Extra Credit by Andrew Clements (illustrations by Mark Elliot)
This novel, which I just read, by Andrew Clements caught me by surprise and I can’t recommend enough. Don’t get me wrong, Andrew Clements is a great author and his novels, which center around elementary school children are well worth reading. Don’t miss his bestselling book, Frindle.
The novel is about a sixth grader in a small town in Illinois. It’s February. She learns from her school counselor that unless she turns things around drastically in the next few month, she will have to repeat sixth grade. Her language arts teacher gives her an extra credit assignment to bring up her grade – she will correspond with another girl from Afghanistan, make a bulletin board about her pen pal and give an oral presentation explaining what she learned. When her first letter arrives in a small village of Bahar-Lan, Afghanistan, it is decided that their best student should be the one to write back to Abby. However, since in their culture, it is not proper for a boy to write to a girl, he will write through his sister Amira, who signs the letters. Eventually, Sadeed reveals to Abby that it really is him who is writing, sharing with her more of himself and his world.
What did I like about Extra Credit?
What surprised me about Extra Credit was Clements ability to present two very different cultures, in two distinct settings, in a way that made you feel like you were there in both places, first in a American town and school in Illinois, then in a small village in Afghanistan.
Abby not only learns to appreciate another culture, but learns that children thousands of miles away are not that different from her, that everyone has his or her own challenges and dreams. For the first time in her life, Abby (and Sadeed) can imagine what it would be like to live in another culture, to live a different life than their own
Quote from the book: “…part of what I learned is that people are simple, but the stuff going on around them can get complicated. And even dangerous.”
I enjoyed watching the characters grow and change, as they were able to see life beyond their narrow cultural lens. Abby comes to appreciate that not everything is as black and white as it seems. For example, she loves rock climbing and thinks it would be amazing to live in a place like Afghanistan where there were mountains to climb. She hates the flat, boring landscape of Illinois. Sadeed points out to her that mountains are beautiful, yes, but they also dangerous and block the sun so crops are hard to grow in their shadow. Sadeed marvels at the richness of the soil in her land, where fields of corn extend for miles, describing it “a smile of God.”
An added element to the novel that I enjoyed was the fact that both Abby and Sadeed were reluctant and uninterested in the pen pal exchange at first, but came to look forward to the letters, and began to appreciate the others thoughts, points of view, and ways of expressing themselves, so very different from their own. It reinforces the idea that you don’t have to be alike to enjoy a friendship with someone.
For a TCK, I think this book would validate a lot of thoughts and feelings a third culture kid has, growing up in one culture and yet, also being exposed and often transplanted in other cultures. When I read Extra Credit, although I did not grow up in Afghanistan, I did feel a lot of empathy for Sadeed as he read Abby letters. I also wanted to cheer Abby on, when she was drawn to this other culture, wanted to learn more about it, and came to understand that her little community in Illinois was just a small representation of the way people live around the world.
What is the Christopher Award?
Extra Credit won a Christopher Award for Books for Young People in 2010. The Christopher Award (established 1949) is presented to the producers, directors, and writers of books, motion pictures and television specials that “remind audiences and readers of their worth, individuality and power to positively impact and shape our world.”. It is given by The Christophers, a Christian organization founded in 1945 by the Maryknoll priest James Keller. Andrew Clements also won the Christopher Award for Frindle.
Quote by Andrew Clements
“Sometimes kids ask how I’ve been able to write so many books. The answer is simple: one word at a time. Which is a good lesson, I think. You don’t have to do everything at once. You don’t have to know how every story is going to end. You just have to take that next step, look for that next idea, write that next word. And growing up, it’s the same way. We just have to go to that next class, read that next chapter, help that next person. You simply have to do that next good thing, and before you know it, you’re living a good life.”
Note: There is a Common Core Curriculum Guide for Extra Credit as well as a reading group guide at andrewclements.com