Stella Batts Needs a New Name is the first book in a new chapter book series from one of my favorite YA authors, Courtney Sheinmel, some of whose books I reviewed last August. Stella is a third grader whose family owns a candy store in Somers, California. The story is written as her own autobiography, where she discusses one of her biggest problems - her name. After she accidentally steps in dog poop on a class trip, the other kids star calling her Smella, and Stella believes the solution is to simply change her name, preferably to something with a candy theme. Things get confusing, though, when her friends also want to change their names and suddenly no one can remember who is who.
Just like Sheinmel’s young adult novels, this chapter book focuses first and foremost on family. Stella’s parents and five-year-old sister are a very big part of her life, and of her story. I especially like the fact that Stella’s mom is expecting another baby right from the start of the series. It’s nice to see that storyline come into play without being used as a gimmick to keep a floundering series alive. I also really enjoyed reading dialogue between Stella and her dad. Those scenes reminded me a lot of similar tender moments in the Mallory and Clementine books. The most touching discussion they have is about how Stella was given her name.
I’m also impressed by the quality of writing in this book. The dialogue flows effortlessly and manages to sound like real conversation. Sheinmel also taps into the way kids look at the world, noting experiences like Stella’s first time going out at night with wet hair and pajamas, and the joy of being allowed to sit in the “way back” of a friend’s mom’s car. These subtle details make Stella a three-dimensional girl whose life kids recognize as similar to their own.
The design of the book, and the detailed black and white illustrations give it a fresh, contemporary feel. The pinkness of parts of the spine and cover do come together for kind of a girly look, but I think the focus on female friendship and candy-based names is likely to appeal more to eight-year-old girls than boys anyway. Recommend the Stella Batts series to girls who have enjoyed the Sophie books by Lara Bergen, the Clementine series by Sara Pennypacker, and the Cinderella Smith series by Stephanie Barden.
I borrowed Stella Batts Needs a New Name from my local public library.
NOTE ADDED 10/9/12: I nominated this book for the 2012 Cybils Awards in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter Book category. I am a first-round panelist in this category, but this review reflects my opinions only, not those of any other panelist, or the panel as a whole. Thanks!