According to the old adage, death and taxes are the two things in life we can’t avoid. Children know about a third: school. In the United States, youngsters of a certain age must attend school, receiving state-mandated instruction at home or in public, private, boarding, or parochial institutions. School is a child’s introduction to inevitability, the first thing no amount of wheedling, whining, or begging can prevent or postpone.
Children approaching that first school year sometimes feel proud and independent; just as often, they’re scared and apprehensive. The good news is that a variety of books address these emotions and experiences. Typically, such books introduce new physical spaces, discuss various kinds of learning and behavior, or offer reassurance to readers (and listeners) that they will be fine in their new environments.
Beginning kindergarten or first grade is often a worry. I saw such anxiety firsthand last spring in Atlanta. While riding the train one day, I looked across the aisle and noticed a young boy holding an obviously beloved stuffed animal with big floppy ears. Catching one of those well-worn ears between his fingers and rubbing it, he turned to his grandmother and said softly, “Grandma, tell me a story about Big Blue Dog going to school.” Grandma began what appeared to be a practiced narrative, relating how Big Blue Dog (obviously a surrogate for her grandson) would make new friends and have a wonderful time. The boy worried about letters and numbers: Big Blue Dog didn’t know them all yet. Grandma assured him many others didn’t as well, and everyone would learn them together. She did allow that school would have neither a bowling alley nor a swimming pool. On the other hand, this school boasted a great playground, and no one was at the mercy of the cafeteria — lots of kids brought lunches from home. The more she talked, the less the boy rubbed Big Blue’s ears, but his apprehension never completely abated. Note: this was April; school was fully five months away.
This youngster was fearful, just like six-year-old Garmann from Stian Hole’s recent picture book Garmann’s Summer. On the last day of summer, one of Garmann’s aunts asks, “How do you feel about starting school? Do you have butterflies in your tummy?” Garmann, “wondering how butterflies get into your stomach,” answers, “I’m scared.” His named fears about school mirror my fellow traveler’s: though he hasn’t yet passed through certain important stages, school is nonetheless upon him. “Not one of Garmann’s teeth is loose yet . . . Every evening, all summer, Garmann has been feeling his teeth in front of the mirror. The neighbor girls, Hannah and Johanna, have both lost their two front teeth. They are going to start first grade, too.” This book explores Garmann’s fears of the inevitable and ends with no tidy resolution. “Before going to bed he checks his teeth one last time to see if any are loose. Thirteen hours to go before school starts. And Garmann is scared.” Author Hole isn’t giving a pop psychology message of “I feel your pain” but rather an opportunity for children to see that fear enters and exits our lives, sometimes making only a brief appearance, at other times refusing to leave. That knowledge alone may comfort some youngsters.
Typically, though, books for didaskaleinophobiacs (those afraid of going to school) introduce their fears gently and with humor. Few children will share all of worrywart Wemberly’s concerns, but they’ll be familiar with a few she expresses in Kevin Henkes’s Wemberly Worried. “By the time the first day arrived, Wemberly had a long list of worries”: “What if no one else has spots? What if no one else wears stripes? What if no one else brings a doll? What if the teacher is mean? What if the room smells bad? What if they make fun of my name? What if I can’t find the bathroom? What if I hate the snack? What if I have to cry?” Gentle conclusions, like the one Henkes provides, show that the imagined or real school calamities often resolve themselves; children don’t have to become grownups and work out every problem single-handedly just because they’ve taken that first step toward independence.
Reassurance also comes through Henkes’s decision to make Wemberly a mouse, like Chrysanthemum and Lilly and Julius before her. Wemberly will seem like a near-friend for those already familiar with Henkes’s previous books. Books in series, such as Lauren Child’s I Am Too Absolutely Small for School from the Charlie and Lola books, offer the same kind of comfort. They place a familiar character (like the young reader) in a new situation (like the young reader) and have that character succeed (hopefully, just like the young reader).
One of the operative words in the phrase going to school is going, a pretty big deal for most children who may know that “the wheels on the bus go round and round” but have never ridden a bus alone before. What happens? Will I know when to get on and off? Will the bus be there to take me home? These questions signal a good time to hop aboard Donald Crews’s School Bus. Big bold shapes create yellow buses that pick up kids, deliver them to the correct campuses, and take them back home — all without fanfare and within the natural course of a day. J. Patrick Lewis reinforces the routine in his poem “School Bus Driver”: “I don’t know how she does it / Every day at 8:03, / But rain or snow or sleet I know / She’s always there for me.” So what’s to fear?
