Friday, November 16, 2012

Review: Stella Batts: Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow by Courtney Sheinmel (Cybils Nominee)

Stella Batts: Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow. by Courtney Sheinmel. April 1, 2012. Sleeping Bear Press. 136 pages. ISBN: 9781585361892

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow is the second book in Courtney Sheinmel’s sweet series about Stella Batts. When their father brings home Magical Glow-in-the-Dark chewing gum for Stella and her sister Penny to taste-test, Stella is disappointed to realize that Penny can blow bubbles while she cannot. Deciding she can’t stand to be shown up, Stella sneaks some more gum after she is supposed to be in bed, and falls asleep with it still in her mouth. In the morning, she wakes up with gum in her hair! This is the first in a long line of disasters that befall Stella over the next few days, including using her sister’s hair a paintbrush and learning that her best friend is moving away.

I loved the first Stella Batts book, and I love this one even more. From the moment I started reading, I just fell into the world of the story, cringing whenever something went wrong for Stella and smiling during her moments of triumph. I see a lot of myself in Stella. I was a kid who liked to write and to make lists, and Stella does the same thing. The lists, especially, are a great asset to this book because they break down a lot of information - what happens when you get gum inyour hair, or the steps for making the perfect grilled cheese sandwich - into just a few manageable paragraphs. At times during this book, I was unsure that the conceit of Stella writing these books herself as part of her autobiography was really necessary, but Stella’s voice is strong either way, and I think kids like feeling like they’re privy to all of her innermost secrets.

I also think Courtney Sheinmel does a wonderful job of remembering what it’s like to be a kid and putting that worldview into her stories. The following is my favorite passage from the entire book, which describes Stella’s thoughts at bedtime:

Mom and Dad came in to say goodnight after a half hour. When they left, they turned out the lights and shut the door almost the whole way, but left it open just a little crack, because that’s the way I like it.

I don’t close my eyes right away. I wait until they’re used to the dark and I can see everything around my room. So I waited for a little while, and then my stuff came into focus: my desk with the mug from Disneyland that I use as a pencil holder, the desk chair that I picked out because it swivels around, the beanbag pillow in the corner that’s shaped like a Tootsie Roll, my bookcase will all my books in order from favorite to least favorite, and my dresser with all my clothes inside of it. (p28)

This scene goes on for a few more paragraphs until Stella spies her pack of gum in the dark and decides to chew just one more piece. What I love about it this part of the story is how much we learn about Stella in just a few sentences. We learn about the objects in her room, the way she organizes her books, and how she likes to fall asleep. Then, finally, the meat of the story begins when her eyes land on the pack of gum. This all happens seamlessly, and the reader doesn’t even consciously realize all that has just been introduced. Sheinmel is such an artful writer, she makes it look easy.

Stella Batts: Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow reminds me a lot of Dessert First, the first book in Hallie Durand’s Dessert Schneider series, as well as of Ramona, who has her own hair-related issues in at least one of her books. These books also make more literary alternatives to things like the Mallory McDonald and Junie B. Jones series.

I received a finished review copy of Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow from the publisher. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat

NOTE: This book was nominated by WriterNYC 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! 

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