June 3rd, 2010 at 1:01 pm (Books)
The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School
2007 (Schwartz and Wade/Random House)
The fourth graders at Aesop Elementary School are certainly unique and it’s not hard to see why no teacher wanted to take them on. Lucky for them, Mr. Jupiter, the world-traveling teacher with experience doing just about everything in the world came along and volunteered. Each chapter of the book tells one nearly self-contained story, often focusing on a single character or a small group of characters, and ending in a moral. Most of the chapters are clever reworkings of some of Aesop’s classic fables (such as The Tortoise and the Hare or The Boy who Cried Wolf) and they all link together to tell a larger, overarching story about the school year from beginning to end.
This is certainly an ambitious book and I was initially skeptical about how well it would flow and about the fable reworkings themselves, but Fleming does an amazing job. While the kids are over the top, she makes the clear from the outset and each character’s personality remains consistent throughout the entire book – so the kid who is a know-it-all and always does his homework in the story where that’s the point is like that in every other story as well. There are characters that are appealing (like the kid who always loses things, but is honest about what belongs to her and what doesn’t) and characters who aren’t (like the kid who pretends to lose things and then lies about what belongs to her to get cool new stuff), but all are reasonably believable, which is a pretty remarkable achievement for fable characters.
The writing is pitch perfect for this book. It has the storytelling cadence of fairy tales or fables, but sticks firmly to the language and style of ordinary middle-grade novels, reflecting the interesting blend that the story itself happens to be. The result is a book that reads aloud amazingly well (this would be a fantastic classroom read-aloud). There was a lot of creativity in the execution of this book, both in the style and the particulars of how the fables were adapted. The author is coming out with a sequel later this year, The Fabled Fifth Graders of Aesop Elementary School, and I will be interested to see if she can manage to produce another book with this concept that is just as good.
I highly recommend this book. It’s fun and different and the author really managed to create some unique and fresh takes on classic fables. This would be a great addition to a school or classroom library and reads aloud incredibly well. The characters are in fourth grade, so the humor is often at about that level, but it would also be well suited to an audience a little younger or even quite a bit older (I’d say up through middle school could likely appreciate it just fine).