Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Monday, September 10, 2018

Unexpected Educator

One of the most classic cases of a substitute teacher's name striking fear in the hearts and minds of students in the classroom is found in children's literature.  In the case of this woman you can certainly judge her character by her appearance. Her frumpy black dress, striped stockings and black clunky shoes accentuate her exaggerated facial features and hair.  When you combine this with her unwavering sense of discipline students have no choice but to behave with robotic-like goodness.

Miss Viola Swamp first stepped from the pages of Miss Nelson Is Missing written by Harry Allard with illustrations by James Marshall in 1977.  To this day it would be hard to have an inclusive list of books about classroom teachers without mentioning her and this book.  A more recent title also broaches the subject of what happens when the regular teacher is absent.  Dear Substitute (Disney Hyperion, June 19, 2018) written by Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick with pictures by Chris Raschka has a distinctive presentation. 

Dear Substitute,
Wow. This is a surprise.
What are you doing here?
Where's Mrs. Giordano,
and why didn't she warn us?

As the morning begins each element of the usual routine and special activities enjoyed on a Tuesday are addressed by the little girl.  She writes to them as if they are recipients of a letter.  Regret and empathy are expressed for the mispronunciation of students' names during attendance.  Mrs. Giordano is missed.

It's discouraging to have sacrificed what you want to do in order to complete your homework only to discover it will not be collected on the due date.  A weekly trip to the library is not made.  The substitute has another plan. 

The classroom pet, a turtle, is not going to have his tank cleaned.  Our letter writer asks Elmo to be patient.  Classroom rules are not followed.  An earned turn at being line leader is ignored.  Lunch may be the only ordinary thing about this day until the eyes-in-back-of-her-head substitute catches the girl breaking a lunchroom rule.  How is this fair?

A change during story time further unsettles the girl.  This is when an extraordinary shift in the day happens.  This is when the student makes an unforgettable discovery about the day, herself and the substitute teacher.

Every reader, regardless of their age will identify with the apprehension voiced by the protagonist.  Authors Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick tap into the emotional state of the girl and her universal worries with keen insights.  They are well aware of the importance of stability during the day in a classroom but they are also savvy enough to realize the benefits of creative change. 

By having the girl write letters to each portion of her day, a deeply personal level is achieved in the story.  These letters build upon each other leading us to the surprise.  Here is another letter.

Dear Class Rules,
We have you for a reason.
And one of the rules should be:
the whole day can't be
changed around by a sub named Miss Pelly.
"Pelly like a pelican," she told us.
And then she laughed---again.
Miss Pelly doesn't take anything seriously.

Upon opening the dust jacket readers are treated to a view of the endearing student writing the letters.  The carefree swing of her pigtails invites us to know this girl and comprehend her disquiet in this situation.  The border of apples and pencils, well-known symbols of classrooms and teachers, supplies an additional sense of welcome.  The color choices by Chris Raschka are cheerful contributing to the spirited and heartfelt messages of the girl.  To the left, on the back, Elmo, the classroom turtle is showcased, enjoying a clean tank. 

On the book case in bright loose squares are thirty portraits of students from all racial and ethnic backgrounds.  On the opening endpapers the lower portion of students' bodies are highlighted as they casually stand in a hallway.  On the closing endpapers is a view of items found on a teacher's desk.  The use of color is limited to those objects.

On the verso and dedication page Chris allows readers to see the reason for Mrs. Giordano's absence.  Tongue protruding from her mouth in concentration the girl is writing beneath the text on the title page.  Each page turn is a study in the signature style of Chris Raschka who rendered these illustrations in watercolor and gouache.

His loose lines and brush swirls of hues depict the emotions conveyed in the narrative.  His choice of colors enriches the moods as well as the time of day.  His shifts in point of view place emphasis on stronger feelings.  When the girl is near tears, all we see are her eyes, nose and some hair.  Some of his images are on single pages; others span two pages.

He frames the text in curtains, scenes from around the school or with elements in his pictures.  Humor is present in his clever details.  He gives Miss Pelly the shape of a pelican.  The girl is shown as a fish.

One of my many favorite illustrations is of the letter addressed to 

Dear Story Time.

In this picture spreading across two pages Miss Pelly is seated on a rosy red rug on the right-hand side.  Her red glasses, cheeks and lips are mirrored in the flooring.  She is seated, head bent and reading.  Clustered around her along the top, sides and bottom are the feet of the students on their rugs, seated and listening.  This is a turning point in the story.

The beautiful blend of words of Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick with the artwork of Chris Raschka gives readers a treasure to hold in their hands with this book, Dear Substitute.  We are privy to a transformation.  We realize people might not be what they appear to be at first glance (except for Miss Viola Swamp).  I highly recommend this title for your personal and professional collections.

To learn more about Liz Garton Scanlon, Audrey Vernick and Chris Raschka, please follow the links attached to their names to access informative websites.  At the publisher's website there is an educator's guide to download.  At Scholastic's Ambassador of School Libraries, John Schumacher's Watch. Connect. Read., the cover is revealed with a post by the authors.  At the blog, For the Love of KidLit, Liz and Audrey are interviewed.  This title is one of several new books focusing on school featured at author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson's Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.


  1. Thank you so much, Margie, for this thoughtful review. It seems you may be as smitten with Chris' art as Liz and I are. I'm glad you mentioned the case--it was a surprise to us the first time we saw the book!

  2. You are very welcome, Audrey. I am indeed a huge fan of Chris Raschka's art. It's a special treat to readers when the case is different. It extends the reading experience and offers closer examination of the book. All my students now look for the surprise under the jacket.