Penelope Rex (a young T-Rex) is starting school. She is surprised to find her classmates are human children. Unfortunately for her classmates, T-Rexes love the taste of children so Penelope is continuously eating her classmates. In the true tradition of broad, cartoon-like humor the other students are unhappy–but otherwise unhurt–when Penelope spits them out, having been told “WE DON’T EAT OUR CLASSMATES!”
Penelope is lonely and unhappy. She can’t understand why she can’t make friends OR why she needs to change a behavior that is normal and accepted in her household. Penelope tries to make friends with the classroom fish, Walter, and he nibbles on her finger. This experience allows Penelope to experience what it feels like to have someone try to eat you and it changes her perspective of her own situation with the children.
The colors are bright and bold with lots of jewel tones. Penelope’s features are emphasized in both size and detail to a greater extent than those of her classmates. Thus, the illustrations clearly underline the emotions of our main character.
Being the parent of a child who struggles with anxiety, I would make sure my listeners are at a developmental stage where they can consciously regard Penelope’s story as fiction before I chose this as a read-aloud. Higgins also seems conscious of this possibility because he has a wonderful note in a word bubble on the title page:
HEY KIDS! You will never be eaten by a T. Rex. They are extinct. I promise!
We Don’t Eat Our Classmates is a great springboard to having conversations with young readers about empathy and adjusting behaviors when those on the receiving end feel violated–regardless of the original intentions. I was excited to see a Ryan T Higgins title appear on the MN Star of the North nominee list for 2020! I truly enjoy his work and was looking forward to reading this one. Unfortunately, We Don’t Eat Our Classmates was a bit of a letdown for me. It’s an okay story, but it seems to lack that extra-special spark found in his other work.