Nikki and Deja: Substitute Trouble
Written by Karen English
Illustrated by Laura Freeman
We are told in the first book of the Nikki and Deja series that they are the best of friends. As in all satisfying series we see their friendship ripening as they grow in understanding. Deja understands her friend’s love of words, she is going to be a journalist after all, and does not hesitate to ask for help when writing notes and letters.
This book is so suited to second and third graders, themselves living through the experience described in the stories. Substitute teachers are a fact of life. Teachers fall sick, or have other commitments, and have to take time off. Substitute teachers who cannot handle the classroom very well, and children taking advantage of their timidity are also a fact of life.
Mrs. Shelby-Ortiz has a broken ankle, and will be out for a few weeks. Mr. Willow substitutes. He writes his name on the blackboard in letters as small and timid as his teaching. Smart, worldly-wise Deja ticks off all the things he has done wrong, and the ways he could improve:
“Mistake Number One. Actually it’s Mistake Number Ten, Deja thinks. Mr. WIllow should have said very clearly, “You’re on the wrong paragraph. Go to paragraph two.” And then he should have looked at Carlos very sternly. But instead he starts off with “I think….” Deja shakes her head slowly.”
As the day progresses her count goes up:
“Mistake number zillion and three, according to Deja. Don’t ask. Tell.”
She proposes that they write Mr. Willow a note on how things are supposed to be, but make it “Anon..anon”
“Anonymously,” Nikki says easily. Deja asks her how to start the letter. “When my mother has me write letters to my great-aunt Nora, she tells me to start with ‘I hope this letter finds you well….’”
The story takes off from there. Deja and Nikki write the letter and succeed in getting it to Mr. Willow anonymously. Are they prepared for the consequences? Do they even imagine what one simple, helpful letter would lead to? The unknown adds an element of mystery that young readers would enjoy.
As would the teachers. The story gives an easy lead into talking about classroom behavior when there is a substitute. This is a short chapter book that can lead to many reading activities and discussion points, a book and a series that would grace any classroom reading list.