“I like the idea that anything is possible, don’t you?” (Stella to her teacher, p. 7)
In Stella Endicott and the Anything-Is-Possible Poem, Stella Suzanne Endicott, is one of those glorious young children who finds the whole world and all of life absolutely amazing. A wonderfully engaged, curious and imaginative child, she lives in the same neighborhood as that awesome pig, Mercy Watson, and other characters on Deckawoo Drive. On the first day of school, she meets her new teacher, Tamar Calliope Liliana, and thinks the teacher’s name “… sounded like the name of a good fairy in a deeply satisfying story … “ Her “arch nemesis” is Horace Broom, a big know-it-all, whom she finds most annoying.
When Miss Liliana asks the students to write a poem using a metaphor, “Stella had a feeling that she was going to be very, very good at coming up with metaphors.” Unable to work at home, due to her brother’s hovering (he sometimes reminds her of Horace), she goes to visit Mercy Watson and curls up beside her on the couch. As everyone knows it is
“… a very comforting thing to lean up against a warm pig.” e
e The next day she and Horace have a disagreement over Mercy Watson. Horace, a literal type, refuses to believe a pig could live in a house and sleep on the couch! Stella angrily assures him that Mercy Watson does! Miss Liliana sends the arguing pair to Principal Tinwiddie’s office (“the toughest sheriff in town”). Horace, greatly frightened of the principal and of a blemish on his academic record, flees from the office and hides in the janitor’s storage closet. Stella races after him and, as she steps inside the closet, the door closes and the two are locked in. Did I mention that poor Horace is also claustrophobic? While they wait to be rescued, Stella comforts him. A glow in the dark map of the solar system gives Horace the opportunity to help Stella learn the names of the planets, and keeps his mind off of his fears. They share the things they love best: Horace, who wants to be an astronaut, loves telescopes, Stella loves metaphors. By the time they are rescued, both are fast friends.
With an almost lyrical narrative, a gently humorous, but thoughtful story, and delightfully quirky characters, this early chapter book is pure DiCamillo. Van Dusen’s gouache illustrations humorously enhance the narrative. DiCamillo helps children see the value of imagination and creativity and that trying to understand that annoying person could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. As Stella always says: “anything can happen …”
When I was the target age for a book like The Pigeon HAS to Go to School!, if I scraped my knee or bumped my head, my dad would examine the injury and say, “Oh no. We’re going to have to amputate!” It worked every time, turning my tears to belly laughs. Similarly, in this most recent addition to the popular series kicked off by Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Mo Willems tackles first day of school fears with Pigeon’s slightly subversive wit and my dad’s effective approach: identify the worst-case scenario and demonstrate how silly and ridiculous it is.
Pigeon hints he’s worried even before the title page, ordering the reader, “WAIT! Don’t read that title!” After all, why should Pigeon have to go to school? He already knows everything. Also, he’s not a morning person. And if he learns too much — his head might pop off! Looking and feeling very small on the page, he finally admits he’s scared. “The unknown stresses me out, dude.” What is he worried about? “Why does the alphabet have so many letters … Will FINGER PAINT stick to my feathers?” Or the one that really gets me: “What if the teacher doesn’t like pigeons?”
Like other books in the series, the illustrations are spare, with large blocks of pastel colors. All the words belong to Pigeon and are delivered in prominent speech bubbles in a large hand-lettered Courier-style font. There are opportunities for interaction; I can already picture my favorite two-year-old responding to Pigeon’s command, “Go on — ask me a question. Any question!” and then giggling proudly when the next page shows Pigeon is stumped. Pigeon eventually reasons out why school will be okay, but in a fun finish, he really feels it when he realizes how he’s going to get to school: a bright yellow … bus!
If the music teacher, the art teacher, the school librarian, and even the principal of Maple View School didn’t change the rule to allow pets in class, who did? Author Linda Ashman answers that question in Take Your Pet to School Day, but only after chronicling the rowdy behavior of the animal visitors. The lively, easy-to-read verse can be a fun way to start a conversation about why we need rules at school.
Suzanne Kaufman depicts both the human and animal populations at Maple View in colors that feel vibrant, soft, and warm at the same time. The illustrations are full of variety and detail. Kids will find children of every skin and hair color and enjoy inspecting their clothes in pastel solids and rainbow stripes, their high tops and cowboy boots and sneakers. The pets include the expected cat, dog, and bunny, as well as the unexpected: a turtle, a hedgehog, and even an entire ant farm. It’s an adventure just to find the hamster, who rolls somewhere new in its wheel on each page. I can’t recommend taking your pet horse to school, but I heartily recommend Take Your Pet to School Day.
I’M TRYING TO LOVE MATH Written and illustrated by Bethany Barton (Viking Books for Young Readers; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
As someone who loves math and wants kids to love it, too, I approach I’m Trying to Love Math with caution. Is math going to get a bum rap in this book? The narrator starts off by saying, “If you ask me, math is not very lovable. I know I’m not alone here either. 4 in 10 Americans hate math.” Worried, I study the pie chart right beneath the dreaded “H” word. Sixty percent of the pie is a bright wash of green labeled “YAY MATH!” and adorned with hearts. Forty percent is lemon yellow with “BOO MATH!” above a broken heart. Meanwhile, an adorable purple alien pops up in the corner and asks, “Did you just use math to explain how much you don’t like it?”
