Friendship Marks a Life: A Review of ‘Amber Brown Is Not a Crayon’

“I want my friend to miss me as long as I miss him.”  Saint Augustine

Suggested Grade Level

Grades 2-3

Amber Brown Is Not a Crayon by Paula Danziger is a realistic story about Amber, a spunky third grader, who is almost always very confident.  She knows she is messy, has a good memory, and can sometimes be sarcastic, according to her mom.  Her teacher says she has “an active imagination,” and she doesn’t argue that point.  She expresses her feelings so well throughout the story that the reader is allowed into the special places in her heart.  When she begins a sentence with “I, Amber Brown….” it signals that she is about to make an important announcement about herself and her present state of mind.  Amber is facing a very difficult year however. Her best friend is moving away. We can see that at the beginning of her story she is struggling with the emotions of losing her best friend when she says, “When I grow up and remember third grade, I’m going to immediately try to forget it.” This is her journey.

Much of the story takes place at school.  Her third grade class has a dynamic learning environment.  The teacher, Mr. Cohen, immerses the class in activities that help students with different learning styles experience places such as: Hawaii and China.  The class uses their “passports” and travels by “plane” to visit these destinations.  Then the children produce follow-up activities and sample foods from each place.  During the trip to China, Amber eats a fortune cookie containing the message, “Experience is the Best Teacher.”  She begins to feel ill as she gets a sense of foreshadowing of what is ahead.

The students in her class are as varied as any third grade. Her best friend and classmate since preschool is Justin Daniels.  Amber considers them a good team at school and at home. They do everything together.  In school, they work on projects and help each other with school work. Whoever learns something first helps the other one learn it.  Justin helps Amber with fractions (not her favorite thing), and she helps him with words from the stories they read in class.  When they eat Oreos, Amber eats the cream center and Justin eats the cookie.  ”They just seem to know what the other one is thinking.”

There are a few problems with other students that Amber has to deal with at school also. Hannah, a classmate, criticizes the way Amber looks in her passport picture in an unkind way. Then when a boy is unwilling to share a brown crayon he tells another boy to use the top of Amber Brown’s head as a crayon.  Amber announces, Amber Brown is not a crayon.  Amber Brown is a person.” This statement stands out more than any other.  She recognizes that she has worth and should be respected. Love her gumption and spirit!

A dreaded event is looming over the good year Amber and Justin are having however. Justin is moving to Alabama, where his dad has started a new job, just as soon as the family’s house sells.  It seems that no one is interested in their house until the day they walk home from school and see a sold sign in the front yard. The event she hoped would not happen is staring her in the face. Amber adds this moment to her list of the worst days of her life.

Justin and Amber try to act as if nothing is different.  They continue their teamwork, and she helps him pack, but inside she is saying, “I, Amber Brown am definitely one very unhappy human being.” Unfortunately, they get into a silly argument while packing and stop talking to one another.  As Justin’s moving day approaches, Amber wants to talk about it, but to her Justin is acting as if everything is the same- “as if going away is easy.”  She is sad yet angry at the same time, which is confusing to her. She tries to figure out who could possibly take the place of Justin as her new best friend.  She mentally goes through the list of her classmates and their qualities but finally realizes that “getting a best friend isn’t like making a shopping list.” She’s upset and after some coaxing from her mother shares what she is feeling.  Her mom holds her and lets her cry even though Amber feels that if she starts crying she will “not be able to stop.”  Even with the sadness of Justin moving, at that moment, Amber does feel lucky “to have a mother who doesn’t act like her feelings don’t count, just because she’s a kid.”

Justin’s final day comes too quickly. The class has a pizza party – a going away party for him.  At almost the last moment, Amber and Justin come together as true friends one last time and talk. They both apologize for the way they’ve treated one another and Justin confesses his fears about moving and starting a new school.  They also admit that they are going to miss one another.  They know in their hearts that they will always be forever friends.

At the end of the book, Amber’s attitude about the year has utterly changed. Now when she thinks of third grade she says, “I’m going to think about Justin, and I bet he’s always going to think about me.”

This book is recommended for second and third graders.  The length may be a deterrent to some second graders who are just beginning to read chapter books but others may look at this story as a welcomed challenge.  The book has a familiar storyline and students will understand Amber’s feelings of losing a best friend because of a move.  The conclusion leaves the reader with an ending that shows a friend moving away is not the end of the world and certainly not the end of a friendship.

Possible Issues

  • Amber’s parents are divorced, and Amber doesn’t see her father because he now works in another country.
  • While making postcards as part of a project, Justin writes a note to his little brother that says, “Having a wonderful time. Glad you’re not here.  I ‘bearly’ miss you.
  • Hannah, a classmate, makes unkind comments about Amber’s looks in her passport photo.
  • Two boys call each other names such as” tuna head” and “rat rear,” and “doofus.” One boy sticks out his tongue.
  • Justin and Amber stick out their tongues at each other during a playful interaction.
  • While not talking to one another, Amber calls Justin ‘dirt bag’ and he calls her ‘crayon brain.’
  • Amber teases Justin’s little brother. She nicknames him Bratster.
  • Justin and Amber play a game called “Points for Hitting the Other Person.” [ chest hit = 1 point, rear end hit = 2 points, little toe, pinky, or belly button hit = 3 points, head or certain other places  = 5 points]

Further Discussion

  • Locate on a map the places mentioned in the story – Hawaii, China, Australia
  • Sample foods from the places mentioned in the story.
  • Discuss your child’s favorite color and why he/she likes it.
  • Write a story: If you could be any color in a crayon box, what color would you be? Give reasons why you would want to be that color.

Catholic Resources

  • Catechism of the Catholic Church 357
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church 1702 
  • It is important to discuss why name calling, even names that are silly, is bullying and can humiliate or belittle another person. “Bullying isn’t just the mean things you do; it’s all the nice things you never do on purpose.”( Jodee Blanco ) So, the other side of this discussion is to ask what holy action or act of grace nourishes another person’s spirit and gives the respect he or she should have as a child of God?
    • In the words of Saint John Paul II, “Life, especially human life, belongs to God; whoever attacks human life attacks God’s very self” (Evangelium vitae).
    • “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:45).
  • Bless your (new) home using this prayer adapted from the Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers; Bishop’s Committee on the Liturgy.
  • Prayer of One Who is Moving – Suitcase Reflection:
    • What blessings of your life do you most want to carry with you as you move on? Name these. (You may wish to write them down.) Thank God for the gift to carry these blessings with you in your heart as you move on.
    • What blessings are you most in need of as you continue your journey? Name these. (You may wish to write them down.) Pray for the grace to have these as a part of your journey.
    • If you wrote your blessings on paper, place these lists in your suitcase as a prayerful sign of your trust in God.

(From the National Catholic Reporter, by Joyce Ru)