Some kids’ books address thorny childhood issues by relocating the attendant angst to the animal world, or outer space, or lands of witchcraft and wizardry. Others, like Phoebe Sounds It Out, tackle problems head-on by simply telling the story of a child who is experiencing one.
Not that this first book by former CBC and TVOKids host Julie Zwillich addresses anything as major as, say, depression or bullying – issues that are often better absorbed by readers when they appear to be happening to baby dragons or interplanetary toddlers. The problem faced by young Phoebe is much more easily managed: she doesn’t know how to spell her name. Her mother wrote it on her knapsack, but she’s still not sure about it. “It started with a P and had a whole lot of other letters that didn’t make sense. Phoebe figured her mother had made a mistake.”
So when she and her classmates are asked to write their names on a piece of paper, Phoebe finds she’d rather play around with her boots instead. One of the teachers tells her to “sound it out,” but that doesn’t help much, and she ends up settling on “Feeby.” And here’s where the book runs into a thorny problem of its own. After Phoebe decorates her “Feeby” page with glitter, her teacher hangs it up with the rest of the class names, saying only, “What a great start.” The end.
Presumably, the reason for never having Phoebe find her way to the correct spelling is to reassure kids that making mistakes is a totally normal, even desirable, part of the learning process. But no doubt many young readers will be left scratching their heads as to why nobody mentions the misspelling. More pedantic kids (meaning most of them) might go even further, and get annoyed. Leaving the matter unresolved is an odd choice by Zwillich. Given how much of the book is taken up by discussion of Phoebe’s rain boots (which she calls “sun boots”), it’s not like the author couldn’t have added a third act, in which things are made right in a way that satisfies both readerly expectations and educational imperatives while remaining sensitive to the idea that we don’t always get it right the first time.
The decision to let the error stand, along with Chicago illustrator Denise Holmes’s fairly pedestrian images, makes Phoebe Sounds It Out feel like a missed opportunity.