Friday, January 27, 2012

Vive La Difference: One of Us by Peggy Moss

Roberta James put her hair up. Straight up, and walked into Baker School.

She was late. Two weeks late.

"I just moved here," Roberta explained to the principal.

It's her first day as the new girl in school, and so far, so good.

Roberta likes the friendly principal, the well-equipped playground, the cheerful, bright hallways, and the library with tons of books. And when she gets to her assigned classroom, a girl named Carmen motions for her to sit with her and two friends.

"Sit here," said Carmen. "You are one of US."

Roberta joins three girls, all with top-knots of hair like hers. One even has braids bent into the shape of a heart on top of her head! All goes well with her new friends until it's time for morning recess. Roberta can't wait to hit those fabulous monkey bars outside.

"We don't play on the playground," said Carmen. "We sit here and talk."

But Roberta is a monkey-bars kind of kid and the other climbers welcome her gladly.

"You're one of US," says Jasmine, and Roberta plays with this active group for the whole recess.

But at lunch, she finds herself invited by another group, the lunch-in-a-flowery-lunchbox group who all sit together. All goes well until Roberta pulls out her pita-wrapped mayo, coconut, and raisin sandwich.

"Kids who eat that kind of stuff sit over there," Emiko informs her.

It seems that in her new school, there's a special group for everything, and Roberta is confused. She retreats to eat by herself at the end of the table while she contemplates where she fits in this cliquish class.

"Who ARE you?" asks Anna, who approaches her curiously.

"I'm a straight-up hair girl who climbs on bars, has a flowered lunch box with a pita roll-up, and wears running shoes," Roberta says.

"So you're one of US."

"I doubt it," said Roberta.

"I'm a trumpet-playing girl who likes baseball and car racing and ballet." said Anna.

"I love building and spicy food and origami and bowling!" said Jason.

"I love spicy food," said Roberta, "and baseball, but I'm not crazy about ballet."

"Perfect!" said James.

And Roberta relaxes, feeling that she has found a eclectic group where she can be herself, whatever that may be.

Although Peggy Moss's One of Us (Tilbury House, 2011) pushes her message of the virtue of diversity a little hard here, she does hit all the right nails on the head in identifying the early stages of elementary cliqueish-ness, those subtleties of appearance or behaviors that make for social success or failure in the early and middle grades. Penny Weber's delightfully upbeat illustrations help make Moss's premise that there is a place for people with different interests and styles, even if it is in a group who value each other because of that variety of traits and talents. It's a point that needs to be made, and Moss's story of a girl with her running-shoe-clad feet firmly on the ground hits home, ending with a double-page spread of the whole class mixing it up on the playground.

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