Having read many, many children’s books over the years, there have been three occasions I can remember where I have been straight up envious of mothers from the 1970s and 1980s. The first was Ramona’s mother, Mrs. Quimby, who was able to somehow procure part time work that paid a living wage when her family needed it. That’s certainly unattainable for most moms in 2021!
The second was Mrs. Hatcher, Peter, Fudge and later, Tootsie’s mother from the Fudge series by Judy Blume. The mantra of modern motherhood seems to be ABM = Always Be Momming! But this was not the norm in 1980. While I personally would never have missed my son’s first day of kindergarten, the fact that she felt so confident in sending Fudge off to school with Peter underscores her confidence in having raised at least one well-behaved child (all these years later, the jury’s still out on Fudge). Well, that or she just couldn’t be bothered to accompany her kids to their brand new school. Hmm… maybe I’m not so much jealous of Mrs. Hatcher as I am amazed that moms weren’t expected to spend every available moment at their child’s school.
The third mom I can say I do have some envy about is Clementine’s unnamed mother in the Clementine series, written by Sara Pennypacker and illustrated by Marla Frazee. Though she wasn’t given a name, it is known that she is an artist. I believe she’s a painter and she works out of the family’s apartment. This is like a dream to me, not necessarily being a working artist but being a professional writer who works from a home office. I guess it’s fair to say that while it’s important for children to see different interpretations of other kids, it’s also important for the parents reading those stories to see parents living different (sometimes aspirational?) lives of their own.
But of course, a book with an eponymous title of Clementine tells us that the mother is not our main character. Nope, that honor belongs to, surprise… Clementine, a precocious third grader who might be referred to as ‘high spirited’ in today’s world. She’s the kind of kiddo who just can’t resist touching someone else’s belongings when their back is turned and is exasperated to be told to ‘pay attention’ during the Pledge of Allegiance. Especially since she’s the only one who saw the lunch lady kiss the janitor in his car (again!) because she was paying attention to life outside the classroom window!
She’s also the kind of kid who ends up taking the heat for things she hasn’t done, simply because she seems to be the most likely culprit. And that is how we’re introduced to our heroine in the very first chapter. In a true story of opposites attracting, the wild Clementine is best friends with the uptight and strict Margaret, a fourth grader who always wears dresses, never has a hair out of place and always follows the rules.
The hair part is important because, well, during art class one day, Margaret ends up cutting a huge portion of her own hair, in a misguided attempt to remove glue from a few strands. When Clementine finds her slumped on the restroom floor in a blubbering heap, she does what any good friend would do. She offers to even up the sides of Margaret’s hair, resulting in the front half of her head practically bald!
Once Margaret sees what’s come of her beautiful mane, she figures she might as well go all in. She hands the scissors back to Clementine and asks her to cut it all off. So she does… with a dull pair of school scissors, which is harder than you might think. And it was at that exact moment that the art teacher entered the restroom to see what had become of Margaret’s hair. She started screaming, Margaret started screaming and Clementine landed in the principal’s office.
But the adventures in hairstyling don’t end at school. Clementine and Margaret live in the same apartment building and when Clementine gets home, Margaret is waiting for her. She laments the state of her hair and how it makes her head look like a dandelion. Clementine reminds her that dandelions are beautiful but Margaret says flowers are beautiful because their colorful. Well, you can almost hear the lightbulbs go off over their girls’ heads as they realize that giving Margaret a bit of a dye job is just the right bandaid for this huge mistake.
Clementine’s mother, the aforementioned artist, has a collection of paint pens so powerful that when her younger brother Spinach (not his real name) wrote on their apartment wall, her parents had no choice but to paint over it. There was no amount of scrubbing that would remove it. So the girls land on a shade called Flaming Sunset and Clementine applies it all over Margaret’s head. She also adds a few curls to her forehead as well as her neck, so it looks more like Clementine’s orange toned mop. Surprisingly, Margaret approves of the dye job. Unfortunately, her mother does not and she calls Clementine’s parents that night to tell them as much.
But there’s no doubting Clementine is a true blue friend, best illustrated by the solidarity she shows when she cuts off her own hair so Margaret won’t feel alone in her baldness. Her mother, while shocked, doesn’t lose her cool. She insists that Clementine must go to school and face the consequences of what she’s done to her hair. But when’s home, she has her wear a winter hat… she just can’t stand the sight of her child’s beautiful hair now butchered. I have to say, as mom to a child with long curls, I would also be devastated if he attempted a home haircut so I get it!
All of this takes place before the midpoint of the book, leaving lots of time for more adventure and lessons learned by both girls. Clementine, and subsequent sequels, is a delightful book about a unique and challenging child who thrives in her differences through the love of understanding parents. I think there are many children and caregivers who will see themselves in the pages, hopefully leading to more understanding and acceptance of each other.