Ms. McCaw Learns to Draw
Written and illustrated by Kaethe Zemach
Arthur A. Levine Books, $16.99
32 pp.; ISBN-13: 978-0439829144
Review by Amy Brozio-Andrews
Everyone knows the kid in class who doesn't get the lesson right away, the kid who fidgets, who needs things explained to him again and again and again. In Ms. McCaw's Room 10, Dudley Ellington is that kid. When he gets frustrated and doesn't know what do do, he draws pictures. It's Ms. McCaw who takes the time to make sure Dudley understands new concepts and puts a stop to it when the other kids make fun of him.
Well-liked and respected, Ms. McCaw is a marvel to her students. They firmly believe she knows everything. That is, until the day she makes a failed attempt to draw a profile of a person on the chalkboard. Ms. McCaw, the woman who could, until this very moment, teach her students about the moon, dinosaurs, butterflies, and more, was at a crossroads. She didn't know what to do next. Neither did her students. Until Dudley Ellington came to her rescue.
The two switch places (literally -- Ms. McCaw sits at Dudley's desk while he takes her place at the front of the classroom) and Dudley proceeds to instruct his teacher and the class on how to draw a variety of profiles, from silly to serious and everything in between. The moment of truth though is when Dudley hands Ms. McCaw a piece of paper and a pencil. And the result exceeds all expectations.
In this lively and humorous picture book, Kaethe Zemach's empowerment of Dudley Ellington as a teacher is juxtaposed with Ms. McCaw's willingness to take a seat, meet her fears head on, and learn something from her student. The classroom setting is one that is likely to be readily recognizable by young readers, the scene more possible that they may realize.
Zemach's colorful pen and ink, brush and watercolor artwork reinforces the lightness of her storytelling tone. Cheerful illustrations keep the mood light and energetic. Zemach's clever visual demonstration of Dudley's step-by-step drawings can be replicated by artistically-inclined readers who'd like to practice their own profile drawing. Paired with the instructive text, the book can serve double-duty as a brief introductory art instruction book for young creatives.
The best part of Ms. McCaw Learns to Draw is the gentle life lessons it imparts. The realization that a teacher might not know something can be scary to kids, but Zemach's depiction of the situation is conveyed with aplomb and reassurance. Further, Ms. McCaw's need to have Dudley explain his technique more than once prompts the realization among her students that it's okay not to catch everything that's taught to you the first time. While Dudley's classmates may have thought less of him because of it, if their beloved, smart Ms. McCaw needs repetition, maybe there's nothing wrong with that after all. And Dudley, the student who had such trouble in school, realized that he was smart about art, that he knew enough to teach someone else.
Ms. McCaw Learns to Draw is an empowering book for young readers, an uplifting story that's told with warmth and gentle humor.
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