'The Class'
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“The Class” by Frances O’Roark Dowell has a bit of a “Harriet the Spy” vibe to it; the main character, Ellie, likes to write and plans to write a novel about her classmates. But that’s about where the similarity ends (except someone takes Ellie’s journal, which also happens to Harriet).

Instead, Dowell tells the story of various classroom dramas from the perspectives of not just Ellie, but all 19 of her classmates. That’s a handful and very tricky to do.

The author had to make each person different enough in their personalities, interests and even their names (don’t you sometimes have trouble keeping characters with similar names straight?) so it is easy for the reader to tell each person apart.

That’s a lot of characters! But Dowell does a masterful job at both differentiating each student and — most important — making it clear there is a lot going on inside an individual that you couldn’t necessarily tell by just looking at them.

The story is set in Mrs. Herrera’s sixth-grade class. It’s the first year of middle school, so some friendships are shifting.

The reader will really like Mrs. Herrera, I think. She’s thoughtful, she sees each student as an individual, and she makes the classroom a warm and welcoming place.

One way she does that is by displaying her favorite possessions on a shelf by her desk. The collection includes some china kittens, a photograph and a signed copy of “Hatchet.” She tells the students that those items help her, on days she feels tired or unmotivated, to remember that “life is interesting, learning is good, and teaching is a noble profession.”

In Ellie’s case, her family has moved every few years for her father’s job, so making new friends is something she’s used to.

She does make a friend before school, someone else new to the area, but that friend, Lila, quickly dumps Ellie when the popular girls show up. Ellie isn’t completely bereft since Lila was more interested in fashion and boys than anything interesting, like Harry Potter or watching “Dr. Who.”

Soon, the plot thickens (as they say!) when 1) classmates (but definitely not friends) Petra and Becca cut off each other’s hair — when they were supposed to be at the library, 2) Mrs. Herrera is warned by the vice principal about being “on thin ice,” 3) some items get stolen from Mrs. Herrera’s collection and 4) their classmate, Sam, who supposedly moved away, keeps showing up around school.

The story isn’t exactly chronological, so the reader sees the same events narrated by different students, which is engaging.

Also, Dowell does a great job getting inside each character’s head so that the so-called “bad” kids’ behavior makes as much sense as the so-called “good” kids’.

Different students who don’t start out as friends become friendly, and in the end, it’s fascinating to watch the entire class begin to behave for the greater good. I don’t want to give away the end, but Dowell is a skilled storyteller, and young readers will mostly likely see themselves in one or maybe several of the characters.

Deb Aronson is an Urbana-based author whose nonfiction book about famed racehorse Rachel Alexandra was called

‘a girl-power story on four legs.’

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