It’s rare that you encounter a character in a children’s book who struggles with anxiety. It’s even more rare to see that child’s challenges presented in such a matter-of-fact way that you can see yourself or those you love within the character. But that’s what, or rather, who, I found in the pages of Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School and Other Scary Things, by Lenore Look.
Alvin is your average 2nd grader in many ways. He loves superheroes. He has a family, including an older brother and a younger sister. He has friends. He goes to school. But… Alvin is also scared of a LOT of things. Many of them are relatable, like heights, the dark, shots and scary movies. But Alvin is also scared of school, so much so that his voice doesn’t work, has NEVER worked, when he’s there. Oh, he tries to force his voice to work but it just won’t. No one really understands why.
The story begins on the night before second grade begins. Alvin is worried but he’s employing the defense mechanisms he’s known to work in the past. He’s reviewing his Personal Disaster Kit, or PDK, which is very important to have on your person at all times when you’re scared of everything. He uses a tackle box, which holds a whistle, a 3 leaf clover (he couldn’t find a 4 leaf), dental floss, Band-Aids, garlic (for fending off vampires and teachers), a magnifying glass, a mirror, a scary mask (for keeping girls away) and escape routes.
PDKs must be updated each year, as you never know what challenges you might face in a new grade. Alvin decides that he also needs emergency plans, now that he can write without help. He asks his older brother Calvin for help in making a plan to make friends. Sadly, none of the other boys at school will play with him. Calvin begrudgingly gives him 5 pointers for making friends, which basically consist of saying hello and trading copious amounts of baseball cards.
After careful consideration, Alvin determines that his brother’s advice is not going to work for him. Calvin then decides that when making friends, it’s imperative that both people be of the same size. As all of the other boys in his grade are bigger, Calvin informs Alvin that he will need to stretch himself to their heights.
After some careful internet research, the boys head outside to have Alvin stretch himself by dangling from a tree. At some point, both of his siblings abandon him while he’s hanging upside down (what??!!) They then seem to forget about him completely. It gets dark. His father comes home but Alvin is so scared that he’s unable to make a sound. He hangs there until his mother realizes his seat is empty at dinner time!
The next morning, Alvin is sore from dangling from the tree for so long but he doesn’t seem to have grown any taller. His father shares encouraging words with him before leaving for school. They make him feel good but they don’t help with his anxiety. He again spends the entire day silent. This presents a problem later when it’s time to choose desk buddies. Because of his silence, he’s paired with Flea, an outgoing, friendly girl he worked with last year. She also wears an eye patch and a corrective shoe that helps her walk more easily. Alvin is beyond embarrassed to be paired with a girl but what can he really do, if he’s not able to speak?
After school, Flea insists on walking him to the door. Alvin’s mom invites her in for a snack. Flea shares that she’s written The Book of Alvin, as she learned a lot about him when they worked together last year. The book explains how even though he may not speak, Alvin communicates through his eyes. The book is both insightful and kind but Alvin becomes uncomfortable and agitated with being discussed. He blurts out that both Flea and the book are stupid. She’s insulted and leaves; Alvin follows and tries to apologize. But alas, he insults her again. Flea retaliates with a mean uppercut she’s been perfecting in her Aggression for Girls class.
A few weeks later, one of Alvin’s classmates, Jules, becomes ill with the chicken pox. His mother warns him to steer clear of Jules but of course, he’s drawn to his friend like a magnet. And he’s not the only one; by the time he get to Jules’s house, there’s a long line of boys waiting to pay to be exposed the itchy illness! Alvin really likes Jules, though no one knows if they’re a boy or a girl. But Jules is definitely a pal because a short time later, while in art class, Alvin and several other boys start to itch. Their ploy has worked! The boys are responsible for a chicken pox outbreak that makes the news and shuts school down for two and a half weeks!
While recovering from the pox, Alvin’s father shares with him his most prized childhood possession. It’s a flying astronaut toy named Johnny Astro. His father has kept it safe for years, and he tells Alvin that the toy will one day be his. Returning to school the next day, Alvin decides his father meant that Johnny Astro will be his today. He spirits they toy out of the house and onto the bus, where he’s pressured by a bully named Pinky to take it out of the box. Of course, the toy is ruined and his father is devastated by the news.
But rather than lose his temper, his father decides that Alvin needs something to keep him busy. He learned to play the piano at his age so perhaps Alvin should, too. But Alvin is terrified of his piano teacher. He thinks she’s an old witch that bakes children into sweets, just like in Hansel & Gretel. Therefore, he refuses to speak.
Because he won’t speak at school or piano practice, Alvin’s parents have him meet with a psychotherapist. She’s nice enough, Alvin supposes, but she’s a psycho! It’s right there on the wall! How is he supposed to trust her? During a session, the therapist suggests playing cards. While distracted playing the game, Alvin begins muttering Shakespearean inspired insults, which at first amazes the therapist. But he can’t stop himself and the therapist becomes insulted. He bolts for the exit but she nabs him.
His dad isn’t pleased when he picks him up, but he’s not mad, either. He takes Alvin for ice cream and they share a really special time together. I’m not embarrassed to say that their heart-to-heart brought tears to my eyes. It was both simple and sincere. Sometimes being a parent is hard. But it’s also tough being a kid.
Alvin decides to reevaluate his brother’s advice for making friends. He swipes two of Calvin’s prized rookie baseball cards and gives, doesn’t trade, them to Pinky, the aforementioned bully. Pinky takes them without so much as a word but after that, he begins to pass the ball to Alvin during recess, admitting to his existence. By the end of the chapter, he’s invited to play with the other boys but first, he has to ‘do a few things’.
Immediately, Pinky begins applying the pressure. He dares Alvin to stick out his tongue at the bus driver, shout a curse at the bus and, most dangerously, to jump off the roof. When Alvin refuses, Pinky dares him to watch a scary movie instead, which is almost as bad. Alvin would rather play catch with his GungGung (grandfather) but the guys are watching. Alvin is already learning that being in a gang isn’t so great.
After the movie, the boys stumble outside, petrified. Pinky demands to be taught a pitch Alvin’s GungGung had talked about earlier. Alvin knows it’s too dark but he feels pressured. As expected, a window is broken and Pinky immediately flees the scene.
The next day, Alvin asks for his baseball cards back from Pinky. The price to be his friend is too high and it doesn’t feel good. On his way home, he runs into his old friend Flea, who he’d previously blown off to hang out with the boys. She accepts his apology and they spend the afternoon playing.
He goes home to fess up to breaking his neighbor’s window. And that moment is where we leave Alvin, though with 6 books in the Alvin Ho series, there are bound to be many more everyday adventures and lessons. Alvin Ho is a delightful book that is realistic about the challenges of being a kid. It also promotes inclusivity without heavy handedness. We can’t wait to see what he does next!