Review: EllRay Jakes is Not a Chicken!

“Alfie told me once that Suzette at daycare keeps wanting to touch her braids. But that’s a secret, we decided, because we don’t want our dad to freak.” page 78.

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.

EllRay Jakes is NOT a Chicken
EllRay Jakes is Not a Chicken by Sally Warner, illustrated by Jamie Harper.

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.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

3 thoughts on “Review: EllRay Jakes is Not a Chicken!”

  1. I believe this book speaks to the same issues and fears that many black families face. Sure we can want all fluffy clouds and rainbows but this is how life plays out for many. It is a bit pessimistic, but its no worse than most of the television programming. I think its a real depiction of the pecking order we as black people find ourselves in even at the tender age of 3rd grade. It should make you and everyone of all colors feel uncomfortable, but for some it can be comforting to know that they are not alone in the struggle of being the minority in the classroom where the white kids always want to touch your hair and treat you like the mascot of the class.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the core story of this book had a lot of potential but felt like the characters didn’t grow or learn through the course of the book. Warner also had several opportunities to make it clear to young readers that the actions taken in the book were wrong. Even though it’s written in the first person it’s still possible (although difficult) to show the author’s opinion. Off the top of my head, the epistolary novel Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer does that well.

      The level of gender separation portrayed and normalized in this book also concerned me. A lot of the interactions felt more like middle school with such intense crushes and cliques. If this was set in a sixth or seventh grade class then I would find that aspect more reasonable.

      However, you bring up an excellent point which my review didn’t address, which is that even a flawed mirror can still be a powerful representation for children in similar circumstances. It didn’t resonate with our family, but I’m glad you enjoyed this book. Thank you for reading my review and taking the time to share your thoughts.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: