
The baby regularly drinks bottles of Kool-Aid, and the kids get by on canned ravioli and pork and beans. Her classmates team up and bully her, and Fran Ellen responds by sucking her thumb and yelling, "Who are you hitting?" Her teacher isn't much help, and always tells Fran Ellen to stand further away because "she doesn't care to have me and my smell too close" (22).
When she can, Fran Ellen escapes to the world of The Bears' House, a doll house that her teacher had as a little girl. Goldilocks and the three bears live in the house, and though Fran Ellen enjoys admiring all of the little details, she does not handle anything. She just imagines that she lives in the house, too; that she has a safe and happy place where she is loved and cared for:
"Papa Bear says, 'One thing I always wanted was a daughter.' He looks right at me when he says it, and I kind of giggle and look away." (27)
What's particularly amazing and unusual about The Bears' House is how achingly raw it is. Though the ending is beautiful and hopeful, as Fran Ellen's teacher finally comes to her aid, there is no resolution to the story. It's almost more of an intimate, developed character sketch. For a children's book, it's a surprisingly sophisticated portrayal, and it was even nominated for the National Book Award.
The Bears' House opens up all sorts of issues that people would rather brush aside, making it a brave read-aloud choice. We may have all cried two years later over the read-aloud classic Where the Red Fern Grows, but The Bears' House made us all a tiny bit less insensitive, and a little more human.
Up next: my first request, 4B Goes Wild by Jamie Gilson.