Look Out, Washington D.C.! is a Polk Street Special, part of The Kids of Polk Street School series. I haven’t read any of the Polk Street School books before, and this wasn’t the best introduction to the characters—there were some interpersonal dynamics, nicknames, and phrases I didn’t fully understand, and the novel doesn’t bother to fill you in on what you’ve missed. But it wasn’t really a big deal overall.
The kids (I think they’re 2nd or 3rd graders?) are going on a field trip to Washington, D.C., and for many of them it will be their first overnight away from their parents. They’re supposed to keep a diary and to always stay with a partner. And those things pretty much comprise all the drama in the book.
Emily is the main character we follow. She’s been arguing with her younger sister Stacy who is certain that Emily lost the best picture that Stacy has ever drawn. She’s feeling pretty adrift socially, on the outs with one friend and not really close enough to anyone else. She ends up partnered with Derrick, who doesn’t really want to be her partner either. Plus she forgot to bring a notebook to keep her diary, so all she has is a tiny little notebook with about 3 pages that came free in her new purse.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
It’s clear that Emily and Jill’s families don’t have a lot of money. Mild sacrifices are made to get the girls the things they need for the trip. Emily really wants a purse, so she pays some of her own money to buy it—this means she has no money at all to take with her for souvenirs. When Derrick runs out of film for his camera (film!), neither he nor Emily has any money to buy a new roll.
Dawn has more money and flaunts it a bit with the new underwear and PJs she has. Emily wishes she could compete with Dawn on the “cool new stuff” front, which is part of why she feels she needs that new purse.
Most of the class apparently ends up at the local department store at exactly the same time, so it’s embarrassing to see everyone buying their new underwear. Jill ends up with beige underwear with legs because she frequently gets cold, and apparently this is the most embarrassing thing ever in Emily’s mind. She’s incredibly grateful that her mother let her buy some cute underwear with lace and bows. I’ve read few kids’ books outside of the Captain Underpants series that were so focused on underwear.
Although Emily doesn’t want to be partners with Derrick, he turns out to be a pretty nice kid. He helps her out when she falls and skins her elbows. With the whole class watching, he digs into the garbage can after lunch when he notices that she accidentally threw away a note that her mom had tucked into her lunch bag. Emily’s sister Stacy seemed pretty bratty, but then Emily does find Stacy’s missing picture among her things—and she also finds some coins that Stacy had tucked into her suitcase, which was probably all the money of her own that Stacy had. Emily realizes that, while everyone wants to be Number One, the nicest people let other people be Number One sometimes, too. Emily uses the money to buy souvenirs for Stacy and Derrick.
There are plenty of adults, but they’re not particularly interesting. The moms are all fine, balancing what their kids want with what their kids need. The teacher keeps order without being mean. The mother who comes along is always slightly overwhelmed and complaining about her nerves. The grandfather who comes along is always laughing slightly about whatever the kids are doing.
One kid, who tends to be a troublemaker, is called Beast. Everyone seems to call him this. Maybe it’s explained in other books, but it’s certainly not here. He’s a minor character in this book, so there’s no indication of why he gets that name.
Based on the illustrations and the descriptions of her four braids, Jill is African-American and there’s a little diversity among the students in the school. Race isn’t an issue in the book much at all.
Guide to D. C.
The kids visit lots of sites, and lots of famous people are mentioned and briefly described in passing, too. The back of the book is a list of places you can go in Washington, D.C. There are maps, descriptions, addresses and phone numbers for the sites, etc. These are written as homework assignments from the kids, with some input from some adults, so they’re more accessible than, say, your average tour guide.
There’s not a lot of depth here, but as a way to get your kids possibly interested in visiting Washington, D.C., with a bonus lesson about judging people by their actions rather than your assumptions, it’s kind of fun. It’s suitable for newly independent or reluctant readers, probably 8 and up. The book shows its age a bit (which makes me wonder if the contact info in it is up to date?) when a few coins can actually buy something and when Derrick runs out of film.
Look Out, Washington D.C.! by Patricia Reilly Giff
Published in 1995 by Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers
Part of the Polk Street series
Read an old paperback copy