It’s been a hot minute since my last review. Turns out it’s tricky to keep up the pace of reviewing children’s books when the child you read them to is home for winter break! We’ve been incredibly fortunate that our son has been able to attend school safely this semester. I know there are countless parents who have been playing the roles of mom and dad, teacher, counselor, employee, boss… all from home. You’re all amazing and I hope you’re able to resume your ‘normal’ pre-Covid lives soon. In the meantime, I hope you consider sharing today’s recommendations with the kiddos in your life.
It’s a different kind of story; one I haven’t read before. Anchored in the viewpoint of a self-confessed bully, I wasn’t sure I’d connect with our protagonist. I wasn’t sure she’d be a great character to introduce my son to (he has VERY strong opinions about how justice should be served/meted out right now!) but I was pleasantly surprised. Bernice Buttman, Model Citizen by Niki Lenz is a story of a bully, yes. There is no doubt that Bernice is a mean, young girl. She’s the kind of kid who steals milk money from kindergarteners and comes very close to pushing a classmate’s nose in dog poop.
You may be asking yourself, ‘Why would I subject my reader to this character?’ I know I had my doubts a few pages in. But what I quickly realized (and appreciated) is that Lenz has created a fully formed person in Bernice. We all know that bullies aren’t born, they’re made, formed by internal but mostly external factors. And Bernice is most definitely a product of her environment. Growing up in a run-down trailer park on the outskirts of Kansas City, Missouri with four older brothers, let’s just say that for a woman with so many children, mothering seems to be the last thing Bernice’s mom applies effort or attention toward.
When she’s not being neglectful (letting Bernice sleep on a moldy old couch on a screened in porch) she’s downright abusive (showing up at the school gate during recess to take back Bernice’s lunch money so she can use it to pay for a new tattoo). In addition to neglect and abuse, her mother is also downright delusional. She harbors inane fantasies of reality TV stardom, but she’s not content to dream of fortune and fame; nope, she’s going to pursue those dreams at all costs.
Which hey, I’m all for people living their best lives… as long as pursuing that best life doesn’t involve leaving 5 minor children without care and attention. But that’s no big deal for Bernice’s mom (who we learn much later in the story is named Carlene). She can’t let something like that get in her way. What kind of example is it for a parent to give up their dream just to care for the kids they’ve borne into existence? Nope, Carlene decides that the boys are old enough to fend for themselves. She plans to leave them to their own devices in the trailer park while she and her boyfriend travel to Los Angeles to make it big.
In a flash of parenting awareness, Carlene determines that at ten years old, Bernice is too young to be left without proper supervision. She has arranged for Bernice to live with her aunt, a Catholic nun who lives in an abbey about 3 hours away. Bernice barely even knows her Aunt Josephine but that’s of no consequence. Within days, she’s driven by one of her brothers to the town of Halfway (halfway to where?) where she essentially begins her life anew. Luckily, she’s not completely without caring adults in her life. Ms. Knightley, the kindly librarian back home, has always had a soft spot for her and encourages her through regular emails to be the special girl she is meant to be. These kind words and positive thoughts embolden Bernice to consider the idea that there is an inherent difference between Old Bernice and New Bernice.
The three nuns Bernice lives with are fabulous and fully embrace the responsibility of raising their new charge. They provide her with her own room (with a real bed!), give her responsibilities and the chance to expand her abilities. Bernice absolutely thrives under their guidance, though of course, she does still find herself in tricky situations, as most kids do. But the difference is that the nuns see the best in Bernice and have her back when others might assign blame and punishment.
There are plenty of roadblocks thrown in her way; she almost immediately garners the disdain of Imogene, the mayor’s daughter who works very hard to protect a (false) squeaky clean image. Imogene sees Bernice’s every move as a personal slight and does her very best to bring this to the attention of every adult in her vicinity. Imogene is obsessed with the idea of winning the ‘Principal’s Citizenship Award’, given each year to a fifth grader who exemplifies the values of… a model citizen. She pretends to be kind to Bernice to impress her teacher and the principal but turns out to be quite two-faced.
Kids (like my son) may not be able to pick up on the fact that the adults see through Imogene’s behavior but if you’re the reader, you’ll easily spot it. Though it’s possible that a conniving kid has flown under our radars in past, I like to think that we can usually pick up on insincerity and the adults in the book do, as well.
But Imogene is a minor inconvenience compared to Bernice learning that the nuns must raise $2,500 to repair the abbey’s roof or else the town will condemn the building. This would result in the nuns being reassigned to other locations and Bernice would certainly be sent ‘home’ to the trailer park. Now there’s a clear cut problem in need of a solution! Will Bernice rise to the occasion and prove herself to be the person of value, integrity and creativity that others see her to be?
Bernice Buttman, Model Citizen is the story of a flawed human, there’s no doubt about that. But it’s also a story of redemption and the power of having even one person in your corner who believes in you and in the goodness that exists in you. This book has inspired me to look for the good in children (especially) and adults beyond my everyday life. I hope you’ll feel equally inspired to look for the positive in places where you wouldn’t have previously looked. It may be corny and cliché but we all have the ability to build each other up. I hope you all have a fulfilling new year filled to the brim with acceptance and love for yourself and others!