Maybe the fears are about learning. Until this point in their lives, children often have been, in the words of Chrysanthemum’s parents, “absolutely perfect.” They’ve received unconditional love whether they think that L–M–N–O–P is one letter or five or whether or not they know all their shapes and colors. But now, for the first time, a stranger will be judging them on concepts they don’t yet know and skills they haven’t yet mastered. And even if they aren’t “absolutely perfect” as learners, they’re going to have to tackle these tasks anyway. That’s scary. It’s also inevitable and purposeful. As Charlie explains to younger sister Lola, who is resisting that first day with all she’s got, “And what about learning your letters, Lola? If you know how to write, you can send cards to people you like.” But Lola balks: “I like to talk on the telephone. It’s more friendly and straightaway.” With typical older brother oneupmanship, Charlie tells her, “But not everyone has a telephone, you know, Lola.” There’s Santa Claus, for example: “You have to write him a special note and send it to the North Pole to tell the elves your Christmas wish. Otherwise the elves might get your wish mixed up.”
Some of the books that we introduce to kids can incorporate educational skills. For example, School Bus gives children a chance to review shapes by pointing out the triangles, rectangles, and squares so prominent in the design. Adults might also introduce new words such as parallel (the way the buses line up or the directionality of the street crossings) or let children count all the buses or windows or doors on each page. Alphabet books, such as Matthew A.B.C., contain another kind of learning experience within a school setting. Mrs. Tuttle’s kindergarten contains twenty-five children all named Matthew. She is able to tell them apart because each, quite conveniently, displays an attribute that begins with the letter of his last name, starting with the affectionate Matthew A. A couple of reader favorites attend class, such as the nearly naked Matthew N., or Matthew L. who leaks great green gooey globs from his nose. Although a student covered with zippers (new arrival Matthew Z.) may not be the norm for kindergarten, other characters allow youngsters to build their vocabularies, see the printed words for familiar classroom objects (such as glue, which Matthew G. has trouble with), and encounter those twenty-six fabulous letters in a richer context than the “Alphabet Song” allows.
In the midst of being scared about learning new things, consider how confident children can feel when they know a lot more than individuals in a book. Out for an early morning walk, Minerva Louise (another familiar series character) comes across what she believes, from her chicken point of view, to be a big barn. Children will quickly realize that the “barn” is a school. Minerva Louise spots the “farmer” hanging out his laundry (this would be called raising the flag); the “nesting boxes” (which children know are cubbies); and even a baseball mitt with an “egg” nestled inside it. In Minerva Louise at School, clever children can identify the different objects while feeling a little superior to this bird-brained chicken.
School books about those initial experiences should be upbeat. Following his familiar pattern from the “Wow!” series (Wow! America! and Wow! City!), Robert Neubecker gives youngsters a busy and cheerful glimpse into the world of education with Wow! School! Each double-page spread creates a sense of wonder about a variety of classroom experiences such as art, books, science, and friends. The accompanying patterned text for each event (“Wow! Art!”; “Wow! Science!”) also builds confidence as young listeners can “read” this one on their own while seeing the joy of learning that bursts forth from every illustration.
The thing about school is that it rolls around every year, with each new grade bringing an entirely new set of challenges. The change from kindergarten to first grade is enormous, and even the most confident of kindergartners (Ramona Quimby, for example) can get her comeuppance as a first grader. As the titular heroine from Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls: Moving Day tells her preteen readers, going to a new school makes “butterflies in my stomach turn into pterodactyls.” And that’s the same sensation that Harry Potter gets on his way to Hogwarts (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) or Joey Pigza understands because he’s “wired” (Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key) or the Herdmanns, those infamous stars of Woodrow Wilson School (The Best School Year Ever), share with older readers.
Even with all these exemplary offerings, it’s wise to remember that children may not want an exclusive literary diet of school books. They’ll also find comfort in old favorites and gain a sense of independence from making their own reading and listening selections. And isn’t that judicious mixing of the new with the old what school and learning are all about?
From the September/October 2008 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.