18 April 2009

The Paradoxes of Alvin Ho

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things, by Lenore Look, was one of the finalists for last year's Cybils Awards in the category of Middle-Grade Fiction. Its strengths are humor, lively brush illustrations by LeUyen Pham, an unusually broad picture of the American population, and a good sense of life for an imaginative and scared-to-death second-grader.

Yes, Alvin's in second grade, though the book is written for kids up to age 10--i.e., significantly older than the protagonist. Furthermore, Alvin isn't the sort of second-grader that most other second-graders, or even first-graders, look up to. As with Junie B. Jones, this story breaks the usual pattern of showing young readers a hero they might aspire to be like. Instead, it gives them a first-person narrator they can feel a little superior to.

Look's subtitle lays out two of Alvin's biggest problems: girls and school. But they stand for a great many more fears that he lays out for us early on. Worry about girls is hardly crippling, given that Alvin's a second-grade boy. But in school, Alvin can't speak in class.

The book isn't about Alvin overcoming that fear, however. Nor most of his others. Eventually a secondary goal pops up: trying to be a gentleman. He also manages to (re)make a friend who happens to be a girl. (To be exact, she's a girl with physical disabilities, which gives rise to a nagging suspicion that their friendship isn't a bridge across gender lines so much as an alliance of potential outcasts.)

If anything, in fact, Alvin has more fears at the end of the book than at the start. His parents have signed him up for piano lessons, but he decides the teacher is a witch out of "Hansel and Gretel" and never goes back. There are a variety of other episodes, with Alvin's adult relatives showing their own comic potential. There's even a baseball-through-the-window moment, though without serious consequences. But for me those episodes didn't add up to much more than episodes. I kept waiting for the novel to kick in.

Yes, we've come to expect early novels to show kids suffering a problem and then working to overcome it (or just get over it). That's what we see in the series that Stephanie Greene started with Owen Foote, Super Strongman, for instance: a second-grade boy dealing with common worries in uncommon ways that other early-elementary boys can look up to. Alvin Ho doesn't work like that, which some folks have found refreshing. But I wasn't convinced the book worked in a new way, either.

Of course, if Alvin were to overcome his most significant fears, there might not have been room for a sequel.

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