One-Minute Book Reviews

August 25, 2007

‘Miss Nelson Is Missing!’ A Back-to-School Favorite Returns in a Book-and-CD Set

The deliciously vile Viola Swamp is back in a new edition of a book that has sold more than a million copies

Miss Nelson Is Missing! Story by Harry Allard. Pictures by James Marshall. Houghton Mifflin, 32 pp., varied prices. Also available in a book-and-CD edition, $9.95. Ages 3–8.

By Janice Harayda

“More than a million copies sold” is often a publishing-industry code for, “This book is utter trash.” In the case of Miss Nelson Is Missing! it’s proof that a good picture book can find its way even if its illustrator was insufficiently honored in his lifetime by the American Library Association, which tried to make up for it by giving him the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award posthumously.

Harry Allard’s text tells a lively story of pupils who torment a kind teacher until she doesn’t show up and they get a loathsome substitute, Viola Swamp, who teaches them a lesson in “as you sow.” But James Marshall’s pictures send the text into orbit.

Marshall had “an intuitive grasp of how to reduce a visual object to its most basic elements, the type of genius found in the sculptures of Alexander Calder,” former Horn Book editor-in-chief Anita Silvey has rightly observed. But his art is so rich you can’t call it minimalist. Marshall defines Viola Swamp in a half dozen or so boldly drawn features, including a huge potato-shaped nose that is both memorable and symbolic in a genre in which liar’s noses grow. No less striking is her ski-slope chin, defaced by a large mole. It reminds you of Jay Leno’s until, a few pages later, you come across an illustrated reference to sharks and see that the chin foreshadows this.

Many back-to-school books are dreary examples of bibliotherapy, more therapeutic than artistic. In its way, Miss Nelson Is Missing! says the same thing that many of those books do: School can seem good and bad at different times. But it doesn’t bludgeon children with an educationally correct message. It’s pure fun. If you were a soon-to-be-kindergartener, which type of book would you rather read?

Best line/picture: A full-page image of Viola that makes her look at once sinister and, in horizontally striped green-and-yellow socks, comically absurd.

Worst line/picture: The good Miss Nelson has blond hair, and the bad Miss Swamp has black hair. Some people might object to this, because it perpetuates a stereotype. But among the children, bad behavior comes in all hair colors.

Published: 1977 (first edition). August 2007 (book-and-CD edition)

Caveat lector: This review is based on the first edition. I haven’t seen the just-published book-and-CD package.

Furthermore: Marhshall is best known for George and Martha, a book about the friendship between hippos, and its sequels. The American Library Association gave him, besides the Wilder award, a Caldecott Honor for Goldilocks and the Three Bears (Puffin, $6.99, paperback), which he wrote and edited.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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