What a relief! I can see we’re in good hands here. I’m Trying to Love Math provides a variety of awesome answers to the age-old question: “When will I ever use math in real life?” Baking cookies? Check. Making music? Check. Exploring Earth and other parts of the universe? Check and check. After fun illustrations of ice cream and ships and electric guitars and cash registers—and a whole page of pi—the narrator comes to the conclusion that “math is a part of so many things I already love … I guess I don’t need to try to love it at all. It turns out … I already do.” I recommend this book to all math lovers, especially the ones who think they are haters.
The King of Kindergarten written by Newberry honoree Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, transforms the average day at kindergarten into an extraordinary, royal adventure.
It’s fun to read Barnes’ regal language. As Mom says, “today” her little boy is going to be the “King” and, with this encouragement, he prepares to venture out confidently. Brushing his “Royal Chiclets,” he dresses himself and “wolf[s] down a tower of pancakes.” I love the emphasis here on growth, maturity, and independence. Being “deliver[ed] … to a grand fortress” (a.k.a. school), he joins the “round table” where he cheerfully exchanges greetings with his classmates. The royal theme continues during circle time, recess, lunchtime, and beyond, each opportunity allowing him to exercise his noble code of honor by braving playground politics, sharing his royal bounty (in the form of an extra cup of chocolate pudding), and showing kindness to his friends. Vibrant colors invite us readers to participate in the little boy’s “Kindergarten Kingdom;” flowing shapes excite us with anticipation of what’s next on his adventure.
A great way to introduce the school day to budding kindergartners, The King of Kindergarten shows us how a little change of perspective can rewrite a potentially scary event into a magical tale.
See Derrick Barnes on August 31 at Little Shop of Stories, LLC in Decatur, GA
TRUMAN Written by Jean Reidy Illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins (Atheneum Books for Young Readers; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
★Starred Reviews – Kirkus, School Library Journal
Written by Jean Reidy and illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins, Truman is a heartwarming story of the loving relationship between a pet and his owner. But it can also be read as a tale about the challenges a younger sibling faces as his older sister starts school.
There is no doubt readers of all ages will fall in love with Truman. How could you not? He’s “the size of a donut—a small donut—and every bit as sweet.” In simple yet powerful ways, Reidy and Cummins express the affection Truman and Sarah share. Sarah isn’t merely Truman’s owner; she’s “his Sarah” (my emphasis) who shares the same “peaceful and pensive” personality as her adorable tortoise. Humble shapes and bursts of yellow throughout paint a happy home with decor that brings back memories of my own childhood, notably, the Felix the Cat look-a-like clock on the wall.
This particular day, though, is “truly unsettling” because Sarah is acting different. She eats a “big banana” at breakfast, “clip[s] on a blue bow in her hair,” “strap[s] on a backpack SOOOOOO big thirty-two tortoises [can] ride along in it,” and leaves extra food for Truman. Most shockingly, she boards the number 11 bus, that mysterious bus he can see from his window riding in the “honking,” “growling” city below. Truman spends the day in worrisome wonder as to where Sarah could possibly be and why it’s taking her so long to return.
Through Reidy’s funny tone and Cummins’ artistic perspective, Truman’s journey out of the safety of his tank, and his determination to find his beloved owner is as endearing as it is humorous. Of all the challenges Truman faces, my favorite is his crossing of the living room rug—“That glorious … ENDLESS rug” made all the more imposing by the mean looking toys along his path we see through Truman’s eyes. When he hears the number 11 bus, he’s ready to cross the threshold, but Sarah is back in time to reunite with her pet and congratulate him on his bravery.
Truman encourages all of us facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge with the message cleverly written on city bus #11: See New Sights! Hear New Sounds! Think New Thoughts!
Can an honorable pirate be loyal to more than one captain? This is the question posed in Pirates Don’t Go to Kindergarten! written by Lisa Robinson and illustrated by Eda Kaban.
Equipped with the pirate basics (treasure map, spyglass, and cutlass), Emma storms into school, this first day of kindergarten, determined to set sail once again in last year’s ship commanded by “the roughest, toughest, awesomest preschool pirate cap’n ever”—Cap’n Chu. Yet, it’s a new year and, as Ms. Chu gently reminds Emma, Cap’n Chu has “‘a new band of pirates” to lead. Despite attempts by Cap’ns Chu and Hayes (Emma’s new teacher) to interest Emma in her outer-space-themed kindergarten classroom, Emma sails back to Cap’n Chu’s ship, fiercely allegiant to her pirate roots.
When Ms. Hayes’ class pet needs feeding, Emma shows interest and discovers all the fun activities in the kindergarten class: a nature center, an art studio, a reading nook, and science station. What’s the one thing missing? “NO CAP’N CHU!” Back in Ms. Chu’s classroom, everything blows out into a full mutiny. This is where the book provides a great opportunity for caregivers to talk about just how confusing and conflicting emotions can be. At the heart of Emma’s protest is feelings of fear and loss at having to accept this major childhood transition and perhaps, even, feelings of guilt as devotion to one person may feel like betraying another. With heartwarming affirmation from Ms. Chu, Emma is ready to “‘open the shuttle hatch’” of her new classroom, bringing her own pirate spin to the kindergarten space station.
A great picture book for talking about transitions, Pirates Don’t Go To Kindergarten! will draw in seafarers and landlubbers alike.