Ever had something slip out of your mouth that you immediately wished you could call back? Join the club. As adults, we know how embarrassing it feels to open mouth, insert foot. We also know it isn’t the end of the world. Well, we eventually know that.
But when it happens to a first grader who lacks life experience, then what? When the lead character in Audrey Vernick’s First Grade Dropout (illus by Matthew Cordell, Clarion, 2015) accidentally calls his teacher “Mommy,” and everybody – everybody – laughs at him, he’s mortified and discombobulated.
Written in first person POV, the voice engages a reader immediately. According to the unnamed MC:
“I’ve been lots of things. Hungry. Four years old. Crazy bored. Soaking wet. Wrapped up like a mummy in toilet paper. (Don’t ask.)”
One thing he hasn’t been is really, really embarrassed. How he handles the fallout of his slip is funny and absolutely child-like. After brainstorming a variety of ways to avoid further humiliation, he finally decides he may have to drop out of first grade. But, boy, that would mean he’d miss out on a lot. He finally learns to deal, naturally. And it feels exactly right.
Humor and heart. A combination that gets me every time. I love how Audrey Vernick took a universal, we’ve-all-been-there idea and zoomed in on one sensitive little guy. Readers/listeners can’t help but empathize – and learn something about human nature without even knowing they’re doing so.
I asked Audrey a few questions about this charmer.
What sparked this story idea?
I had it on a PiBoIdMo list–“kid calls teacher mommy,” something I know happens in my sister’s second-grade classroom and elementary classes everywhere. But I left it on that list, untouched, for a long time, because I knew by itself it wasn’t really a picture book. One day I decided to give it a shot and I found myself writing in that voice.
Was the text always written in 1st person POV?
Always and I think it was that first person POV that made it enough of a story. The voice combined with the embarrassing moment in a way that made a difference–each was necessary, neither was big enough to carry a book by itself. (I did learn, however, that you give reviewers a perhaps unnecessary challenge when you don’t give a name to your main character.)
Was there any part of the story that was tough to get right?
The ending! When my editor acquired it, she told me the ending needed work. I can’t remember the original ending but very clearly remember how LONG and how OFF my first revision attempt was. If I had only looked at the manuscript, I’d have noticed that it had all these short, staccato lines in the beginning and middle and sprawling paragraphs at the end. WHAT was I thinking?
One of my favorite touches, near the end of the book, is when the MC and his pal Tyler go off to play basketball, and Tyler calls a jump shot a “junk shot.” This provides a fabulous “moment” between the two boys that I won’t give away. But I have to ask … is the term “junk shot” from real life?
It’s not! I had planted jump shot earlier without knowing I’d come back to it. It was one of those things my fingers typed almost before my brain even thought it–junk shot. Fun fact: I know the book will be published in France and I am dying to know how they translate that part–jump shot/junk shot. It might be hilarious or horrible or bizarre.
Read an insightful review of First Grade Dropout in the Boston Globe here.
So, to Audrey: Thanks for dropping by, and thanks for this wonderful book!
To the rest of you: If you haven’t yet had a chance to get your hands on a copy of this one, I hope you’ll put it on your must-read list. You’ll be glad you did!
Audrey Vernick writes picture books and middle grade novels. A two-time recipient of the New Jersey Arts Council’s fiction fellowship, Audrey divides her time between writing and visiting schools. (And, if we’re going to be honest, not writing.) She has three picture books releasing in 2016 and the middle-grade novel Two Naomis, co-written with Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. You can visit her at www.audreyvernick.com.