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BGHB at 50: Clementine by Sara Pennypacker, illus. by Marla Frazee

Clementine, a 2007 Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Book for Fiction and Poetry, is a 136-page master class in characterization. Sure, its protagonist is a spunky girl in the grand tradition of spunky girls. But just look at how much we learn about her — at how much is specific to her — beyond the usual penchant for unladylike shenanigans.

For one thing, she’s trying hard to do exactly what she’s supposed to do. She just doesn’t always know what that is. “Someone should tell you not to answer the phone in the principal’s office, if that’s a rule,” she says almost as soon as we’ve met her.

She’s trying to help, too. She cuts off Margaret’s hair to erase the damage that Margaret did in the first place. Then she cuts off her own hair to make Margaret feel better…on a day when — she forgot — Margaret’s not going to be at school. (If nothing else, she helps Marla Frazee by giving her lots of ridiculous hairdos to illustrate.)

People are constantly telling her to pay attention, but she is. It’s just that some things are more interesting to pay attention to than what her teacher is saying. Case in point: the view out the window, of the lunchroom lady kissing the janitor.

She’s an artist, and her ability to pay attention feeds her art. Not everyone would notice a woman in the park eating lentils with a toothbrush, but Clementine does, and she gets a drawing out of it.

Clementine has a strong sense of fairness, which is why she always refers to her little brother by the names of vegetables. After all, she got stuck with a fruit name.

She’s sensitive. She worries that her parents think of Spinach as the “easy one” and her as the “hard one” — and, after mishearing a conversation, that they’re going to send her away.

She loves animals, which means the actual consequences of the aforesaid conversation make her very happy indeed. (She names her new kitten Moisturizer, because she’s paid attention to all the beautiful names in the medicine cabinet.) That love for animals comes up again and again in the Clementine sequels, along with the other things we’ve learned about her. She keeps trying to help. She keeps paying attention to whatever is most interesting. And she never, ever says her little brother’s real name.

Author Sara Pennypacker has said that she won’t even begin writing a book until she would “take a bullet” for her character. You don’t take a bullet for run-of-the-mill unladylike shenanigans. But I have no trouble believing this character’s creator cares that much about her. In fact, I got that sense so strongly just from seeing her accept her BGHB Honor in 2007, that I bought the book on the spot. (If you’ve ever seen an MFA student’s to-read pile, you can imagine how unusual it was for me to buy a book that wasn’t related to an assignment.) And attended a Grub Street workshop with her a year later, where I first heard the “bullet” line. It’s stuck with me, just as Clementine has.

In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, established in 1967, we will be publishing a series of appreciations of BGHB winners and honorees from the past. Further installments will appear in the Magazine and on hbook.com/bghb throughout 2017.

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Shoshana Flax About Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, assistant editor for The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College.

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