In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Trading places

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Our good friends Brian and Rachel are moving to London shortly, and have been divesting themselves of a number of things in preparation, sending some of the kids' stuff our way.  This is how we got our copy of Bea and Mr. Jones, written and illustrated by Amy Schwartz.  It has quickly become a family favorite.

It's a book that starts with extreme dissatisfaction:

"I've had it with kindergarten!" Bea Jones said to her father as he was sitting down to breakfast.
"I've had it with beanbag games!
"I've had it with clothespin games!
"I've had it with sitting on that dumb green rug and playing that dumb colored lollipop game!
"I'm ready for a change."

Mr. Jones put down his muffin and coffee.
"Beatrice," he said, "do you think I like my job?  I'm tired of running for the 7:45!  I'm tired of sitting at that desk and working so hard!  I'm tired of laughing at the boss' jokes all day!"
"Doesn't sound so bad to me," said Bea.

You can guess what happens next: father and daughter trade places for the day.  Mr. Jones is a total whiz at kindergarten, and becomes the teacher's pet (and a milk and cookie monitor who doesn't spill anything).  Bea laughs at the boss's jokes, comes up with a terrific new advertising slogan ("Munchy Crunchy my dear snackers, You will love our Crumbly Crackers"), and ends the day tired but satisfied.

And you can guess what might happen after that: they each learn something about themselves, and go back to their own lives.  Except that's not what happens in this book.  Instead, both Bea and Mr. Jones decide they've found their niche.  Bea is promoted, and Mr. Jones keeps right on going to kindergarten every day.  The book ends with sightings of both of them, Mr. Jones getting into a movie theater at a kid's price, Bea at a restaurant lunch meeting.  There's something fabulously loopy and unapologetic about the whole thing.

Going through the box of YA books from my parents' storage room, I came across two books which I realized were my template for parent-child switching stories, and part of the reason I expect them to be stories in which everybody Learns a Lesson.
Freaky Friday
 is, I'm sure, the best-known: it's been made into two movies, neither of which sticks very close to the plot of the original book, but both of which exploit the basic premise: 13-year-old Annabel Andrews and her mother Ellen magically switch bodies for a day.

In the book, Ellen is the architect of the switch, and it's Annabel who narrates and who ultimately learns all of the lessons.  Such as: being an adult comes with a number of responsibilities, and it's important to do some work at school and pass English, and your younger brother who you hate secretly adores you.  Ellen is a stay-at-home mom, so many of the responsibilities involve household chores at which Annabel is incompetent.  There are the beginnings of a feminist consciousness: Annabel refers to Gloria Steinem and Women's Lib, and Ellen is fierce about defending staying at home as real work.  Still, Mary Rodgers wrote the book in 1972, and aspects of it feel a little dated.  How often do/did husbands call up during the day and instruct their wives to make dinner for the business clients they were suddenly bringing home?  I loved the punchiness of the narration when I was younger, and enjoyed it as a reread as well, but there's a lot here to explain.  In her daughter's body, Ellen essentially gives Annabel a makeover, so that by the end of the book (and both movies), the ugly duckling has metamorphosed into a swan.  Which, okay.

Mary Rodgers fun fact: she's one of the daughters of composer Richard Rodgers, of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame, and is a composer in her own right; her best known score is for Once Upon a Mattress.  She wrote a couple of sequels to Freaky Friday, including Summer Switch, in which Annabel's younger brother Ben, known to all as Ape Face, switches bodies with his father, Bill.  Ape Face is just about to go to sleepaway camp, and Bill is on his way to L.A. on a business trip; they spend a couple of weeks in each others' bodies, and the narration toggles back and forth between them.  It's a more developed (and therefore more ridiculous) plot, but still a fun read.

Still, it's the ending of Bea and Mr. Jones that leaves me on a high note, every time.

Love, Annie

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