Josiah's Reviews > Extra Credit

Extra Credit by Andrew Clements
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Feb 02, 2010

it was ok
Read from February 02 to 03, 2010

Andrew Clements is one of those authors who can slip by you and go unnoticed, if you let that happen. His books usually don't get a lot of vocal support in Newbery discussions, but they do get read by a large number of younger readers. His stories all have a good, loyal following among grade schoolers, and with the introduction of Extra Credit in 2009 I was intrigued to hear, really for the first time, Newbery talk about an Andrew Clements book.

I can see why this book would receive the praise that it's been given. The narrative deftly weaves in and out of two sharply distinct cultures, from the points of view of American sixth grader Abby Carson and her Afghan counterpart, a boy named Sadeed Bayat. I was greatly impressed with the aptitude shown by Andrew Clements in skipping back and forth between these two nations that are so different, and doing so with such clear skill. Each time the tale crossed to the other ocean shore it took but a few well-chosen words to immerse me in what was happening there, in the thoughts and sounds and feelings that are so unique to each of their worlds. The story moves along without pretty word pictures or masterful use of metaphor, but simply, honestly, and with straightforward intentions that fit so well with the book's characters.

Extra Credit begins when Abby, a smart girl who just doesn't like the idea of doing a lot of schoolwork, is confronted by her teachers with the reality that her poor work in school is going to result in her having to repeat the sixth grade the following year, unless her academic ways dramatically change. One of the requirements that faces her is an essentially mandatory extra credit project, in which she will write a letter to a student in Afghanistan and attempt to begin a friendship as pen pals.

This exchange works quite well at the start, and soon Abby "meets" Sadeed, and the two kids begin writing letters back and forth to each other. Things are much more complicated than they might seem, however. Abby is required to put her letters (copies, at least) to and from Sadeed up on a bulletin board at school, to display her extra credit project as it begins to take shape. This inhibits her somewhat from getting too personal in what she says, leading her to begin writing two copies of each letter that she pens: a real letter to Sadeed, and a more innocuous one for use at school. Sadeed, meanwhile, cannot write to Abby directly because the elders in his Afghan village consider it inappropriate for a girl and boy of Sadeed and Abby's ages to communicate, even by letter. The situation is not ideal for either of them, but somehow through it all a glimmer of friendship's potential seems to emerge between Abby and Sadeed. Somehow, the sparks of humanity that they share regardless of cultural differences and lives that contrast so totally, fan into the beginning fires of a meaningful relationship.

I think the major ideas that Andrew Clements wanted to express in this story are outlined very well in Abby's final speech to her class, when she must summarize her extra credit project to them and describe what she learned along the way. Abby says that she was able to really see that kids are basically the same no matter what culture they live in; the important parts of who they are—their love for family and friends, hopes for the future, and desire to experience a happy, peaceful life—are the same whether they live in central Illinois like Abby or war-threatened Afghanistan, like Sadeed. Another important point she makes is that people are basically simple in what they really want, but those around them can make things much more complicated than they need to be. Abby's friendship with Sadeed makes for a vivid object lesson here: All they really want is to be friends, but the people around them, especially some of the residents in Sadeed's village, have the power to turn that into an impossibility. This is a sad but very true reality for Abby and Sadeed.

I like this book, for sure. Andrew Clements is an author whose work I would certainly be glad to read more of in the future. The dividing line between rounding my solid two-and-a-half-star rating either up or down out of necessity was a close one, but I reluctantly chose to round down. Extra Credit is definitely worth the additional half star though, in my opinion.
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