Books about school are Andrew Clements’s thing. It’s what he does. I’d fully intended to devote a whole week to him, but then September kind of got away from me. So I’m going with his latest, Extra Credit.
When Abby Carson finds herself on the verge of failing sixth grade, she’s assigned extra credit to help her pass. She needs to choose a country and write to a pen pal. She picks Afghanistan because she wants to learn more about their mountains – she may not be good at school, but Abby loves rock climbing.
I absolutely will be the first to admit that I do not have an in depth knowledge of the situation in Afghanistan, however, I felt that certain things didn’t ring true. Her pen pal is from a small village near Kabul. A group of men in the village decide that since Saheed is the best English student that he will assist his sister in writing the letters, since it is considered inappropriate for Saheed to write himself. Literacy rates for women in Afghanistan are pretty low (according to UNICEF/UNIFEM), so I was surprised that his sister would not only be literate, but also know English. I also was unsure about the mixed gender schools – although I’d love information on this if anyone has any. There is a part of the story where Saheed is accosted by an anti-American man. The villagers feel threatened by him, even though they decide he is not Taliban. Because they feel threatened they have Saheed stop writing. I felt that having the anti-American feelings all being attributed to this one scary man was oversimplifying the situation. There are many good people in Afghanistan that are anti-American; it is not just dangerous evil men. I would have much rather had one of the respected village men voice his opinions on the American presence in their country, so that people could understand the gray areas of the situation.
There is some rock-climbing specific vocabulary that is very difficult and will not make sense to most readers. Clements refers to the Taliban once with no explanation whatsoever about what it is. This concerns me, because the students attempting to learn the meaning of this via internet may easily come across materials that are unsuitable for children. It would be best for parents or teachers to address this in their own way.
While third graders that are strong readers would be able to comprehend Extra Credit, I believe older students will be able to do more critical thinking about the issues being raised and therefore will get more out of this book.
Good for: Fans of Andrew Clements will probably like this latest offering.
This is also good for starting discussions about the current situation in Afghanistan and the role of women in Islamic countries.
Sex, Nudity, Dating – Abby writes that she does not have a boyfriend. Saheed is happy to hear this. His sister teases him and calls him romantic. In my opinion this is one of the silliest parts of the book. I didn’t see any benefit or need to push a romantic angle between these two, and it really doesn’t make sense.
Profanity – None.
Death, Violence and Gore – As expected with a book taking place in a war zone there is some violence. A man shows where he lost fingers from a Russian grenade explosion. Sadeed writes about bombs, shooting and hearing people scream, and watching people cry about the death of their loved ones. When Abby receives this letter, her friend’s reaction is “Ew”.
There is also some gore and death associated with mountain climbing. Abby asks about climbing in the Himalayas and learns that some people die and others lose body parts to frostbite.
Abby makes bow and arrows for hunting. A man carries a rifle in Afghanistan.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – None
Frightening or Intense Things – Afghanistan is a war zone. Saheed is accosted by a man who tells of horrible things (hanging) that happen to people who are pro-American. The Taliban is mentioned, but not explained so anyone looking for more information on that might be exposed to material that is not appropriate for the reading level.