Back to school, with a smile
With year-round school schedules and earlier and earlier starting dates, it’s sometimes hard to say when the back-to-school season for American kids begins. Those of us of a certain age know that school should start after Labor Day, but that, like cassette players and phones with cords, is just a quaint old-timey idea in many parts of the country.
No matter the start date in your area, it won’t be long before kindergartners and elementary school kids are looking for books to explain the world of school to them. Whenever your new school year begins, you can be ready with these new offerings and know that they will help pave the way to a successful school year.
It’s not just kids who go to school—buses make the daily trek, too. Poet Marilyn Singer explores in exuberant rhyme the trip to school in I’m Your Bus, illustrated by Evan Polenghi. Every page bustles with brightness and sparkle, and even the traffic lights on the dedication page have big smiling faces, ready for school! Short, easy-to-read rhymes keep this story moving. “Sweepers sweeping, bakers baking. / Dawn is barely even breaking. / Time for buses to be waking!” All the vehicles, from street sweepers and trucks to taxis and limos, are painted with wide, welcoming smiles—just the encouragement youngsters need to face a new school year. This would be a wonderful book to read on one of the first days of kindergarten, even if your kids walk or drive; the rhythm is infectious and the words are easy to memorize, which makes this a perfect choice for children who are excited about learning to read.
Once parents have gotten their children over their concerns about school buses, the real issue will have to be faced: school itself. No matter the happy faces that parents put on, some kids do not want to go to school, ever. A newcomer to America, Stephanie Blake, has just the antidote for this reluctance with I Don’t Want to Go to School! Originally published in France, this is the humorous tale of Simon, a mischievous little rabbit who does not want to go to school. Each time one of his parents tells him all the great things that happen at school, he answers with just two words, “No way!” Despite his firm statements, the time for the first day keeps drawing nearer and nearer. Using a mixture of half-page illustrations, saturated primary colored backgrounds and amusing graphic elements, the story will have new readers delightfully unsure whether Simon will even go to school, let alone like it. American children will enjoy some of the details that mark this book as a little bit Continental—the children have chocolate mousse in the cafeteria, nap under a communal blanket and the blackboards and posters are written in cursive with the numbers one and seven jauntily crossed. Simon’s many facial expressions are a marvel as well. The endpapers alone will make the most worried kindergartner laugh! Simon might be the perfect friend to carry to school on the first day.
A much more serious offering about school adjustment is My Name is Sangoel by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed, illustrated by Catherine Stock. This is the gentle story of one refugee boy from Sudan and his adjustment to life in his new country, the United States. Young readers will quickly empathize with Sangoel as he, his mother and sister enter the bustling airport, filled with English signs and people speaking English. Because his father was killed in Sudan and he carries his Dinka name, Sangoel is the man of the family and the only one who speaks any English. The biggest adjustment for Sangoel is school. Everywhere he turns, people mispronounce his name, and he fears he will lose even that connection to his father. But his ingenuity pays off when he figures out a way to let everyone know just how his name is pronounced. Through soft watercolors and the occasional torn photo or fabric collage, Stock’s illustrations let the reader understand exactly how Sangoel is feeling and what a tremendous challenge it is to move to a new country and continent. Books like this tend to be preachy, but the writers keep the focus here on young Sangoel and his adjustment without veering into the political. Most schools in America have refugee children or children who are adjusting to a new culture and language; this is a book, along with Aliki’s excellent Marianthe’s Story, that should help build compassion in many classrooms.
Robin Smith teaches second grade in Nashville.