Kevin Henkes' Chrysanthemum
Children's book review by Steve Barancik
It's the first day of the first year of school for a little mouse named Chrysanthemum, and she's excited. Armed with self-confidence, self-love and an optimistic attitude, she steps fearlessly out into the larger world beyond her loving home...
...and finds herself rather immediately slapped down. From moment one, some of the other kids start making fun of her name. Summary continues.
What's wrong with her name? Well, it has thirteen letters. It barely fits on a name tag. The meanest child in class (or at least the most callous), advises,
If I had a name like yours, I'd change it.
You may call this "teasing." Or you may consider it bullying at its most basic, where even the youngest children single out what's different and harp upon it endlessly.
Do such young children intend to cause pain? Perhaps not. But the pain is real nonetheless.
Chrysanthemum's doting parents assure and reassure her that her name is beautiful and perfect, as well as
(Dad is a bit bookish; his reading material lets parents know that he's a little more concerned with the bullying than he lets on.)
Mom's and Dad's words are comforting, but words only help until the next day of school, and then - once again - Mom and Dad aren't there to help.
Just like in real life. So, every day, Chrysanthemum walks to school with more and more dread.
Fortunately, there is a teacher to step in and make things better.
In contrast to Chrysanthemum's homeroom teacher, the music teacher - popular, pregnant Mrs. Twinkle - takes a more proactive approach to the cause of Chrysanthemum's hurt feelings.
She announces that her own first name is Delphinium - also a flower, and a lot of letters to boot - and that, indeed, she's considering the name Chrysanthemum for her newborn!
Well, the next thing you know, the teasing stops, all the other children are renaming themselves after flowers and everything is right in Chrysanthemum's world once more.
Now, that may seem a little simple and convenient to you, and indeed it is. This is not a story where the protagonist outfoxes the problem and takes ownership of better times through her own efforts.
No, this is simply a comfort book, where a grown-up almost magically appears and makes everything "all better."
And as comfort books go it's a darn good one.
So rather than "simple," let's call it "age-appropriate." Henkes' Chrysanthemum is a book aimed at younger children, presumably too young to counter bullying on their own. This is the book that parents can read at bedtime to a child who had a rough day at preschool or kindergarten and is apprehensive about tomorrow.
(Then maybe Mom or Dad can get in a quiet word with teacher the next day about the problem.)
Henkes' sweet, rich watercolors are a joy as always, capturing basic emotions on simple mouse faces with a stroke here and there of his steady black pen.
The author-illustrator even treats us to an epilogue, in which we learn that Mrs. Twinkle does indeed name her child Chrysanthemum. Your teacher's willingness to go that extra mile may vary ;-)
Everything is coming up roses in Kevin Henkes' Chrysanthemum!
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