Let’s see. As a kid I had a brief love of a blanket (which ended abruptly when my mother put it in the washing machine one day). I was a perpetual crier, bursting into tears at the slightest nudge or misunderstanding. And I was afraid of dogs too. Yet my parents never really thought to themselves, “Let’s find Betsy a picture book about a blankie/crying/dog that will help her work through her issues.” That is because bibliotherapy hadn’t hit its heyday in the early 80s (nor, for that matter, would the selection of quality picture books on those topics have been much to crow about). These days I’m a children’s librarian and my reference desk is regularly visited by parents looking to secure the picture book that will explain to their child why they shouldn’t do such-n-such or fear such-n-so. Whether this parenting technique actually works is up for debate, but one thing is certain. Authors everywhere have done their darndest to convince us that their book is THE best on the topic you desire. And outside of a trip to the dentist or to get a shot at the doctor’s, the most harrowing experience looming in a preschooler’s near future is the prospect of the first day of school. Now Michael Wright brings back Jake, a young fellow who has already navigated the turbulent waters of nighttime in Jake Stays Awake. In Jake Starts School we see fear on display and a lesson imparted so skillfully as to almost seem like it was a sweet accident of writing rather than the author’s entire goal. As first day of school books go, Wright’s everyboy will strike the right chord with a whole generation of kids.
And it seemed to be going so well. On his first day of school Jake woke up, brushed his teeth, dressed, received his packed lunch, and then off he went with mom and dad for his big day. It was probably the moment when he screamed upon seeing his teacher (the very nice Mrs. Moore) and grabbed his parents in a deathlock around the knees that it started to go downhill. The thing about Jake is that he has one heckuva grip too. After some failed attempts at removal, Mrs. Moore determines that the only logical thing to do is to have Jake and his parents all attend his first day of school together. But class isn’t very fun when you don’t have a free hand to play with paint or glue and you can’t feed the class pet. And recess? Ridiculous! It’s only when Mrs. Moore introduces something familiar to Jake that he lets go of his parents and finds himself enjoying the whole school experience en seul.
Rhyming verse? Dangerous territory. Unless you are a book that intends to be considered a poetry title I would not advise that you give your picture book bouncy flouncy rhythms and rhymes. Too often these kinds of titles go horribly horribly wrong, crashing and burning in a terrible wreckage of bad puns and an insistence that the word “park” rhymes with “work”. Mr. Wright, however, breezes through without a break in his scansion. Certainly the real star of the show here is the illustration, but a parent could grow fond of the tone taken in this book. ” `There is no choice,’ his teacher’s voice / said to the clumping mass / `It’s looking like the three of you / will have to come to class.’” Wright is not immune to the immoderately stretched rhyme of course (“relief” coupled against “feet”, comes to mind) but it’s not so common that it jars particularly.
Now Mr. Wright has chosen to do this art on his computer. I know this sounds a little odd, but for some people this is a make or break proposition. I know an adult or two who cannot stand the sight of the curve of a virtual pen. If you are one of those people take heed and avoid this charming book. For the rest of you, Wright’s artistic style is deeply amusing. The people in his world look like nothing so much as denizens of the dimension from which The Muppet Show’s Beeker might have escaped. Long, almost cylindrical heads. No chins of which to speak. They do have one evolutionary advantage over Beeker (apart from the hair), however. When Jake’s parents find themselves particularly vexed their eyelids lower to half-mast, rendering them deeply skeptical witnesses to their son’s weirdness. It’s a look I, like many adults, fall for hook, line, and sinker. That’s the thing about Wright’s art. For all its computerized bluntness, there’s a charm to these characters. The kind of charm you’d get from a good episode of Dr. Katz, if you get my drift.
I was pleased, in an odd way, to see that when Jake wakes up there are several picture books on the ground beside his bed that pertain to the first day of school. It’s kind of a gutsy move to show the extent to which bibliotherapy doesn’t always work (particularly when you know that tons of parents will be using THIS book for the exact same purpose). Yet if you still would like to use this with your kids in that fashion then I would suggest that you consider pairing Jake Starts School with old standbys like Miriam Cohen’s Will I Have a Friend? or Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten. You may even want to read it alongside a fellow unconventional first day of school title Garmann’s Summer by Stian Hole which was also published recently. After all, these two books delve deeply into the nature of childhood fears. Wright’s hero faces his fears from one book to the next so that all kids can relate to him. And who knows? Maybe their own worries will be assuaged with his help. In this case there is fun to be found in the unfamiliar.
On shelves now.
- There is an extensive EXTENSIVE interview with Mr. Wright over at the always fabulous Cynsations.
- Wow. How many authors put pictures of their agents up on their websites? New trend or the last you’ll ever hear of Mr. Wright? You decide.
- Apropos of nothing, try searching the blogs on Google with the phrase “jake starts school”. You’ll find more teary parents waving goodbye to their own little Jakes than you ever imagine.