Ellie is certain that no teacher can satisfactorily replace her beloved Ms. Simpson; still, as the last eight weeks of fifth grade pass, she comes to appreciate Mr. Garrett, who has been called out of retirement to substitute. At first, Mr. Garrett seems cold and strict; but as he helps the class come to terms with the death of their class pet, sensitively handles a boy's pants-wetting during a standardized test, and gives the class new responsibilities commensurate with their ""almost sixth grade"" status, the children's feelings change from dislike to respect, and finally to love. Characterization in this first novel is deft; similarities between Ellie's older brother's teasing, which she considers immature, and her own cruel joke of giving a cat-food sandwich to the class glutton are evident to the reader, though Ellie herself is unaware of the parallel. (And it's easy to imagine both children growing into the sort of wit that's displayed by their father.) Each student is distinct and consistent; the action is believable and satisfying. A strong debut.