Friday, October 26, 2007

Review: Hank Zipzer - The Curtain Went Up, My Pants Fell Down

Hank Zipzer is billed as the "world's greatest underachiever," because he has learning differences that make school more difficult for him than it is for other kids. This is actually #11 in the series and I can't wait to read more of these middle grade novels. Hank reminds me of several boys I've known including one of my sons. Based on the true-life adventures of Henry Winkler, Hank and his adventures are brought to life by the talented co-writers Lin Oliver and Henry Winkler - both accomplished story tellers. They write with humor and absolute veracity about something that didn't even really have a name or a diagnosis 30 years ago.

We know a lot more about how the brain works now and conditions such as dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and various kinds of information processing challenges. We have a vocabulary, diagnostic tests, and teachers trained to recognize symptoms of learning challenges in the early grades. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to being "labeled," but whether there are actually more cases of learning differences now or we are just getting better at diagnosing them, it is rare that teachers don't have at least one student in their class and in some cases, several students struggling with a learning disability of one sort or another.

Brain research has helped us learn much more about how and when human beings learn. Even without learning challenges, everyone has a preferred learning style and our optimal learning occurs in a multi-sensory way - by reading, listening, doing, reflecting.

What is great about this novel is that the characters, situations, and dialog all resonate. The story is skillfully told and the situations and characters are believable. Certainly, anyone who has helped a child struggle with learning differences will see that story reflected here. And, it's not just about the learning difficulty itself, it's also about self-perception, and coping with other people and their expectations. And for "tweens" there is the social aspect of not being perceived as different that is still as important as it's always been.

With his lead in the school production of "Anna and the King" at stake, Hank must score a B+ on the math test or his father won't let him stay in the play. Hank works with his peer tutor, Heather, who always acted "like her braids were pulled too tight." Hank's typical dance-and-duck response to uncomfortable situations is to be the class joker. But by using stacks of library books, Heather finds a concrete way to explain long division so that Hank finally gets it. We are as happy as he is at his "Eureka" moment.

"Seeing the answer to the math problem right there in front of me was like a door opening and letting light into my big, dark brain. My head couldn't visualize the numbers on the page, or understand the fancy math words. But I could see the books, count the books, and figure out the answer that was right in front of my eyes!" This AHA moment is what every teacher lives for. It's why they put up with everything they do to stay in the classroom. And good teachers, even a "peer" teacher in this case, will figure out what they have to do to convey the learning in a way the student can understand.

Series fiction allows writers to develop a character over time and multiple stories. For kids captivated by a character, it is almost impossible to have too many stories. I inhaled Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Cherry Lane, Black Beauty and other series when I was a tween. For kids who see their story reflected in Hank Zipzer, there are many opportunities to see him react to different situations throughout the 14 books of the series - so far. Visit Hank's website and share his stories with some of the learners in your family.

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