Monday, May 27, 2024

MMGM- Paula Danziger

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 
Danziger, Paula and Ying, Paula (illus.)
Amber Brown is Not a Crayon (Graphic Novel)
May 21, 2024 by G.P. Putnam's Sons BFYR
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

In this graphic novel adaptation of the 1994 chapter book, we meet  third grader Amber Brown,  who is dealing with a lot. Her parents are divorced, and her father has taken a job in France. On top of that, her neighbor and long time friend Justin is moving away because his father has gotten a job elsewhere. There are some good moments, like the class "trips" that their teacher, Mr. Cohen, arranges for their social studies classes, but as Justin's house sells and the move comes closer and closer, Amber is worried about missing Justin. She's also not sure who will be her new best friend. Justin doesn't seem to  be phased by the move, and is excited about his new school and house. When the two are cleaning out Justin's room and packing his possessions, they come across their gum  ball, something they have been adding to for years. Justin throws it away, and the two fight. Amber feels horrible not talking to her former best friend, but her mother encourages her to make up before he moves away.  This is the first book in a twelve book series that was started in 1994, the last thre of which were written by Bruce Coville after Danziger's untimely death in 2004. It is apparently now an Apple TV series, where Amber is starting middle school. 
Strengths: I don't know that I have read the original book, since it a bit on the young side for middle school, but the graphic novel treats emotions in a modern and updated way. Amber's classroom setting was fun to visit, and Mr. Cohen assigned interesting and engaging projects. There are fairly standard classroom dynamics; there are some boys Amber doesn't like as much, there's a girl who always tries to be perfect, etc., but she does identify some classmatese with whom she thinks she can get along. The issues with her parents' divorce and new living situation are realistically portrayed; in the television trailer, her father moves back to town. Ying's art is engaging, and the story moves along quickly. I'll be curious to see if the other books are also adapted. 
Weaknesses: Amber doesn't have much of a range of emotions in this book; she's mainly angry. This made it hard to get a feel for her character. 
What I really think: I would definitely buy this for an elementary library, and for a middle school where there is interest in this author or in the new television show with Amber in middle school. 

There's me in 7th grade, 1977. Not sure what was going on with the hair, but I got glasses soon after this was taken, which might explained my unfocused gaze. Still have the pin. 

Danziger was one of my favorite authors in middle school; I love the long, strange titles, the snarky voice, and the situations into which the characters got themselves. Ellen Conford's books were somewhat similar; girls my age doing things that were familiar, but slightly different. 

If you still have the title below on your library shelves, let me know!

Danziger, Paula. The Cat Ate My Gymsuit
September 15, 1974 by Random House
Library copy

