Friday, June 25, 2010

A Review of My Best Friend Is as Sharp as a Pencil by Hanoch Piven

My Best Friend Is as Sharp as a Pencil: And Other Funny Classroom Portraits is an art book and a poetry book at the same time. It's also the kind of book that makes elementary school teachers light up like pinball machines ringing with the words, "Cool lesson plan! Cool lesson plan!"

Which only makes sense, since artist Piven has traveled around teaching kids to create the same kinds of portraits he gives us in this book, the kind of artwork that has also appeared in major magazines and newspapers. My Best Friend is one of several Piven picture books along these lines, two of the others being My Dog Is as Smelly as Dirty Socks: And Other Funny Family Portraits and What Presidents Are Made Of.

Piven has a young girl telling us her grandma asks her about her class and her teacher. The girl says, "I'll show her!" And means it literally. For example, an early spread reads:

Now, Grandma, let's see. You asked about my teacher, Mrs. Jennings.
Mrs. Jennings talks in a voice as sweet as candy (except when she is very excited).
She can spell anything without making one mistake!
And she smells soooo lovely—as lovely as flowers.
But you gotta be careful: she notices everything, just like a pair of glasses.
Next to each description is a photo of a real item: candy, a small loudspeaker, plastic alphabet letters, buttons shaped like flowers, and a pair of bifocals. (The girl herself is a drawing.)

Then on the next page, we have these words on the left: "Mrs. Jennings, I am giving you an A+!" While on the right is a portrait of the teacher incorporating the items show on the previous page. Her hair is made of alphabet letters, her eyes are the blue flower buttons, her mouth is the candy, and so on. Piven surprises by not always incorporating these elements in the places where you would expect them, e.g., he doesn't use the buttons as buttons. And check out the portrait on the book's cover, where a microscope has been used to capture the shape of a nose!

The descriptions as well as the art are thoughtful and positive without being schmaltzy. I believe they will inspire children to think more carefully about their own friends and relations, especially if kids work on creating their own portraits.

From a poetry standpoint, I have to say that the metaphors are also effective, initially for their efficacy as images and further as symbols of personality characteristics. Jack, for example, is a sciency kid, "as curious as a magnifying glass and as precise as a microscope." Portraits of a school librarian and an art teacher are marvelous, as are portraits of other classmates. "My favorite teacher is as mysterious as dark glasses." Another friend is "as graceful as a ballet slipper."

Without good models, young writers are apt to create clich├ęs when using metaphoric language. Piven's written images are strong and fresh, showing kids that a great comparison can be apt as well as surprising. Besides its obvious use for an art lesson, this book would lend itself to a poetry unit focusing on metaphors and similes. But even if you're not a teacher, I think you and your child will enjoy experiencing this book.

I often worry over the lack of originality in children whose play seems to be scripted by toy companies and television programming. My Best Friend is as Sharp as a Pencil is one antidote, a way of waking up the creativity in kids who will really like seeing their world through new eyes, ones made of library cards or seashells or nuts and bolts or jellybeans.

No comments: