Clarice Bean

Utterly Me, Clarice Bean 

By Lauren Child
Reviewed by Kenny Brechner

    The working title of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was First Impressions. This fact indicates the central importance of first impressions in Austen’s masterpiece. Anyone sensible enough to read Pride and Prejudicewill discover for themselves that first impressions are dangerously misleading, often wrong, and begetters of dramatic turmoil. This discovery is sufficiently important, and swiftly forgotten, to require as much reinforcement as may be. Anyone looking for a refresher on the dangers of first impressions need look no further than Lauren Child’s magnificent new children’s book, Utterly Me, Clarice Bean, which shares the central theme of Pride and Predjudice utterly.
    Clarice has been the subject, and narrator, of three picture books. Utterly me Clarice Bean, however, is her first novel. The novel, as anyone familiar with the earlier Clarice books might expect, is filled with drawings and dynamic variation in the physical size and shape of the text. This sort of dynamism can come off horribly wrong, however Child possesses a great touch in this regard, and Utterly Me, Clarice Bean has a vibrant feel to it from start to finish.
    Clarice is an elementary school student whom her teacher, Mrs. Wilburton, has targeted as a daydreamer. The subject of Clarice’s daydreams are a series of books she has discovered, The Ruby Redfort Collection, by Patricia F. Maplin Stacy, which Clarice is wild about. Ruby is a girl detective with a butler named Hutch, and an enemy named Mrs. Drisco. A good example of the relations between Clarice and Mrs. Wilburton may be found in a scene where Clarice’s turn is coming up in class to announce the topic of her book report project. As she sorts through her ideas she imagines telling them to Mrs. Drisco.
    "‘And so you see, Mrs. Drisco, I am unable to tell you about my book exhibit, on account of the fact that it has been wiped from my mind, and if you don’t believe me you can call my Butler, Hitch.’...Hitch always backs Ruby up. I wish I had a butler, but Dad says butlers are very expensive.
    ‘Clarice Bean! For the third and final time, would you please answer my question!’
    And before I can stop myself I say ‘umm, wh-what was the question, Mrs. Drisco’
    Mrs. Wilburton looks at me with skrunkled eyes and says, ‘Well missy, it may be too much for you to remember, but everyone else here knows my name is Mrs W.I.L.B.U.R.T.O.N. Thats Wilburton.’
    Mrs. Wilburton is a bad teacher and a bad person. She belittles her students, and humiliates them in front of each other. Mrs. Wilburton’s particular flaw is that she relies on first impressions. When Clarice is inspired to suggest using Ruby Redfort books for her project, Mrs. Wilburton comments that she is not sure "anyone is going to be doing an exhibit based on such drivel...The Ruby Redfort series is not a good example of the literature of our times." One doubts that Mrs. Wilburton has ever read a Ruby Redfort Book. Mrs. Wilburton jumps to conclusions and accuses Karl Wrenbury, the class troublemaker, and Clarice’s assigned book exhibit partner, of stealing the book exhibit trophy. Karl is suspended. Clarice and her best friend, Betty Moody, turn detective however, and establish that Mrs. Wilburton had in fact inadvertently put the trophy in her own closet.
    Clarice herself, like Austen’s heroine Elizableth, is not free from trusting first impressions, nor is Betty Moody, nor is Karl Wrenbury, The Darcy of this piece. The wonderful thing about Utterly Me, Clarice Bean, is not that Clarice, Karl and Betty, win the book exhibit, they don’t, nor that Mrs. Wilburton learns the error of her ways, she doesn’t. The wonderful thing about Utterly Me, Clarice Bean, is the way it links complex drama with dynamic accessibility and unfailing humor, providing characters and situations which children will relate to powerfully.
    The readers of Utterly Me, Clarice Bean will have the opportunity to see parallels between their lives and Clarice’s life, between Clarice’s and Ruby Redfort’s, between The Ruby Redfort books and the Clarice Bean books, and even between the restrictions placed on the very young and the very old. There is a touching side plot relating Clarice’s Grandfather’s struggles in an assisted living center to the struggles of Clarice and her friends. Indeed, as with any fine work of literature, the more one puts into Utterly Me, Clarice Bean, the more one will get out of it.