Welcome back to Paperback Throwback, where I highlight a book from my ever-growing collection of older paperbacks, ‘90s and prior. Join me on this stroll down Literary Memory Lane. Stops include Sweet Valley High, Fear Street, and anywhere else mass market paperbacks may be lurking. Check out everything from Zebra’s line of horror to Scholastic’s preteen Apple Paperbacks, and everything in-between—you’ll know them by their stylishly cheesy covers, flashy plots, and cheap prices.
Apple Paperbacks, with their stories focused on legitimate problems facing kids while remaining fun, took control of the preteen literary market in the ’80s and ’90s. Collen O’Shaghnessy McKenna’s Merry Christmas, Miss McConnell! exemplifies the line: on the surface, it’s a bright Christmas-themed story that plays with on the ‘stern teacher’ trope. Yet underneath is something a bit deeper.
Meg Stafford cannot wait for the annual mall Christmas pageant, but everything changes when her perfect fifth-grade teacher is replaced by the seemingly-strict Miss McConnell. It’s not that she’s overtly mean, but she just doesn’t seem to … like them. And after a crude note falls into the wrong hands, putting the pageant in jeopardy, Meg must prove that her class really isn’t as bad as they might seem.
McKenna taps into the anxiety that permeates any classroom when there’s a change in teachers—particularly in the middle of the school year. Meg and her classmates are settled into their routine when Miss McConnell comes gliding in. It’s an interesting dynamic, and McKenna expertly taps into it not by creating silly misunderstandings, but a legitimate problem: just as things seem to be turning positive, one student writes an offensive note attacking Miss McConnell that she then finds.
That alone would make for a compelling story, but McKenna amps up Meg’s problems by showing her home life. After Meg’s father injures his back, he becomes a near-recluse and there are some hints that he’s addicted to pain medication. The result is a strain on the family’s finances—really, taking them from middle class to lower-middle class—that’s woven into the rest of the story. Particularly for a book written in the ’80s in this niche, it’s a unique exploration of economic diversity.
But of course, at its heart, Merry Christmas, Miss McConnell! is a Christmas story and there’s plenty of heartwarming charm to draw all of these plotlines together for a festive conclusion.
Title: Merry Christmas, Miss McConnell!
Authors: Colleen O’Shaughnessy McKenna
Publication Date: October 1991
Classification: Middle Grade