Recognition. All kids want it. Kids today want to be outstanding beauties, sports legends, musical prodigies, popular with friends, and get stellar grades. With greater emphasis placed on school test scores, trophies, and those who have "got talent," it's no wonder that kids feel that life's a big competition.
In his new children's novel "About Average," Andrew Clements writes about a girl who feels completely average. Written for ages 8 and up, "About Average" is about a fifth-grade girl named Jordan who thinks she's worth nothing because she's not exceptional at anything.
"There's so much made of the exceptional and the celebrity, the famous, and the wannabees," Mr. Clements said in a telephone interview. When kids watch reality shows about other children with exceptional talent, they realize that they'll never be outstanding or famous. He said, "I wanted to explore how a kid can begin to see her place in the world and make a realistic assessment and say 'I'm good!' "
In the novel, Jordan makes a list of things she's "good at," things she's "OK at" and things she "stinks at." Jordan can barely come up with anything to put on her "good at" list and realizes that her "stinks at" list is much longer. The few things she's good at, such as baby-sitting, she feels don't really matter.
Mr. Clements appears Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall as part of the Pittsburgh Arts and Lecture Series for children, Black, White & Read All Over.
He has written more than 50 books for young readers. His most recognized novels include "Frindle," a New York Times best-seller and Christopher Award winner, "Lunch Money," and "Room One: A Mystery or Two."
Mr. Clements grew up one of six children. He recalled his father's advice to him: "My dad said, 'I don't care what you do in life. Whatever you do, do it well. It's never one's occupation that matters; it's the person, the individual.' "
He conveys this idea strongly in "About Average."
When a disheartened Jordan tosses her list into the trash, it is promptly retrieved by Marlea, a bully who uses the list to make fun of the girl's shortcomings. Instead of rising to the bait, Jordan decides to treat Marlea with kindness.
Mr. Clements explained that he didn't set out to write a novel about school bullying, but that "in the context of this story, it felt very real and organic to have this kind of situation as one thing that exacerbated Jordan's feeling of extreme ordinariness."
In the novel's conclusion, a tornado tears through Jordan's town and hits the school hard. Jordan's creative quick thinking -- skills she honed in her years of baby-sitting -- come to the rescue. She protects her schoolmates from the storm and in doing so, feels a sense of recognition and value.
There is no grand reconciliation between Jordan and the bully; instead, readers are left to quietly contemplate the ways in which Jordan's kindness neutralized the bully's threat and added to her integrity.
One of the things that inspired Mr. Clements to write "About Average" was a news story he heard about a Boston-area firefighter who responded to a fire call. On the site, the firefighter looked up just in time to see a toddler leaping out of a window. He miraculously caught the child and everybody called him a hero.
"That sort of thing happens all the time," Mr. Clements said. "Very ordinary people happen to be at the right place at the right time with the right set of skills." He admitted that it chokes him up to think of these brave people who believe they're not heroes but just ordinary people.
As he wrote the novel, Mr. Clements was reminded that the world is full of ordinary people who live interesting, full and important lives.
"The world today is structured as a giant competition. It's truly not. All you are expected to do is to be as good as you can be. Live up to your full potential. It's a hackneyed phrase, but it's true. That's all you should expect from yourself. Nobody really knows your full potential but you," he said. Instead of striving for recognition and applause, kids should ask themselves: "Can I be kinder? More honest? All these qualities are what make a good life," he explained.
In Mr. Clements' novel "The Report Card," a profoundly gifted child tries to downplay her intelligence by getting bad grades. The school librarian counsels this child to stop worrying about the big picture and just do the next good thing. "All you ever really have to do is the next good thing. If you just keep doing that, you will find that before you know it, you'll be living a good life. That really is the truth," he said.
Indeed, the idea that all you need to do is the "next good thing" is one that guides "About Average." When Jordan does the next "good thing," she saves lives and feels exceptional about something.
Mr. Clements' niche is in writing stories about school. As a former public school teacher, he admits to finding school fascinating. School is, he said, "an endlessly interesting problem and experience."
He explains: "I often say to teachers that school is not where kids go to get ready for life. School is where they are living their lives right now. It's where they have friendships and run into authority outside of the home."
Mr. Clements loves to meet his readers and frequently visits schools. Kids often ask him what it's like to be a famous children's book author. "I seem very famous to you today, but when I get to the end of the school driveway, I'm just another guy driving a Toyota," he laughed.
"I get wonderful letters from kids and teachers. I must have the best readers in the world," Mr. Clements chuckled. "The highest praise is when a kid says this book feels so real; this could have happened at my school."
Julie Azzam teaches literature at the University of Pittsburgh and blogs about parenting and children's books at www.instantlyinterruptible.com.