By Pam Kenney
When I was a novice teacher in the early 70s, my passion was instilling in my students a love for reading. I spent hours reading classic children's literature, certain I'd find an abundance of books that would transform my children - -boys, girls, good readers, so-so ones--into lifelong bibliophiles. A lofty goal, I thought at the time. So we read The Wind in the Willows, Amos Fortune, White Fang, and The Secret Garden. The students who loved to read, often the girls, loved my choices and thrived. Too often, though, the boys struggled through the antiquated prose and responded, basically, "Huh?," when I tried to engage them in discussions and literature projects.
In 1987 I read a new book by Sid Fleischman, The Whipping Boy. I adored it from the first page. It was a little short, and the language was sometimes arcane, but, oh, the story! What third grader could resist a tale about a naughtly prince nicknamed "Brat" who had a whipping boy to endure the punishments for his misdeeds. There were even dirty, smelly road bandits, a ransom note, a dancing bear, and sewer rats to titillate young imaginations. All my students loved the book, but my boys were over the moon. Now here was a story they could relate to. They wanted to talk about it, write about it, and learn more about the Middle Ages. They wrote plays and happily strung garlic around their necks in tribute to their revered Hold-Your-Nose Billy. What fun we had! And how much those kids learned!
The Whipping Boy, which won the Newbery Medal, became a children's classic, and a story I used with students year after year. It's a book that belongs still in every elementary classroom in the land. Sid Fleischman died two weeks ago at age 90. How lucky for our children that Prince Brat and his cohorts will continue to live in their minds and hearts forever.