Picture books serve all kinds of purposes. Some are meant to entertain. Others to instruct. Some deal with concrete subjects, and others are more emotional. Today I was asked at my library to come up with a list of children’s books in which a character is visibly different from the other kids in their class. It was tough, but I came up with a couple, ending with One Green Apple by Eve Bunting. The books I listed had to be part of my library’s collection, which disappointed me because if there were one title that would have fit to a tee it would have been the brand new Layla’s Head Scarf by Miriam Cohen. Part of her We Love First Grade! series, these books offer simple text and storylines to cover everything from First Grade Takes a Test to a recent re-illustrated reissue of Will I Have a Friend? In her most recent addition, Cohen tackles the subject of dressing differently in a school setting. This being the first grade, kids at that age are mostly concerned with physical attributes that cause someone to stand out. And for the youngest readers, I learned myself that there isn’t a whole heckuva lot out there to offer. So I am happy to report that from one of the picture book greats comes a book that fills a need.
New to school, Layla is shy. When all the other kids sing the hello song in the morning, she’s the only one unwilling to sing out her own name. When playing on the playground, Layla stands to the side while the other kids run about. And since she wears a head scarf she’s subjected to a kind of scrutiny. Yet with patience, helpful adults and kids draw Layla out of herself. A nice librarian shows the other kids a book of where Layla’s family is from. A lunch lady compliments her food. And when she draws a picture of her family, not even Danny’s callous critique of their head scarves can keep Layla from feeling good when her teacher says, “It’s beautiful.”
The storytelling in this book mimics the raucous randomness of a first grader’s day. Layla is certainly the focus, but the perspective leaps about the room and playground as other children talk or play. When the kids go to the library, for example, you see the different classmates looking at books on turtles or soccer or kittens. Eventually the story turns back to Layla when it needs to, but she isn’t front and center at all times. As in any classroom, she’s just one of a lot of children. And on the particular day that this story takes place, she gets just a little more attention than the rest of them.
Cohen’s pretty good at getting down the attitude of your average first grader. When Danny asks why Layla doesn’t remove her “hat”, it’s know-it-all Anna Maria who leaps in to say that it’s not a hat, it’s a scarf, and “She doesn’t have to take it off if she doesn’t want to.” Kids do like to self-police, so I appreciated this nod to that instinct some of them have. Cohen also gets down their ability to hurt and their indignation when they feel misunderstood. After Danny makes Layla cry he tries to clarify the way in which he was insulting her painting of her family. “I didn’t say they were funny-looking. I said their scarves look funny.” There’s something strangely telling in his objections. If he’s going to be accused of something, it should at least be the right thing.
It fun to have a picture book series for kids where characters appear regularly. After a while you can get a feel for the characters. This series advertises itself as “great for Social and Emotional Learning” (capitalization theirs, not mine), which a lot of teachers look for. As a librarian, I’m asked for books along those lines all the time, and half the time I end up directing them to Virginia Kroll’s The Way I Act Books. Now we have something for earlier readers on a lower reading level as well. Miriam Cohen has been writing picture books for children for decades. Kids will appreciate that fact when she gets their emotions down pat. Layla’s Head Scarf is no exception.
On shelves now.
Source: Copy given by the author.
Professional Reviews: Strangely enough, this review right here may be the only time you ever see this book mentioned. There’s not a single professional review of it out there. Not even SLJ, and they tend to do everyone. I cannot account for it.
- Meet one of the librarians to whom this book is dedicated.