Nikki Grimes's Danitra Brown, Class Clown
Illustrated by E.B. Lewis
Children's book review by Steve Barancik
Sometimes a picture book is more than a picture book. Sometimes a story is more than a story.
Don't let the look and feel of Nikki Grimes's Danitra Brown books fool you. There's more to them than the package would indicate.
For starters, while the words-to-pictures ratio looks like what you would expect from a picture book telling a standard story, these are actually books of stand-alone poems.
Taken together though, the poems manage to tell a story. More than a storry.
The poems in Danitra Brown, Class Clown are ostensibly written by her best friend, Zuri Jackson, as a heartfelt ode to her friend.
Zuri is an introspective child, perhaps even a little depressive. The trials and tribulations of every day life have a way of getting to her. She isn't your joyous picture book child, living a life mom and dad can easily make better.
She's a little older than that, and her life is more school-centric. In fact, Danitra Brown, Class Clown chronicles the first half of a school year, one Zuri is typically apprehensive about. But somehow, during all the tough moments, her best friend Danitra is there to make things better.
Danitra has a way about her. Her upbeat, can-do attitude pushes Zuri along when she needs pushing. Her seemingly carefree nature renders everything a little less serious for Zuri.
Author Nikki Grimes captures the details of kid-on-kid social tension. For instance, Zuri marvels that Danitra can ignore the snickers aimed at her peanut butter and pear sandwich.
Think of Danitra as a sixth grade superhero whose super power is Empathy. Amid the ego-centric swirl of self-consciousness and academic pressure, Danitra not only senses the hurt feelings and apprehensions of others, she's capable of doing something about them.
It appears she's able to perform this magic as a result of being uniquely comfortable with herself. She's chosen to turn much of her magic on Zuri, and Zuri - to her credit - knows to appreciate it.
Danitra Brown is more than a class clown. She's a caring child who knows her friend inside out.
Danitra's preternatural goodness and comfort with self left this older reader wondering where it comes from. Is she a child who's been through enough that the maelstrom of school seems easy to navigate? The answer isn't here, but it's a sign of quality literature that one is left thinking.
E.B. Lewis's brilliant watercolors bring Danitra to life. In the aforementioned lunch scene, we see that the fun being had at the expense of her sandwich doesn't detract even a little from Danitra's enjoyment of peanut butter paired with pear.
Lewis's Danitra not only looks different from the other children but delighted to be so. She revels in her outlandish outfits and never holds back on her feelings. This in complete contrast to Zuri, whose self-consciousness and self-doubt seem ever-present, but who clearly trusts in Danitra in all things.
It occurred to me to wonder whether these might be the right books for a child who is being bullied, but I don't think that's the case. I don't think Zuri is being bullied any more than a typical child, and most bullied children can only wish they had a Danitra Brown to turn to.
(Webmaster's note: Do visit our children's books about bullying section.)
But for any child experiencing normal angst about school pressures and peers, Danitra Brown, Class Clown is likely to make her feel less alone.
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