Marcy Lewis doesn't like much. She has a very poor opinion of herself, inculcated in her by her parents' constant comments that she is fat and unattractive, and sits out gym class every day because there is not a gym suit large enough to fit her properly. She thinks school (which I believe might be a junior high, with Marcy in 9th grade) is a waste of time, she feels her best friend Nancy only hangs out with her because their mothers are friends, and her father is a truly horrible human being, so she's justified in that one. When her language arts teacher suddenly quits (to go to a home for single fathers?), her class full of advanced kids sets out to be nasty to her to get her to quit, but the young, hip teacher just stares them down until they are quiet. MS. Barbara Finney believes that language arts is about communication, and wants them to get in touch with their feelings and question their place in society... after they learn about dangling participles. Marcy starts to be more invested in school, but also becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her life at home, where her father tells her she is too fat for him to get her married off quickly, and her mother is so stressed that she frequently must take a tranquilzer. Her younger brother, four-year-old Stuart, is heavily invested in his stuffed bear and relies on Marcy to be a calm and steady influence in his life. After watching Ms. Finney teach and connect with students at school (even asking to play volleyball with the gym class during her free period!), Marcy tries to engage her family in a more positive way, and even gets the nerve to talk to fellow classmate Joel. When a sub appears in language arts, the principal tells the class that Ms. Finney won't be back. Joel's father is on the school board and gets the scoop; Ms. Finney has been fired for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance, and for her teaching style in general. The students are angry, but several of them organize a protest and plan on going to the school board. Marcy's dad thinks the teacher is a no-good rabble rouser, but her mother manages to step up and support Marcy, even when she is called in to the principal's office for her part in the protest. The superintendent even shuts down the school for a day. At the board meeting, Ms. Finney's job is reinstated, but she decides to resign because of the lack of support, and goes on to get her graduate degree in bibliotherapy. Marcy, emboldened by her experience as well as by a snazzy purple pantsuit, still fails gym, but manages to stand up to her father and feel more comfortable around Joel and Nancy. 
Strengths: Considering that this is almost fifty years old, it holds up a little better than the work of Judy Blume. It's also better written, with a more defined plot arc as well as more realistic character development. I was a huge Daniziger fan in middle school and enjoyed her humor, but this is unfortunately current in its discussion of a teacher losing her job because of a political stand. While Marcy's homelife is horrible in the way that was fairly common in 1974, I appreciated that she acknowledged her privilege but also pointed out that life can be hard for middle class kids as well. Her relationship with Stuart is very sweet. Her mother is the most interesting character in the book and really tries to see Marcy's point of view. Her habit of always commenting first about what Marcy is wearing is 100% accurate. It's exactly the way my mother acted, and her voice is still very strong in my head. This has some moments typical to the decade, but remains surprisingly readable. 
Weaknesses: This is a vintage Young Adult book, so it reads more like today's middle grade literature, but with kids drinking beer in the basement rec room. Bonus points for Joel for telling Marcy it's cool if she doesn't want to drink beer, and for giving her a peck on the forehead when he drops her home. 
What I really think: If you have a copy of this in your library, dust it off and give to a reader who likes historical fiction or who went to see the movie Are You There God, It's Me Margaret with her mom. 


  1. I too loved Paula Danziger books and when I started at my current school (back in 1990), they were popular. The Pistachio Prescription and Can You Sue Your Parent for Malpractice wee particular favorites. I finally discarded mine because they weren't being checked out, but it made me sad. You've made me want to go back and find some of her books to reread.

  2. It's fun to see a try at a return of the Danziger books. When I taught middle-school students, they were popular, so now this first one as a graphic novel may be a hit! Thanks for the memories, Karen!

  3. The graphic novel sounds like a great adaptation/update. I'm not familiar with the series myself. It's really fascinating the books that hold up well and those that seem immediately dated. I always wonder if there are editors who are better at flagging those sorts of things and steering authors away from those elements or if it's just luck. Thanks for sharing your review and recommendations. Happy MMGM!

  4. I enjoy that Amber Brown will find a new group of kids in this graphic novel format. Happy MMGM to you.

  5. It sounds like the Amber Brown graphic novel is aimed at older kids than the chapter book? That series is more easy-reader, grades 1-3, if I recall correctly from my years at the library. As for The Cat Ate My Gym Suit--not sure how or why I never read that--I was about the right age when it came out.

  6. Thanks for your reviews. I will try to check these out when I get home from my trip.

  7. Paula Danziger was one of my favorites too. I reread There's a Bat in Bunk Five a few years ago and was pleased at how well it held up. I can't believe The Cat Ate My Gymsuit is fifty! WOW! I suppose I read it for the first time around 1982....

  8. I took a minute to look up Paula Danziger online, and between that and your reviews, I'm shocked I've never heard of her books before—it sounds like she struck a balance between deep themes and entertaining, kid-approved stories that very few kidlit authors can find. The Cat Ate My Gymsuit sounds especially compelling—I'm glad Marcy is able to find solace at school when her home life is pretty much intolerable (and damaging). Thank you so much for the thoughtful reviews of these books, Karen—I'm glad to know about them now!

  9. Anonymous11:59 AM EDT

    I’ve never read a Paula Danzinger book, but I know she is adored. Thank you for this write up about her and these two books 💓

  10. I haven’t read any Paula Danzinger books, but I know she is adored. Thank you for this write up of her and her books 💓 Happy reading this week!