Pros: More intellectual than Einstein, more literary than Dickinson, more carefully-constructed than Hemingway.
Cons: I'd say that your failure to own this is a con, but you will!
The Bottom Line: "Sometimes, a big challenge can be a gift." --Ann Whitehead Nagda
You have no idea how wise a children's author is until you discover the trials of a cookie cutter. Then it is that you are suddenly engulfed in lessons of individuality, diversity, and friendship. All of this, in 72 short pages!
I am, of course, referring to Ann Whitehead Nagda's Dear Whiskers. Written for second-fourth-grade students, this lovely little masterpiece conveys universal themes through quietly-connected, carefully-constructed vignettes in the life of a typical student who must forge a friendship in the face of some rather atypical challenges.
But enough of my rambling. Nagda suggests that there are five parts to a letter. As this is not a review but a letter to a very special member of the community, let us leave "plot" and "character" subheadings in an English textbook and examine this from a different perspective:
14 June 2010. Unless, of course, you live in Saudi Arabia. There, "things are different."
But let us begin where we should--with a young girl who can't fathom why she must be called Whiskers instead of Jenny. Jenny's entire fourth-grade class has been assigned to write letters to the second-grade students. This is insulting enough to Jenny's creatively-challenged sensibilities, but her misery is amplified when she realizes that she must write her letters from the perspective of a mouse who lives in her pen-pal's desk. "I am a mouse. I live inside your desk." What more is there to say?
Unless, of course, you're Jenny's seat-mate, Susan. Susan has a perfect pen name, a perfect correspondent, a perfect reputation with their teacher, and a perfectly hideous attitude to anyone who doesn't realize that "whiskers" contains an H. Any idea who that might be?
Anyway, the response that Jenny receives is an utter failure--or so it seems. "No mouse in desk." Even Jenny's teacher acknowledges that this is a discouraging letter and encourages Jenny to meet with her pen-pal in person. Discovery: Jenny's correspondent, Sameera, is from Saudi Arabia and has only just begun to learn English. While both girls' teachers encourage friendship, Jenny's initial efforts prove difficult. When simply reading with Sameera doesn't produce immediate comprehension, Jenny opts for a Susan approach and provides Sameera with a letter-writing template. Ah, but "the date is different in Saudi Arabia", so it wouldn't be practical for Sameera to copy Jenny's picture-perfect letter. Will Whiskers ever find a creative, original means of communication? Will the boys in Sameera's class ever stop antagonizing Sameera on the playground? Will Susan ever reveal an attitude not characteristic of a block of ice?
My dear reader, you shall have to investigate. All I will say is that this is a deeply endearing book and that Whiskers becomes more charming as a mouse-friend through each chapter. Oh, I'll say something more. Greetings should never be indented. Bethesda Lily earns a D- on her letter writing skills.
"Dead or alive?" you might ask. At least, Jenny does. Her initial reluctance to correspond is evident throughout the first chapters. Particularly realistic is her reaction to the five parts of a "proper" letter. Date: check. Greeting: check. Body: Dead or alive? What would a "dead" body in a letter look like--the two sentences she has penned? Although nine-year-old Jenny does not explore all of the implications of dead/alive, vibrant/flat, effective/challenging, or creative/convenient, Nagda's readers are invited to examine these contrasts through this beautifully subtle analogy.
And, of course, symbolism aboundeth in this work. I'm often shocked and gratified to see how many metaphors clever children's authors are able to pack into so little space. I shan't say too much concerning one of my favorites, but please look for connections between a book introduced at the beginning of Dear Whiskers, the connections it has to cookie cutters, and the potentiality for deeper extension lessons.
Come to think of it, this would be an excellent book for creative writing teachers to introduce to their classes in the upper elementary grades. Actually, this would be a beautiful treatise for all high-school and college graduates. If my middle-school teacher could justify bestowing Amelia Bedelia on us, surely Nagda's piece qualifies as thoroughly readable. Closing
Sincerely, Love, Your Friend.
Sincerely: In every way. This book is deep and thought-provoking, resonating meaning. The only insincere portion lies with poor Sameera's second-grade teacher. While Jenny's teacher is described as "the best teacher in the world", Sameera's seems oblivious to all entities save her precious lesson plan. She does not attempt to help Sameera with her English, she refuses to defend Sameera against the bullying kids, she has no ideas for Jenny, she does not help Sameera learn to write--in short, she has a small piece of iron where her heart should be. Happily for us, Jenny is able to compensate and learn beautiful lessons along the way. One of the most important is delivered with such gentleness that readers will scarcely realize that they, too, are being taught: "Sometimes, a big job is a gift."
Love: n. What I feel for this book. Root Word: Storge.
Your Friend: What you will acquire should you open this masterpiece. You will acquire a friend in this book, and you will realize the delights of friendship and the joys of diversity. Ah, but why could there not be more lessons in similarities and differences? Jenny needed to learn a bit of Arabic!
I am not a mouse, and I am too overwhelmed with ideas to hide within your desk. So...
I am a dove, and I fly daily over your house. The cooing you hear is a song of joy--happiness that will only be amplified if you purchase this book. The library route is not nearly good enough for Dear Whiskers.
This review is dedicated to Jennifer and proudly takes its place in the Chicken Soup for the Epinion Addict's Soul Write-Off. Editorials are coming, Jennifer! Do take a moment to read her review, as it does the book more justice than I could ever hope to do. No, don't take a moment to read it. Take several days: parse Jennifer's review, analyze the symbolism, and be sure to fill every inch of available space with exquisitely-crafted comments.