Ms. Hempel Chronicles (Review)

Labels: A Lighter Touch


Ms. Hempel Chronicles
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, 2008
208 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
October 2009

Poor Ms. Hempel. She doesn't think much of her skill as a teacher...nor does she think much of her job. But we readers know differently.

The tip-off is that Ms. Hempel loves her students—seeing them, deep in their core, as things of beauty. To her enduring credit, she manages to coax that beauty, as well as their sheer originality, out from under the protective shells of their middle-school selves. Just listen to her as she tells parents during an open house why she assigns the eighth graders Catcher in the Rye:

... it's like they've stuck their finger in a socket and all their hair is standing on end. They're completely electrified. What they're responding to, I think, is the immediacy and authenticity of the narrator's voice. And part of what makes Holden sound authentic to them is the language he uses. This book...suddenly opens up to them all of literature's possibilities. Its power to speak to their experience.

Yes, she's lazy, preferring pop quizzes to essays (easier to grade in front of tv), but Ms. Hempel has an uncanny ability to reach her students—to get through to them because she recognizes and honors them as people.

This slender little novel is a collection of loosely linked episodes and flashbacks into Ms. Hempel's childhood and young adulthood. For my money, the best part of the book is in the classroom and around the school. Author Bynum writes with a witty knowingness—her prose is smart, funny and wise. A delightful book.

See our Reading Guide for Ms. Hempel Chronicles.

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