I want to share one of my favorites today: Utterly Me, Clarice Bean. I first discovered her in 2006 when my own children were still very small and we were all absolutely in love with the Charlie & Lola picture book series by this same author: Lauren Child. Technically, this is Book #5 in the Clarice Bean series. However, the first four books are picture books and I usually start with this one when I am reading with/to kids between the ages of 7 – 9. This is the first book in the series written with older readers in mind. It is 190 pages, written in a style that’s sort of a cross between the Geronimo Stilton and the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series in that it is a blend of text that often emphasizes words or phrases with capital letters or unique shapes and collage-like illustrations.
Clarice is the third of four children. She lives with her parents, two older teenage siblings, a 5-year-old younger brother, her Grandad and their dog, Cement. She has a hard time focusing in structured environments–like school. She and her best friend, Betty Moody, are completely obsessed with the heroine of their favorite book series, a girl named Ruby Redfort who has all manner of international adventures fighting evil. Utterly Me has Clarice telling the reader about the many trials and tribulations of school, friendships and family in her own life. Her real life and fantasy life move together, alternately intertwining and separating in hilarious and delightful hijinks.
Clarice often makes me laugh out loud right along with the kids to whom I am reading, like her early reflections on her teacher Mrs. Wilberton and Clarice’s own struggle to concentrate in school:
Mrs. Wilberton says I have got utterly not a speck of concentration.
I am trying to prove her wrong about this by trying to remember to concentrate.
I think about it all the time. I am so desperately trying not to not concentrate and I say to myself, Don’t drift off like you did yesterday. And then I start thinking about how I drifted off yesterday and how I was thinking I must listen to Mrs. Wilberton and all the things she is telling me. And then I am wondering,
How does all this stuff she is telling me fit into my head?
And then I am wondering if I should have a clear-out of the stuff I don’t need anymore–you know, like when my dad cleared out the attic, except we all decided we needed everything and he just had to put it all back again.
But maybe valuable space is being taken up in my head with not the important things and that is why I can’t concentrate because all my concentration space has been used up on things like “Elbows off the table” and “Don’t pinch your brother” and pointless not needed things that don’t matter.
“CLARICE BEAN! Will you please come back down to Earth this instant!”
It’s Mrs. Wilberton.
Clarice’s voice and her daily joys and struggles are unbelievably genuine and I have witnessed young readers immediately identify with her every time I read this book aloud. Clarice warms your heart and makes you laugh. She has moments where she is overcome by her emotions and makes a choice to do something she knows is not right, followed by either adult redirection or her own realization of why that particular choice was a mistake–or both. She gradually gains insight into herself and the family, friends and peers around her over the course of the story–in a completely age-appropriate way. She especially demonstrates growth in the area of empathy–realizing that other people may have things going on in their lives that you don’t know about and that would affect both your opinions of and the way in which you deal with them.
Something to note for US readers: Lauren Child is a British author so sometimes Clarice uses language or expressions that are not immediately familiar to young readers. (Like the phrase ‘a clear-out’ in the above-cited passage.) I have never found this to be an obstacle in any way to childrens’ love of Clarice and her stories. When I read it aloud to my own children or to a classroom–I find it particularly well-received by third graders!–I use a British accent, but, again, it’s not a necessary element to enjoy the book.
Clarice has two other books that follow Utterly Me, Clarice Bean. Each book can definitely stand on its own as a self-contained story, but I find them more enjoyable when read in order. This allows you to see Clarice’s continuing growth as she gets older, uses what she has already learned and forges new pathways through her life.
My absolute favorite in the series is Clarice Bean Spells Trouble (but I always read Utterly Me to young readers first to introduce them to Clarice).