Most kids would be happy when their parents don’t make them eat their broccoli. But ten-year-old Charlie wants his parents to care for him. As is, they care more than the endangered animals they travel the world to help. It’s only when his parents leave him with his TV-obsessed grandparents and Charlie solves a small-town mystery that Charlie learns what it means to be there for someone and for someone to care about him. In Charlie and Frog by Karen Kane (Disney Hyperion 2018), Charlie needs to learn sign language (ASL) from Frog, who prides herself on being an amateur detective, in order to help the worried woman he met. Frog’s larger-than-life personality makes her the perfect contrast to passive Charlie, showing him how to stand up for himself as they solve the mystery in their town.
Charlie and Frog is a funny book when you look at the exaggeration involved. Charlie’s parents aren’t just neglectful; they practically ignore their son as they travel the world doing service for endangered animals. Charlie’s grandparents aren’t just obsessed with TV; they don’t know how to have a conversation with their grandson and have nothing to do without the TV on. These exaggerations make Charlie’s lonely plight feel more funny than tragic. (It seems clear that people are not generally quite so bad as this.) The humor throughout gives the book a friendly tone, and the mystery is not dangerous or violent in anyway, although a graveyard is involved. It’s a perfect mystery for tweens!
The setting is also a key part of Charlie’s story. Castle-on-the-Hudson is a small New York town with a unique boarding school for the deaf just a gondola ride away, over the river. As the daughter of the school owners, Francine “Frog” Castle knows everyone in town and desperately wants to solve the mystery as practice for her future career as a detective. Frog is deaf, and since the mysterious woman (Aggie) Charlie met was signing to him, he needs to learn sign language from Frog in order to know how to help Aggie.
I love that ASL was such a key part of the little town! I studied sign language for a year in college and have friends that use ASL as primary communication. As the story summary explains, ASL is essential for Charlie and Frog to communicate and to solve the mystery. The book sprinkled ASL throughout with a chapter illustration of an ASL word, a word that Charlie himself learns at that point in the story. Charlie’s growing knowledge of sign language mirrored his growing friendship with Frog and her family, as well as his own growing confidence in standing up for himself, showing his grandparents that he is important.
My daughter and I read Charlie and Frog last year for her fourth grade homeschool; she loved the sign language aspect and we learned some ASL together. I love that the author used this culture as a key part of this middle grade novel; what a fun way to expand the world for young readers!