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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #52 (December 21, 2004), page 19.
Chess pieces and cheese puffs
Alex and the Wednesday Chess Club
By Janet S. Wong
Illustrated by Stacey Schuett
McElderry Books, 2004
Hardcover, 40 pages, $16.95
By Josephine Bridges
Alex learned chess when he was four." No wonder. Alex’s mother, a candidate for the most imaginative mom in children’s literature, sometimes makes him a special lunchtime chessboard out of squares of white and brown bread.
They used olives for pawns.
They used pretzel sticks for bishops.
They cut cheese in L shapes for knights.
Cookies became rooks.
Chocolates became queens.
Alex, no slouch himself in the imagination department, has conversations with the chess pieces. He tells the banana king to stay in a back corner "to keep from getting smashed to a pulp." The pieces also talk back to Alex.
He went first last time!
Move it, soldier! Coming through!
"Of course, he didn’t always win." When Alex suffers a particularly miserable defeat at the hands of "his next door neighbor’s moldy old Uncle Hooya," he gives chess up altogether until the third grade. But when Alex peeks in on The Wednesday Chess Club, Coach B. is concluding the ten chess tips he’s written on the board with "Don’t play moldy old Uncle Hooya." Clearly, Alex has come to the right place.
Coach B. believes the best way to learn chess
is to play
and do chess puzzles …
and play some more.
Alex loses his first six games in the Wednesday Chess Club Tournament, but he doesn’t let this stop him. Game Seven is a draw, and he wins a handful of cheese puffs in Game Eight. The Saturday City Tournament doesn’t start out much better when Alex loses to "Owen Option-Checker" and forfeits to "Miss Lightning-Quick." But he wins Games Three and Four, and gets a rating, "not exactly the kind of rating he wanted, but it could be worse." And then it gets worse. Alex’s opponent in Game Five is an unwelcome flash from the past. Can Alex do better this time around?
Finding out the answer to this question is only one reason to read Alex and the Wednesday Chess Club. Here are a couple others: Janet S. Wong can turn a serious game like chess into a rollicking romp complete with squash and mud and a kid who loses his lunch. Stacey Schuett can draw chess pieces and cheese puffs in such a way that you’d think you were observing delicate negotiations between world powers. Details like the gorgeous highlights she draws in her characters’ hair — and these characters represent a variety of races — bring these characters to life.
And if that’s not enough, "Alex’s Top 10 Chess Tips" rounds out this perfectly delightful book. Let’s close with an excerpt from Number Nine: "Keep track of your moves. Sometimes I forget (just for a second) whose move it is — and then if it’s a dirty, rotten rat on the other side, he’ll try to take two turns in a row!"