Sprout's at that age where anything new is automatically suspect. I served him dinner the other night in a bowl he hadn't seen before - immediately he protested and didn't want to eat because "this not my bowl". I assured him it was just the same, and eventually hunger won out, but not before a healthy dose of "I don't like this bowl". And that's just one example: try out a new pair of shoes, an unfamiliar route to the grocery store or a movie he hasn't watched and you're guaranteed to hear, at least once, "I don't like this".
This is, of course, a common developmental feature. Kids love to order their world, putting like things with like things. All the cars go here, all the books go there, you get the idea. And they do the same with people, as studies have shown (one of the reasons that skin color is noted at a very early age by children). So anyone who doesn't fit into the categories they know already is bound to be viewed with a very critical eye, if not an "I don't like him" or two.
And that's what happens to our narrator in David Mackintosh's Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School. Marshall is, as you might expect, the new kid, and he's most definitely not like everyone else. For one thing, he's very pale, with lots of red bumps from mosquito bites. He wears a funny hat and glasses and ties his shoes in a different way. Marshall reads the paper instead of watching TV, and even his lunch is not the same as everyone else's ("space food", it seems like). In short, Marshall simply does not fit in.
So when our hero is invited to Marshall Armstrong's birthday, well, he just knows it's going to be awful. Probably it will be all sitting still and being quiet and no birthday cake. "And everyone will have a terrible time. Especially ME." But things don't turn out quite like he thinks - for one thing, Marshall Armstrong's house is amazing! Where else can you do an obstacle course, play with a jungle tent, and slide down a fire pole - all inside the house? And there's even real lemonade, with seeds. Maybe Marshall Armstrong is different, our narrator learns, but sometimes different can be just as fun - or maybe more so!
I love Marshall Armstrong for lots of reasons: the engineering-inspired details like Marshall's eyes behind his glasses, the subtle and not-so-subtle ways Marshall is truly unique, and the narrator's absolute reversal on his predetermined impression of Marshall himself. Here's an "issues" book that is fun to read, never heavy-handed but just presenting the real truth: that those who look and act different from us can still be some of our most wonderful friends.
While Sprout's a little young for Marshall Armstrong yet, I'm certain this is one that we'll be returning to, for those times when he himself is on the outside just as when he is the one excluding others. Marshall's completely unflappable confidence in being exactly who he is provides just the right message for kids - that there's honor in staying true to yourself, and that you can have even more fun doing so. Brilliant!
Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School by David Mackintosh, published by Abrams
Sample quote: "Marshall Armstrong doesn't have a TV at home. He prefers the paper. His dad says it gives him a good perspective."
Bonus: Daniel Handler's review of Marshall Armstrong from the NY Times