Jul 29, 2021

BRI-I-I-I-N-NG!!! School Bells Ringing Soon

 There's no denying that "Back to School" will have an ientirely different ring to it than it did in September, 2020, or in the years prior, for that matter. Even so, there are some universal aspects to it that are undeniable, and that includes the need for some outstanding back-to-school picture books to share in the early days. That's because behind the many faces (no matter how many or how few, whether masked or not) sharing the experience of a new class, there will just that many different emotional and individual attitudes about the experience. The one thing each kiddo shares with the others is that their feelings are mixed. 

Recognizing this, I particularly appreciate back-to-school books that bring "all the feels" to the surface and allow us to experience them together. There are actually some great back-to-school read-aloud chapter books, but nothing beats the power of picture books in providing a complete, compact, and compelling moment of connection. I'll share two titles in this post, and tag on some come-along titles for each. 

Clarion Books, June, 2021

LITTLE BAT IN NIGHT SCHOOL stars a subtle but irresistible little regular among the many delightful bats in a series of "Bat" titles created by writer/illustrator BRIAN LIES. I've been a fan of LIES (rhymes with "cheese"), since I first encountered the picture book he illustrated by I. C. Springman, MORE. (That's your first bonus, and I hope you'll click to read my original review of that amazing book, but please read on about these school books first.)

Sorry, Little Bat, that I paused to make that connection. You've dealt with waiting for the spotlight through many books in the past, but you never lost that cheerful and curious personality of yours, or the  little yellow floaties that you sport in each appearance. And now you finally get to be the star of the story when you go to NIGHT SCHOOL! where else, when else, would a bat go to learn about the big wide world? And Little Bat was thoroughly prepared and pumped for this adventure, as the cover suggests. Even with Mama Bat at his side, the size and population of nocturnal animals in his new class casts a shadow across his brow. 

Mr.s C., the Raccoon teacher, extends a warm welcome, and Little Bat recognizes nighttime critters before he spots his target- other bats! In this parallel-to-kid-world, those bats are already friends and are not exactly welcoming to Little Bat. He turns to his cubby to unload supplies, where he meets little Ophelia Possum, who is also a tad timid, and is loaded with mistaken assumptions about bats. 

In page after detailed page, the two tentative friends ("I'll go if you will.") bolster each other through that first night of songs, art, math, snacks, and incredibly funny-punny scenes. In each, there is a steady tug of who is better at what, who is friends with whom, and how each lands in an assumed pecking order. Ophelia and Little Bat offer their thinking and energy to the rest in a building challenge and, as dawn approaches, they are weaving the ties that will make them into a class. When Mrs. C. closes the night with a read aloud that has them all begging for more, her reassurance that they'll all be back together the next night sounds like good news, agreeing that they'll all be coming back.

The magic of that transformation from individuals, friend packs, bold and timid kids into the foundation of yearlong family is undeniable, and Lies captures the process in these pages brilliantly. Just as undeniable is the magical quality of the art/illustration, encouraging close inspection of details, attention to all layers on each page with appreciation for the nuanced effects of "humanizing" the natural traits of each critter while generating smiles of recognition. Do not miss the fun of Little Bat's  "thumbs up" or the perfectly scaled school supplies and environment in relation to each animal. I could go on,  but I won't. 

Make Me A World, Random House. 2017

MY FIRST DAY demands our attention with that phenomenal cover, reminiscent of the iconic GREAT WAVE painting by Hokusai. This vibrant, vital story of a most unusual first day of school is the result of the combined talents of  Phung Nguyen Quang and Huynh Kim Lien. In this remarkable story , a young Vietnamese boy is the first person narrator of his departure from home, by boat, on the great river, Mother Mekong. 

On page after glorious page, the first day of school jitters are magnified a thousand-fold by the fact that this will be the boy's first time taking the boat alone, through floodwaters and mangroves, cresting wild waves on the sea, navigating the sounds and teeming lives through the "hallways" of the forest, where fear "slithers like a python" through areas that feel unfamiliar when traveled alone. 

The language is just as lush and lovely as the images, with familiar school terms deftly applied to this dense and imposing wildlife: 

"(I) write my name across the blackboard of the river."

""The sky is a crayon box full of colors."

"Schools of fish glint beneath the waves."

Back matter is direct and informative about the twelfth-largest river in the world, the Mekong. I can't imagine a more appealing and effective book to explore the overwhelming but exciting sensations that accompany the adventure of starting school than this. Nor could there be a better way to explore the flora, fauna, and allure of the Mekong Delta ecosystem and the way of life it supports. Its lives contrast dramatically with many readers in western culture, and yet will be  surprisingly familiar to those who live in the Everglades or in Louisiana back country. The layering of familiar, universal back-to-school emotions and preparations with this glorious adventure through expanses of wood, water, and wonder is unforgettable.  This is a must-see, must-read, and must-share picture book.

The bonus is a title featured in an earlier interview with co-creator Baptiste Paul (with Miranda Paul), ADVENTURES TO SCHOOL. This appealing nonfiction book provides brief profiles of some of the most dramatic and amazing ways that children from around the globe travel on their adventures to school. With real-world examples from jungles to mountaintops to waterways and more, this is a perfect choice to have on hand when a young reader (or you!) reads MY FIRST DAY and wonders- would children actually travel to school in such astonishing ways? 

Yes, they would. They do.

And in LITTLE BAT's book you'll find an answer to the ongoing question, "Why floaties?" 

No matter how you get to school, in a boat, on a school bus, or as a LITTLE BAT, the trip will be worth it. 

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Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.