Fourth grade isn’t easy for Penelope Crumb in Penelope Crumb is Mad at the Moon by Shawn Stout. She proudly wears her gray elephant costume with the huge nose to school for “Be An Animal Day.” Trouble is, it’s the wrong day. That’s all it takes for her used-to-be-best-friend Patsy Cline and other girls to make fun of her. Things get worse when their class finds out they’re going to learn square dancing with the fifth graders. Not only will Penelope have to hold some boy’s sweaty hand, but she ends up with the worst fifth grade boy in the school, the fat and sweaty Hugo Gordon. Penelope joins everyone in making fun of Hugo until she discovers he has another side. Like the other side of the moon, it’s a side none of them see. The book will make readers laugh, yes, but also make them think about the good things in themselves, and others, that can’t always easily be seen.
We talked to author Shawn Stout about the fourth book in her popular middle grade series.
ReaderKidZ: There are lots of middle grade novels centered around a single friendship, but your new book takes on many different kinds of friendships: between two former best friends, an unpopular boy and a girl, a mean girl and Penelope – even her older brother and a girl. Which one of those relationships was the original motivation for this book?
Shawn: The original motivation for the book was Penelope’s friendship with Hugo, the unpopular boy, but as Penelope began to figure out the dynamic of that friendship, and whether she wanted to be friends with him at all (let alone be his partner for square dancing) it made her think about why you are friends with some kids but not with others. There are so many types of friendships a person can have, and at this age, those friendships can change overnight. From my own experience, I remember in elementary school wanting to be friends with another girl so badly—she wasn’t so eager, unfortunately—and I was convinced that if she knew me, really knew me, she would want to be my friend as much as I wanted to be hers. But sometimes, as Penelope discovers, you don’t get that opportunity with everyone.
ReaderKidZ: Name calling is a big element of the plot and also prevalent in grades 4 and 5. Interestingly, both Penelope and Hugo embrace their hurtful nicknames at the end. Was this ending part of your original plan?
Shawn: Yes, I think so. I wanted them to turn the name-calling on its head. By embracing the nicknames, they take all the power away from the name-callers, and so, in the end, they win. Score one for the unpopular kids! Penelope isn’t the sort of girl to shy away from being teased, anyway. After all, this is the same girl who, in the first book, discovers she has a big nose when Patsy Cline draws a picture of her, and then makes the nose in the drawing even bigger to match its actual size. Penelope embraces what the rest of us would try to hide.
ReaderKidZ: I really like the analogy of a person having two sides in the same way that the moon does: one which we can’t see. Penelope learns it because Grandpa Felix talks about it, but where did you get it from?
Shawn: I think I was talking to our daughter about the moon one evening—we were looking out her bedroom window trying to find it, but it was in a different part of the sky. And then it was back in her window another night, but was only a crescent. She was frustrated that we couldn’t see more of it. I think soon after I wrote a scene where Penelope is looking up at the moon. And then, the moon was just popping out at me randomly—references to it in books that I was reading, in other people’s conversations—and I decided to look up some facts about the moon. One jumped out at me—that we only get to see one side of the moon from Earth—and I knew it was going into the book.
ReaderKidZ: Penelope’s father is dead, and Littie’s mother is a single mom, and Hugo’s parents are divorced. Was having three of the main characters from single-parent households a sheer coincidence, or do you make a point of writing for the many different kinds of families young readers live in today?
Shawn: Actually, Littie does have a dad, he’s just been away for a while in Africa doing research. But that’s interesting. I don’t really sit down and systematically decide to write about non-traditional families, but the families are just sort of formed as I’m writing the characters. But yeah, I do like to write about non-traditional families, and how that experience shapes the lives of the characters. It’s also what I know personally.
ReaderKidZ: What’s up next for Penelope Crumb?
Shawn: I think this is the last book in the Penelope series, so I don’t know if we’ll be seeing her again. Which is a pity because I would very much like to see her find a new best friend and have a sit-down meeting with representatives from NASA about her alien brother.