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Balancing Act: ‘Absolutely Alfie,’ little sister of beloved EllRay Jakes, bursts onto kids’ book scene

By Heidi Stevens chicago Tribune (Tns) - | Sep 10, 2017

Two years ago, Tracy Gates, editorial director at Viking Books for Young Readers, got an email from a dad who runs a book club for his son and other young black boys.

The boys loved the “EllRay Jakes” books, and the dad wondered where he could get some bookmarks or other EllRay materials for his young readers. Gates sent the family some EllRay loot and a bit of exciting news: EllRay’s little sister, Alfie, would be starring in her own series of books soon.

Soon is here. “Absolutely Alfie and the First Week Friends” and “Absolutely Alfie and the Furry Purry Secret” hit stores recently, and loyal EllRay readers will recognize the Jakes family’s warmth and adventures, seen through the lens of a second-grade girl this time around.

“First Week Friends” is particularly well-timed, spinning a tale of Alfie’s back-to-school jitters. Her new teacher is a “boy.” (“He’s so tall that I probably won’t even be able to hear him when he talks!” she worries. “My grades will be terrible!”) And she’s nervous about getting her two besties, who don’t know each other well, to blend into a happy trio.

The Alfie books, like the nine EllRay books, are authored by children’s literature veteran Sally Warner. Nashville, Tenn.-based Shearry Malone illustrates the Alfie series, which is her first foray into children’s books.

“EllRay Jakes Is Not a Chicken” burst onto the kids’ book scene in 2011 and quickly earned a loyal following among the 6- to 8-year-old set. Eight more books followed, all centered on 8-year-old EllRay and his friends at Oak Glen Primary School.

In the Alfie series, EllRay is now 11 and headed to sixth grade, and Alfie is the one grappling with the highly relatable blend of childhood worries and joys that makes the books so good.

In “First Week Friends,” Alfie tries to nudge her dad into skipping back-to-school night because she doesn’t want him to see her first project, which didn’t turn out as planned. But Mr. Jakes, a gentle geologist, is determined to attend. Alfie tries a different tactic.

“As long as I’m trying. Right, Dad?”

“Well, trying is certainly important,” her dad answers. “But I believe that both you and EllRay know that your mother and I expect a little more of you than just that.”

“But trying is a big part of anything, right?” Alfie asks. “Because nobody can be perfect all the time.”

“I don’t expect you to be perfect, Alfie,” her dad answers. “You’re not worried about that, are you?”

“Not that,” she murmurs. “Not exactly.”

It’s a sweet, recognizable scene in a book that’s full of them — nothing too harrowing, just the daily work of being a stand-up second-grader.

The dad who emailed in 2015 replied to Gates that he has a daughter as well, Gates told me. He also shared with Gates the Facebook page for his book club — King Readers Book Club — which is filled with tips for cultivating kids’ love of reading and articles highlighting books with African-American protagonists. With “Absolutely Alfie,” two more join the ranks.

Now maybe a certain little sister will find herself invited into the club — or, even more fun, inspired to start one of her own.


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