Middle Grade Review: Bernice Buttman, Model Citizen

Bernice Buttman, Model Citizen by Niki Lenz

Genres: Middle Grade, Humor
Maturity Level: 2
View on Goodreads
Rating: ⋆⋆⋆

When you’re a Buttman, the label “bully” comes with the territory, and Bernice lives up to her name. But life as a bully is lonely, and if there’s one thing Bernice really wants (even more than becoming a Hollywood stuntwoman), it’s a true friend.

After her mom skedaddles and leaves her in a new town with her aunt (who is also a real live nun), Bernice decides to mend her ways and become a model citizen. If her plan works, she just might be able to get herself to Hollywood Hills Stunt Camp! But it’s hard to be kind when no one shows you kindness, so a few cheesy pranks may still be up her sleeve. . . .

This was a moderately funny book, but most of the humor relied on classist stereotypes that made me uncomfortable. Kids will probably enjoy this modern update of The Worst School Year Ever, but it shouldn’t be considered the meat-and-potatoes of their reading diet.

Bernice Buttman is a bully. Why is she a bully? She isn’t really sure other than that her brothers are bullies. Also she is fat, lives in a trailer park, and gets bad grades, so I guess people expect her to be a bully. But when her mom leaves her with her nun-aunt so she can pursue her Hollywood reality-TV stardom dreams, Bernice gets a chance to start over.

What I like about this book is that it showed kids like Bernice, kids who struggle in school or who bully other students, complexly. Bernice isn’t a bad kid, she just doesn’t know how to be “good’. For example, she does poorly in school not because she is stupid or doesn’t try, but because she is far behind and is having trouble catching up. Her teacher, however, assumes she is just lazy and treats her as such. She bullies other students not because she doesn’t like them, but because she doesn’t know how to make friends having never been taught. Her home life is terrible and her mom emotionally abuses her. Of course she doesn’t have good social skills! It’s important for kids to see other kids complexly and not as “good” or “bad”, but I think teachers will connect more with those themes (which makes sense since the author is a teacher). These lessons also come off as preachy, especially at the end.

I think students will find the pranks and mis-steps in this book hilarious. From changing out her teacher’s hand sanitizer with glue to accidentally covering a kid’s pink, multi-tiered birthday cake with cheese balls, the physical comedy in this book is successful. I think they will also find Bernice’s manner of talking hilarious, but I am concerned that those laughs come via exaggerated stereotypes of “trailer trash”.

Ultimately this book is about how it is never too late to decide what kind of person you want to be, which is a great message for kids to hear. Though it may have been helpful for kids to see how it is possible to change without a change of scenery as that isn’t a choice for everyone. Actually, instead Lenz inadvertently implies that you can’t change who you are without changing where you are. But I’m probably overthinking it.

Anyway, funny book that kids will enjoy, but definitely find a way to pair it with more empathetic books such as Amina’s Voice or Walk Two Moons.


2 thoughts on “Middle Grade Review: Bernice Buttman, Model Citizen

  1. Great review! I often see in book that kids or any person behave s badly because of either parents don’t teach them or abuse them and don’t pay attention to them and people around them don’t notice the real person behind all tough and mean demeanour. I like that message in the book. It’s never late to change things.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I loved the way you phrased that, “people around them don’t notice the real person behind…”! I think this was an especially great reminder for me as an adult, because it’s so easy to label kids like this as troublemakers or lazy, and forget that they just want their teachers to love them too.

      Liked by 1 person

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