August 31, 2006


Bea & Mr. Jones. By Amy Schwartz. Harcourt. $13.95.

Ruby the Copycat. By Peggy Rathman. Scholastic. $5.99.

     There needs to be something endearing about a children’s book for it to become a classic – and it needs to transcend time in some basic way, so that it appeals to later generations whose external circumstances have changed quite a bit from those of the children for whom the book was originally intended.  Here are two books that work because their focus is on what is within the characters, not the way they dress or the appearance of their environment.

     Bea & Mr. Jones is a very amusing role-swapping story from 1982.  It’s a tall tale with some very attractive (if, objectively speaking, slightly dated-looking) black-and-white illustrations.  Bea Jones is fed up with kindergarten, and Mr. Jones is sick of commuting every day to his job in an advertising agency on the 42nd floor of a building in the city.  So father and daughter (there is no mother in the book) decide to trade places for a day.  The ad agency sends around a note stating that Bea will take Mr. Jones’ place for the day, and the kindergarten teacher gets one explaining that Mr. Jones is filling in for Bea.  Each character excels in the new role: Mr. Jones doesn’t spill a thing when helping out with milk and cookies, and soon becomes the teacher’s pet.  Bea gives her secretary the day off and endears herself to the boss by laughing at his bad jokes, which she thinks are genuinely funny.  By the end of the day, father and daughter have enjoyed themselves so much that they decide to try the swap for another day – and then another, another and another.  “Mr. Jones and Bea had each found their proper niche in the world” by trading places, Amy Schwartz tells us – ending the book with amusing portraits of the two now-happy characters in their new roles.

     Bea & Mr. Jones is all about finding yourself and then being yourself – and “being yourself” is the theme of Ruby the Copycat as well (indeed, the front and back covers both say so).  Peggy Rathman’s book dates to 1991 and retains all its charm.  Like Bea & Mr. Jones, it is at heart a simple story: a new girl named Ruby joins Miss Hart’s class, and in her eagerness to fit in, starts imitating everything about Angela, the girl who sits in front of her.  When Angela wears a red bow in her hair, Ruby puts one on after going home for lunch.  When Angela comes to school in a flowered sweater, Ruby goes home at midday and puts one on, too.  When Angela describes her weekend, Ruby says she did the same things; when Angela writes a poem, Ruby makes up a variation on it.  Not surprisingly, the result is bad blood between the girls – until Miss Hart finds a way for Ruby to express her individuality.  It turns out that Ruby has a real talent of her own that she has been too shy to show to anyone.  The whole class ends up copying her, and everything ends happily.  Unrealistic?  Perhaps so – but the issue of fitting in remains very much with us, and Ruby the Copycat can be a fine starting point for parents to discuss it…after their kids enjoy the amusing story.

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