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Author well-schooled in ways of 7-year-olds

Like so many 7-year-olds, Keena Ford never intends to get into trouble. But trouble finds her, nevertheless.

Like the time she got a shot, and the nurse said Keena would feel a pinch for a second, but it was definitely more than a pinch. And it hurt for a long time.

So Keena gave the nurse a taste of her own medicine: “I grabbed her arm and pinched – HARD. Just so she would know what it really felt like, instead of telling kids it will only pinch for a second.

“Then I learned that you never, ever pinch or you get in big trouble.”

Melissa de Castrique Thomson's “Keena Ford and the Second-Grade Mix-up” ($14.99, Dial Books) is a new book for elementary school readers. And if Keena sounds familiar – that is, like 7-year-olds we all have known – it's because Thomson has amassed lots of on-the-job research, as a teacher in a Washington, D.C., elementary school.

Thomson's name also will be familiar to many Charlotte folks. She grew up here, attending Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Davidson College. Her dad, Mark de Castrique, is a local mystery writer.

Thomson says Keena was inspired by all her students – “their adventures, their misadventures, they're all in there.”

Second-graders, she says, are at an age where they're trying to “find that balance between what they want and wanting to behave. It's hard to do the right thing the first time when you're 7.”

Keena's difficulties choosing the right thing emerge when her new teacher asks students to write down their birthdays. Keena's birthday is Feb. 9, but she transposes the month and day and writes “9/2.” That happens to be the very next day.

When her teacher announces that she'll bring in a chocolate cake for Keena so they can celebrate, Keena knows she needs to correct her mistake, but then again … chocolate cake.

Thomson read the story to her students a couple years ago, long before publication. When Keena kept missing chances to come clean about her mistake, Thomson says they groaned in frustration. “They kept wanting her to come out with it.”

Keena Ford is a funny, endearing little girl, and kids who love the adventures of Junie B. Jones will surely enjoy Keena. (Here's how she explains the point of telling a restaurant server to hold something: “It means ‘Do NOT put that on my food.'” Keena orders coffee with milk and instructs the server to hold the coffee.)

Thomson now teaches in Manhattan – different kids, more good research material. Already, she's finished a second Keena book, which will be out next summer. In that story, Keena goes on a field trip. Many comic possibilities await.

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