Monday, April 18, 2011

The Little Red Pen

By Susan Stevens Crummel
Illustrated by Janet Stevens
Harcourt, 2011
$16.99, ages 4-8, 56 pages 

A high-strung pen incites a drawer full of school supplies to help her grade papers, in this hilarious twist on two beloved fables.

The award-winning Stevens sisters play with themes from Chicken Little (the folly of hysteria) and The Little Red Hen (the importance of hard work) to suggest a funny new lesson:

Spreading unfound fear and panic can help get a job done -- especially if you're a paranoid pen in a storybook and you're working with a gullible set of school supplies.

One day after class, a red correction pen in glasses and a pointy red cap proclaims in Chicken Little fashion that a catastrophe will occur -- if papers aren't corrected before students return the next day.

However, like Little Red Hen, she can't find anyone to help her.

"If the papers aren't graded, the students won't learn," The Little Red Pen rants from a pile of papers, getting more panicked by the sentence. "The school might close. The walls might tumble. The floors might crumble. The sky might fall. It might be the end of the world."

Skulking in the top drawer of the teacher's desk, Stapler, Pencil, Pushpin, Scissors, Eraser and Felt-Tip aren't buying it and they definitely don't want to help. So they pull themselves up and reply, "Not I!" much like the red hen's farmyard companions.

But being the hard-tipped gal that she is, The Little Red Pen doesn't just glide away.

With hands planted at her waist, she bosses back, "Why not?" -- prompting the school supplies to launch into a list of excuses, each humorously tied to what happens to them when they're used day after day.

Stapler holds his gray back (the metal head) with his hands and moans: "My back is killing me! Everybody keeps pounding on it…", while Pencil complains that he thanklessly writes all day only to get sharpened down to a nub.

Pushpin is big-headed inside and out: she is "la ultimo chincheta," so she claims. (Spanish for, the ultimate pushpin). With a Flamenco flower pinned to her plastic blue head, she replies that she won't risk being lost (the fate of many pushpins that come out of the drawer).

Then there is Scissors whose handle, technically two "eye rings," are smartly illustrated as glasses. He complains that he's been cutting up all day and can't afford to get any duller. "Not good for a sharp guy like me!"

Eraser slumps over and pokes his head with his fingers as if it were putty, oblivious to what's going on. (He's been very forgetful since his head began shrinking from being rubbed on paper.)

Then there's Felt-Tip, who doesn't want to risk having his cap left off, his ink drying up and him being pitched into the most dreaded place ever: "The Trash." You see, no office supply ever comes back from the Pit.

With a dismissive reply of "Rubbish!", the Little Red Pen scolds the drawer dwellers that they can't spend their office lives worrying about wearing out; when there's work to be done, they just need to do it, she adds.

(Readers will get a giggle at the irony of the pen acting like the level-headed one when moments ago she was in a tizzy about the world ending.)

So why not ask Tank, the class hamster, to help with the grading? Scissors snaps back. After all, he's part of the classroom too.

He's too lazy, she scolds, then twirls off to correct the papers by herself. But as the night wears on, Pen gets so tired from scritching and scratching that she falls over exhausted.

Right off the edge of the desk.

The school supplies hear a clunk and climb out of the desk drawer to discover Pen is gone, but they have no idea where.

Pencil flips out and cries, "The sky is falling! It's the end of the world." Could it be true, as Pen warned, that the world will end if the papers aren't graded?

Not knowing what to believe and fearing the worst, they decide to band together and do what they do best -- cut, staple, mark and erase -- to grade the piles of papers.

Only that's a problem.

Scissors snips out grammatical mistakes, Stapler staples - "Bam! Bam! Bam! - over writing errors while Felt-Tip covers them in neon green ink, only to have Eraser erase everything on the page. Oh no! "Que desastre!" Push-pin cries out, as they all flop down on the desk.

In a dramatic final plea, Felt-Tip stands up, stretches his arms out to the empty classroom and yells, "Who will save the world?"

Suddenly, down off the edge of the desk, the supplies hear a far-off voice, "I will!"  It's The Little Red Pen from the bottom of the trash bin. But how will they ever get her back up on the desk?

Luckily, Felt-Tip has a bright idea -- he calls on Paper Clip Box to toss out his clips and have them hook together. But oops. Now Eraser has fallen into the Pit too, and he and The Little Red Pen are too heavy to pull out with the clip chain.

Could the supplies find a way to get a sleepy, overweight hamster to help them rescue their friends? Or will they just end up running in circles?

An absolute gem, this is one of those books that never stays on the library shelf because everyone wants to read it.

When I read it to my youngest son's first grade class, not one child fidgeted. Their eyes were wide with wonder and they didn't just giggle, they burst into laughter.

The biggest laughs came from Chincheta's highfalutin phrases and the banter among the office supplies, and the children loved predicting what would happen next and how in the world those silly supplies would every get the papers graded on time.

The story plays out with such exuberance that you can tell the Stevens's had a blast putting it together. Even the book's back flap makes you laugh: you see illustrator Janet Stevens portrayed as a "Paintbrush" alongside writer Susan Stevens Crummel, as a "Pen," a blue ballpoint.

I thought it was hysterical that they poke fun at the Chicken Little Syndrome, the idea that whipping up people into hysteria leads to paralysis or the very catastrophe they fear. Though the school supplies do falter when they try to grade papers on their own, in the end their panic proves a great motivator.

I also loved that the office supplies act the victims of hard use, then snap to it and put their best point or cap forward. Even the type came to life on the page as fonts changed in style and color to match the look and attitude of the school supply that was talking.

Here's a book that was made to be read in the classroom. Consider giving it to your teacher with a box of the same school supplies, perhaps affixed with googly eyes and paper arms. Then slip in a pudgy little stuffed hamster on the side. She'll be sharing them for classes to come.

Other books by this beloved duo include: And the Dish Ran Away with the Spoon and Help Me, Mr. Mutt!  Janet Stevens also is the author-illustrator of the Caldecott Honor-winning Tops & Bottoms.

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