When I was “just” a children’s librarian, I will freely admit that Fancy Nancy was a little too…fancy for me. I’d show families where they were on the shelf, buy the latest copies for the library, but I’d leave the reading to them. Now Frances is four years old, and we’ve read our share of Fancy Nancy titles – she loves the glitz and glamor of Nancy’s outfits, and I do admire her sophisticated vocabulary. So when I got a box of books from HarperCollins to review, there was excited shrieking when Fancy Nancy: Splendid Speller emerged. Both Frances and Gloria looked at it several times then, and afterwards I hid it away to review it later.
When the girls and I went on vacation a few weeks ago, I stashed Splendid Speller in Frances’ carry-on backpack so we could read it on the plane. Due to missed connections, we ended up spending 8 hours in the Seattle airport, and boy, was I grateful to have Fancy Nancy in tow!! She stood up to repeated readings that day and has been in rotation ever since.
In this title in the series, Nancy is faced with her first spelling test. She’s sure it will be a breeze because she is such a splendid speller. Nancy studies all week, but during the test her confidence wavers on a word. She looks at her friend Bree’s test paper for confirmation, and then realizes that she might have done something wrong. This moral dilemma (to confess to the teacher or not) colors the rest of the story, but don’t worry, Nancy solves her dilemma in typical fancy style.
First things first – this book is a level one reader, which HarperCollins defines as beginning reading. The back cover adds that level one books include “simple sentences for eager new readers”. Because of Nancy’s impressive vocabulary, I would suspect that the first time through, a beginning reader would need some help reading words like splendid, memorize, bravo and impressed. However, one of the things I like best about Fancy Nancy is that O’Connor does a terrific job of allowing Nancy to define new words in the context of the story. Sometimes she’ll explain the word’s meaning in parentheses “(Splendid is even better than great.)”. When she spells the word chien, not only does she give a meaning, but also gives the pronunciation to help out. Again, I think the pronunciation would need an adult reader’s guidance the first time through before the reader has confidence to tackle it themselves.
This book is firmly rooted in first grade, and I imagine it would be very comforting for a first grader to read. While Nancy has confidence in her spelling ability, when the spelling list is announced, there are children in the class who look anxious and worried. Not everyone in the class thinks spelling is easy, but for children for whom spelling is a problem, the book shows Nancy using study skills to memorize the words. She draws pictures that are labeled with the spelling word and practices the words aloud. Nancy doesn’t just rest on her belief that she is a great speller, but takes the test seriously. Their teacher is kind, concerned and sparkly – someone who readers will gravitate towards. They will feel Nancy’s anxiety when she realizes she may have cheated by looking at Bree’s work. They’ll also be relieved by Ms. Glass’ discreet, comforting handling of the situation. Nancy isn’t “in trouble” and has the confidence to make it right. She has to decide if it is better to have her splendid reputation intact or to be honest about her shortcomings.
The illustrations are as girl-centered as ever, and I mean that in a good way. The pictures are packed full of curlicues and flourishes and all the things little girls hold dear. Nancy and Bree’s hair are packed full of baubles and barrettes, and their clothes are just as fabulous as ever. And the rest of Nancy’s family is reassuringly plain and restful to my adult eyes. I appreciate that Nancy isn’t depicted as wearing all pink or all dresses – that other colors and styles can be equally fancy. And Ms. Glass is in turns accessible and stylish – just the sort of teacher we’d envision for that Fancy Nancy.
All in all, I think this book is well-created for the young elementary school reader. The ethics of cheating are handled naturally without being too didactic but still staying true to the character. There is a glossary of Fancy Nancy’s Fancy Words to help the unfamiliar words stay fresh in children’s minds. Fun and thoughtful, too.
Fancy Nancy: Splendid Speller. Jane O’Connor; cover illustration by Robin Preiss Glasser; interior illustrations by Ted Enik. Harper: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011.