EllRay Jakes is Not a Chicken! (EllRay Jakes #1) by Sally Warner, illustrated by Jamie Harper.
Puffin Books, The Penguin Group, New York, 2011.
Realistic Fiction, 2011.
Lexile: 840L .
AR Level: 4.8 (worth 2.0 points) .
EllRay Jakes, the smallest kid in Ms. Sanchez’s third-grade class, is dealing with some serious bullying, trying to earn a trip to Disneyland, and navigate the rest of school while meeting his father’s high expectations.
This was another Target pick, although it took me a while to review. It wasn’t until after purchasing that I realized I’ve read a book by this author already. In fact, this entire series is a spin-off on her Emma series, which has been popular in one or two schools I’ve been at. A third-grader was lobbying hard for the first Emma book to be the next read-aloud, so I read it, but chose another book. If I’d realized this was from the same author, I would have gotten it from the library as well instead of purchasing it.
The cover of this book was great, I just wish the rest of the book had lived up to my expectations.
There were some good moments. One of the principle bullies wears glasses, so it was nice to break away from that trope. EllRay is part of a stable, two parent family, and his father is a geology professor (who also wears glasses) and they have a relationship. His mother is a writer who gave him and his sister fantastical names (EllRay is his nickname, short for Lancelot Raymond). He also has several good friends at school.
Gender stereotyping was definitely present and rarely, if ever, called out. By page seven I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to like this book…
“And so I hurry up. But I don’t skip, because boys just don’t. Not at Oak Glen Primary School, anyway.
And probably not anywhere.” page 7
How damaging is that?
Large portions of this book are focused on EllRay’s obsession with the social and emotional differences between boys and girls. Mainly, cliques/ostracization/social bullying among girls and belitting/teasing/physical bullying among boys. I’m going to stop here and remind you that this character is in THIRD GRADE. Now, I’m not saying this doesn’t happen in third grade classrooms, but EllRay’s experiences are not the norm. Even worse, he compares his little sister’s daycare to this scenario. She’s up against the girl who is “the boss of daycare” and being ostracized.
So, so many things are wrong, and not called out. Even just the naming. Instead of explaining that unique names and affectionate nicknames are an important part of black culture, Warner makes up an explanation that, while still possible, lacks authenticity. Ellray is so afraid of his father thinking that someone was motivated by his race to pick on him that he hides the bullying from his family and encourages his sister to hide her truths as well. Mr. Jakes is portrayed as overly sensitive because he fears his children may experience racial discrimination in a predominately white town.
Spoilers EllRay solves things by getting into a fight and lying to his family and teachers, relying on a deus ex machina from his bully’s best friend to stop the fight, and still gets a fun trip to Disneyland. End of Spoilers
In case you were thinking that the illustrations would be the saving grace, beware that the cute cover image was done by Brian Brigg. Jamie Harper’s interior illustrations are completely different. Sadly, they do not elevate the book so much as deflate.
I gave this book the ultimate test by placing it out to see what my readers thought of it. Z kept on picking it up, no doubt attracted by the cover image, because he put it right back down every time he opened it up. No matter how alluringly it was displayed, this book did not get any traction with the kids, which gives me hope for the future.
The primary audience for this series is likely second to fourth grade students, probably those who have libraries full of books about white children and anthropomorphic animals. For some this may be the first chapter book they read about a black boy, so it’s unfortunate that this book is so full of missteps. Not recommended.