Ms. Chievus – very much like her creator, South Surrey author Sandip Sodhi – is a teacher with a plan.
Faced with an impossible, out-of-control class of elementary school kids (the ominously-named Division ‘O-O’), she must find a way to engage with them, and at the same time, let them know what is acceptable, appropriate behaviour.
In Sodhi’s charming, cheerfully whimsical children’s book, Ms. Chievus in the Classroom she finds her best strategy is to be even worse-behaved than her students.
She yells in class. She stands on desks, she does somersaults and cartwheels. She chews bubblegum annoyingly loudly. Worst of all, she doesn’t even bother to teach the children anything.
And while that’s fun for a while, the children can’t help feeling there’s something wrong, somehow.
Before long Ms. Chievus is in trouble with the school principal, Ms. Fedup – and the children realize it’s up to them to save her by coming up with a plan of their own.
Sodhi’s fable, for all its humour, has some underlying lessons about “discipline, self-regulation, playfulness and mutual respect,” the author said.
Self-published through IngramSpark and available from amazon.ca and Vancouver’s Kidsbooks – it’s an ideal early text for beginner readers, with plenty of highly relatable illustrations created by Ken Priebe, who teaches animation in Vancouver, and coloured by his wife Janet, a watercolourist.
Sales will also go to help two worthy causes – Sodhi has decided to donate net profits equally between the Canuck Place Hospice and the MAMTA Foundation which provides homes for girls.
Sodhi, a 26-year veteran K-7 classroom teacher and teacher for Surrey School District, told Peace Arch News she wasn’t originally intending to pen such a frivolous literary debut as Ms. Chievus in the Classroom.
“I went on a course a couple of years ago on the ‘virtues’ and how to teach them,” she said. “I wanted to write an A-B-C book for young readers, but I got stuck. I said to myself, ‘this is too serious – you need to have fun with it.’”
Once she hit on Ms. Chievus – Sodhi acknowledged, with a smile, that the unconventional educator just might be inspired by her own “mischievous nature” and a few of her earlier teaching experiences – the character just seemed to take over from there.
The book was written and illustrated pre-pandemic, she said – and test-read by her own students, even before the Priebes became involved in the project.
When she realized that the notion of a mischievous teacher was involving the children’s imaginations, she decided to go ahead and commission the illustrations.
“Ken wanted to have them in black-and-white at first, but when I told him it had to be in colour he suggested that Janet would be an ideal person to provide that,” she said. “They’re both lovely, very nice people.”
The book was first published in March – at about the time COVID-19 struck – which has inevitably slowed the process of launching and promoting it, Sodhi said.
Since then, she has finished the more serious book (“I didn’t want to get stuck in one genre of writing,” she said) and has almost finished a third, an alphabet book for younger readers highlighting “positive experiences during COVID”.
“We forget how many things we should be grateful for,” she said.
Among those she is personally most grateful for are her daughter Soheyla, 15, who attends Semiahmoo Secondary (“she’s highly involved in the music program there”), and her husband Arvinder (“he’s awesome – he supports me in everything I do – he just says, ‘Go for it!’” she said).
Born in Coventry, England to a family that had originally emigrated there from India in the 1930s, Sodhi has lived in Canada since the age of two.
The youngest of seven siblings who grew up in Vancouver’s East End, she has been keenly aware of the multi-cultural fabric of Canadian society and has been careful to make sure that her story reflects that.
“The students in the class are from diverse ethnic backgrounds, just like the students I teach,” she said.
“I put in names that are unique to different cultures. It’s so great when children can pick up a book and identify with the different characters.”
But just as important in engaging the imagination of children is the blend of the humorous and the unusual that Ms. Chievus in the Classroom achieves.
“If we can find something funny in a book, we’ll stay in the story,” she said.
“Particulary if there’s a twist of ‘what if?’ – a sense that anything is possible.”
And she acknowledges that her own students have been fascinated by the similarities – and differences – between her and Ms. Chievus.
“I do like to have fun, but I can also be quite strict with my class,” she said.
That has led some of her students to declare, flatly, “Mrs. Sodhi wouldn’t break the rules,” she added.
“Some of them will still ask me ‘Mrs. Sodhi, are some of the things in the book true?’
“What I do is answer them with another question,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye.
“I say, ‘which ones do you think are true?’”