In the early chapter book genre, there appears to be a dearth of boys at center stage, since so many books feature a girl as the protagonist. Now along comes Alvin Ho, one of the most memorable characters to show up in a long time.
Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things is sure to be a hit with the 6 to 9 year old crowd. Written by Lenore Look and illustrated by LeUyen Pham, Alvin tells his story in a frank, funny and appealing way. While third and fourth graders will be able to read the book on their own, I think that many younger kids will need it to be read to them. Luckily, the breezy writing makes it a perfect read-aloud book.
Second grader Alvin has some idiosyncrasies that kids will relate to, or at the very least laugh about. First of all, he is afraid of pretty much everything (trains, bridges, substitute teachers, girls, school, heights, the dark, the list goes on and on). So he arms himself with a PDK-a Personal Disaster Kit, which as he explains, is absolutely necessary when you're afraid of everything. His PDK includes things like a whistle, garlic and a bandana, and has to be updated each year because you never know what you'll need when you're in the next grade.
One of the consequences of being afraid of school is that Alvin won't talk at school. Ever. He'll talk on the bus going to school, on the bus leaving school, but not at school. As he explains to his older brother Calvin, he has "so-so performance anxiety disorder." (He's in therapy for this, which is one of many amusing scenes). He sits next to a girl at school named Flea who happens to have an eye patch and one leg longer than the other. Since she's a girl, he's naturally afraid of her, but also somewhat drawn to her because she reminds him of a pirate. Flea prides herself on being the only one at school who understands Alvin by watching his eye movements.
Alvin is the quintessential middle child. Squeezed between his perfect (in his mind) older brother Calvin, and his annoying little sister Anibelly, he has definitely forged his own identity within the family. He's also Chinese-American. The book offers wonderful glimpses into Chinese-American family life, and is filled with references to Chinese culture (he calls his grandfather GungGung, he loves dragon's beard candy, he's afraid of kimchi and wasabi, and he talks about being descended from "a long line of farmer-warriors who haven't a scaredy bone in their bodies since 714 AD").
Pham's black ink illustrations are the perfect complement to the book. There's a drawing on every page, which helps move the story along, especially for the more reluctant reader. Each character's face and body language is filled with individuality.
I like Alvin Ho and look forward to more installments about this idiosyncratic and totally original little boy. The next Alvin Ho book is due out in June 2009.
BookNosher Tidbit: I found myself quite intrigued by LeUyan Pham's illustrations and discovered her website: http://www.leuyenpham.com. It's worth checking out. You'll see that she's illustrated many children's books (around 30). She also has very different drawing styles, which are showcased on the website.