Review of Dear Substitute

Dear Substitute
by Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick; illus. by Chris Raschka
Primary    Disney-Hyperion    40 pp.
6/18    978-1-4847-5022-3    $17.99

With her regular teacher out sick (we glimpse a feverish Mrs. Giordano on the copyright page), a little girl in brown pigtails writes a series of letters throughout her school day, beginning: “Dear Substitute, / Wow. This is a surprise. / What are you doing here?” Raschka’s illustration conveys the girl’s worry — flowers droop, a pencil is broken in half, the teacher’s glasses glint formidably, and even the sun in the corner of a window looks anxious. The substitute, Miss Pelly, does things differently: she skips library and cleaning the turtle’s cage (“Dear Turtle…Please don’t explode, or die of dirt, or escape”) and catches the girl’s forbidden food swap with a classmate at lunch (“Dear Tears, / Not here. / Not now. / You understand”). The day improves after Miss Pelly breaks out a book of funny poetry, inspiring the girl to write her own. A closing picture shows Miss Pelly looking kind, flowers no longer drooping, and the sun peeking happily through a now-heart-shaped window. Scanlon and Vernick capture with humor and sympathy the indignation some kids feel when life doesn’t go as expected. In his watercolor and gouache paintings Raschka makes the mundane school setting fresh, with unexpected twists. Kids will probably want to go back through the pages to follow recurring motifs such as the sun, the turtle, and the flowers as well as the progression of feelings from despair to exuberance.

From the September/October 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Susan Dove Lempke
Susan Dove Lempke
Susan Dove Lempke is a Horn Book reviewer and director of the Niles Public Library District in Illinois.

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