Going to school

Whether it’s first day jitters, the journey itself, the activities happening there, or remembering past experiences, going to school holds significant meaning for children (and adults!), as these five picture books relate. See also Five Questions for Kerascoët about Bear with Me.

9 Kilometers
by Claudio Aguilera; illus. by Gabriela Lyon; trans. from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel
Primary    Eerdmans    56 pp.
2/23    9780802856005    $18.99

Originally published in Chile, this picture book begins with a quick chart comparing meters to miles (nine kilometers equals 5.59 miles), then the main text begins. A child wearing boots, jeans, and a backpack starts a long early-morning trek: “It’s still dark when I leave home.” The first-person narration describes counting steps (fifteen thousand on this walk), butterflies, and lizards in order to pass the time. Most of the story is revealed in the atmospheric acrylic paintings; for example, we see the child use a forked stick to raise the bottom of a barbed-wire fence and crawl through. The illustrations vary the point of view, so sometimes we are watching the protagonist, and other times we have a bird’s-eye view that demonstrates how small the child is and what a long way there is to go. One particularly effective picture shows the character crossing a cow pasture, looking tiny in the expanse with the bigger animals. The matter-of-fact tone is echoed in the closing pages, which give information on the distances children in various parts of the world might travel to school — revealed at the end to be our narrator’s destination — using specific examples. Additional information about the birds seen in the pictures is appended. The protagonist’s path is shown on the endpapers, perhaps encouraging readers to compare their own routes to school. SUSAN DOVE LEMPKE

Spanish Is the Language of My Family
by Michael Genhart; illus. by John Parra
Primary    Porter/Holiday    40 pp.
7/23    9780823450046    $18.99
e-book ed.  9780823455454    $11.99
Spanish ed.  9780823454464    $18.99

Genhart highlights the love between a grandson and his abuela through their connection with the Spanish language. Narrator Manolo signs up to compete in his school’s Spanish spelling bee. While he practices, Abuela tells him stories of how she was not allowed to speak Spanish in school, recounting the punishment and shame doled out to her and her classmates. After hearing about her experiences, Manolo is more determined than ever to study, and ultimately triumphs at the spelling bee. With a vivid color palette, Parra’s acrylic and digital illustrations bring warmth and brightness to Genhart’s story, which smoothly incorporates Spanish words and phrases within the text. Extensive back matter explains how Spanish was frequently prohibited in schools in the Southwest, especially from the 1930s through 1960s, causing many families not to pass on their language to their children. The National Spanish Spelling Bee, first held in 2011, is an effort “to change the history of negative attitudes toward Spanish and to raise its status in the United States.” A Spanish alphabet, pronunciation guide, and selected references are appended. Concurrently published in Spanish as El español es la lengua de mi familia. YESICA HURD

May’s Brave Day
by Lucy Morris; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Bloomsbury    40 pp.
8/23    9781547602902    $18.99
e-book ed.  9781547602919    $13.29

At breakfast, May can’t eat a bite — her stomach is too full of fluttering butterflies. She seeks solace from the natural world in her back garden, whispering her fears to the goldfish in the fishpond and wishing she could spend her days like a bee among the flowers. May’s mama reassures her that even her favorite creatures feel worried about trying new things: “A tiny bird has to learn to fly…Even a butterfly has to learn to spread its wings.” But May is still anxious as she gets closer to what’s worrying her: the first day of school. When she arrives, though, she finds an empty seat at the coloring table and a new friend along with it. Depictions of May’s bustling classroom in mixed-media illustrations that include pencil and pencil crayon will beckon to readers and viewers. Occasional spreads featuring expressive vignettes against white space enliven the presentation. Morris’s encouraging language (“May’s classroom…was warm and bright”) and calm illustrations will soothe soon-to-be students and apprehensive caregivers alike. Just right to dispel those pesky butterflies everybody faces sometimes — “and when they are gone, there is finally room for breakfast.” JULIA L. ERMI

Miss Irwin
by Allen Say; illus. by the author
Primary    Scholastic    32 pp.
4/23   9781338300406    $19.99

Remembering what his parents have told him about Grandma, second grader Andy patiently goes along when she calls him by the wrong name, confusing him for a student she’d taught long ago. “I had you in kindergarten…I am Miss Irwin.” He asks her (“Grandma…I mean, Miss Irwin?”) about a small nest he finds in a box in her house. She reminds “Willie” how he used to watch birds through the classroom window, and how she set up a hummingbird feeder in the plum tree outside; in turn, on the last day of school he gave her a tiny bird’s nest he had made. When she says, “Wouldn’t it be lovely to make nectar again?” her grandson suggests they put up a bird feeder. Facing pages contain close-up portraits of Andy on one side, saying, “It’ll be fun to feed the hummingbirds together, Gran,” and a beaming Grandma on the other, replying, “Nothing would make me happier, Andy.” Just as Miss Irwin years before had forged a connection with quiet, bird-loving Willie, Andy finds a way to reach his beloved grandmother. Say illustrates his gentle, loving story with softly sun-dappled, colorful oil paintings that range from hazy to clear, depending on the clarity of Grandma’s mind and memory. A brief but heartfelt author’s note explains the story’s origins. JENNIFER M. BRABANDER

The World’s Best Class Plant
by Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick; illus. by Lynnor Bontigao
Primary    Putnam    40 pp.
5/23    9780525516354    $18.99
e-book ed.  9780525516361    $10.99

Arlo is unimpressed by his class’s “mostly green, hardly growing, never moving plant,” especially because various other rooms in his school have a cockatiel, a chinchilla, and a bearded dragon. The plant is so boring that sometimes the class forgets it’s there — that is, until they name it Jerry. (Everybody, after all, “likes feeling special.”) Now that “the blob” has a name, the class is fired up: they give the plant more love, and it blossoms, even creating spiderettes (or “little baby Jerrys”). Soon the class plans — and the entire school celebrates — Jerry Appreciation Day. Scanlon and Vernick bring humor and an ear for the dialogue of elementary-school classrooms to this lively text. The teacher’s name, for instance, morphs throughout the book from “Mr. Boring” to “Mr. Bummer” to “Mr. Patient,” each followed by “(not his real name).” Eventually, he’s “Mr. Perfect (should be his real name).” Bontigao brings a diverse group of students to these pages and captures bustling elementary classrooms with details and precision. Jerry Appreciation Day, an outdoor day of fun, is especially festive. Plant-care tips are appended. JULIE DANIELSON

From the July 2023 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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