So many children’s books published today aim to get the parents or other adults out of the way as fast as possible – or make them come off as complete dolts – in the name of making the child character the hero who solves his or her own problem.
As a children’s writer, I agree it’s imperative that children be the heroes of their stories, and that they should ultimately find their way through the story’s conflict to their own solutions. But that doesn’t have to come at the expense of including strong adult characters who are in the lead, caring for their children, and helping guide them through their struggles. After all, that is exactly what children need in order to get to their answers. It’s not natural to pretend that children are more independent and autonomous than they are. Of course they need adults! And there are more creative, intuitive ways to showcase children than to ban or dumb down adults.
That’s why Patricia Polacco’s books work so well, and so genuinely. With most of her (dozens of) books, Polacco has an almost magical way of telling engaging, deeply emotional stories of strong child heroes – who are cared for and influenced by strong adult attachments. The Art of Miss Chew, Polacco’s newest picture book – an autobiography about Polacco’s strong attachment to her first art teacher – is no exception.
It’s the story of young Trisha’s struggles in school. While her art teacher eventually becomes one of the influential characters in the story, Trisha’s school teacher, Mr. Donovan, first shows how much he believes in her. Handing her back a social studies test with an F (again), he sits her down and says, “You know the subject, Trisha. What you need is extra time.” He gives just that to her, and because of the extra time, Trisha indeed starts to pass the tests. Mr. Donovan is also the person who notices Trisha’s talented drawings. He instills confidence in her abilities, and then match-makes her to the head of the high school art department, Miss. Chew, who leads a special program for young artists.
Miss Chew breezes into the room and captures Trisha’s heart right away. Miss Chew speaks of “the language of art.” She teaches her young students how to really see their subjects, rather than simply look at them. No matter that Miss Chew mistakes Trisha’s name for Theresa. Trisha becomes so instantly attached to her art teacher that she doesn’t mind. She goes along with being called Theresa from that day on.
Like Mr. Donovan, Miss Chew is insightful. She has a keen ability to see and understand children. And she helps “Theresa” understand herself – her different way of seeing things, in first reading the negative space. It impacts how Trisha draws, and it’s the reason she struggles with reading.
When a substitute teacher threatens to pull Trisha from art class, Miss Chew stands by her budding artist – in a really big way. She pulls together and works with an attachment village – Trisha’s mom, a reading specialist, the school principal, and the mean substitute teacher filling in for Mr. Donovan, who had to leave for his father’s funeral. Miss Chew helps them all see Trisha better, to make sense of how she “sees things differently than most students.”
And through all of the adult involvement, it’s still Trisha’s story. And it’s Trisha who ultimately blooms and excels, when the painting she’s created for the art show, a portrait of Mr. Donovan’s recently deceased father, moves Mr. Donovan in a powerful way. Trisha describes the moment “as a present” and “the defining moment in my young life.” She says, “I was set on a course to be an artist—it could be no other way.” And since this is autobiographical, we know that is indeed true.
Truly, Polacco’s The Art of Miss Chew is a beautiful depiction of the importance and power of strong adult figures who children are attached to, and how it helps to grow them up in the spirit of reaching their full developmental potential.
I’ve cross-posted this book review on my blog, Book Bonding, where I review children’s books that resonate with the Neufeld material. I’ll have more back-to-school related reviews going up throughout the next week, so please pop over for a visit.