Sometimes I think that easy readers are the hardest books for kids to write. Those are the beginner books where the word count is limited and you have to somehow pack emotion and story and imagination into a very small space with very few pages. We can’t all be Dr. Seuss, but after reading A New School Year: Stories in Six Voices by Sally Derby, I may have to revise some of my thinking on the matter. Yes, easy books are hard. But imagine how difficult a book like this one must have been. In it, Ms. Derby takes six elementary school kids and in four short vignettes apiece has to pack in a story with each character’s history, feelings, changing emotional state, acceptance, and unifying conclusion. Add in the fact that these are alternating poems, and this is literature in its most essential / purest form.
Ethan, Zach, Katie, Jackie, Carlos, and Mia are about to start Kindergarten, first grade, second grade, third grade, fourth grade, and fifth grade (in that order). The prospect daunts each and every one of them (Jackie notes that “God must hear a lot of praying the night before school starts”). For each child the prospect speaks to a different fear. Ethan, going into Kindergarten, places his bear’s fuzzy jacket in his pants pocket, for comfort. Zach in first grade faces the fact that now he has to relearn everything after doing so well the year before. Katie in second grade finds that she’ll have a new male teacher, which throws her for a loop. Jackie in third grade is worried that her teacher won’t understand her need to be in the schoolroom before class starts. Carlos in fourth grade is starting a new school entirely. And Mia in fifth grade overthinks everything. Will a single day solve every problem and worry these children have? Maybe not entirely, but by the story’s end, each child comes away with a better understanding of what they’ve gotten into, and they’ve a plan for tackling the year to come.
Every year near the end of summer the First Day of School books erupt from bookstore and library shelves like a crop of late blooming flowers. The bulk of these are made for Preschoolers and Kindergartners, covering the usual points of concern. I’ve noticed that each season you usually end up with a load of perfectly-fine-verging-on-mediocre first day of school books, and one over-the-top-excellent first day of school book. Last year it was Adam Rex and Christian Robinson’s School’s First Day of School. This year, it may well be Sally Derby/Mika Song’s A New School Year. By encompassing all the grades in an elementary school, Song gives the storyline an interesting bit of continuity. Children of every grade can read this and empathize with children both younger and older than themselves, while simultaneously looking forward to the days when they’ll fill the older grades. You won’t find many first day of school books for fourth and fifth graders published, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need them. If anything, there is much to be said for offering comfort and cheer to kids who believe everything, for them, is irrevocably changing.
Character development in children’s literature is an art. The younger the book and simpler the language, the more impressive it is if you’re able to work in some personal details about your subject. Part of what Derby does so well is to subtly slip in racial, economic, disability, and gender-related concerns without shifting the focus of the book. The end result is that you have a book with a kid on the lower end of the economic spectrum one moment worrying about how her teacher will handle her situation, while on the other a boy takes note of how many kids have brown skin like him, and another child worries about being seated next to the door since the outside noise may interfere with her hearing aids. I’ve seen plenty of authors in my time shoehorning in diverse elements with all the grace and effervescence of a 500-pound banana slug. Derby, in contrast, is using the poetic form to spot her internal monologues with significant notes and details. And since each child in the book gets four times to talk about themselves, that means you don’t have to indulge in an info dump of exposition at any one time.
The general rule when it comes to narrative poetry is this: Did this book have to be written as poems? Is there a good reason for it? Interestingly, the book and its subtitle never use the word “poetry”. This is a collection instead of “Stories in Six Voices.” Stories, not poems. I think the distinction is interesting, though certainly whoever wrote the flap copy on the book made darned certain to say the book was full of “Alternating poems”. So why not just tell the tale as little alternating monologues without calling them poetry? It could just be that verse is easier to read. You can get a point across without bogging down with too much language. You can also be a little more artful with your wordplay, should the mood strike. Derby’s lines are workmanlike in their simplicity. They’re more concerned with conveying the story and characters than the beauty of a simple turn of phrase. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just good to know when you’re trying to identify the type of poetry this book contains.
Mika Song is a relatively new illustrator on the picture book scene though she’s debuted in 2017 with a truly hearty list of titles. In addition to this book, at Tundra Books she’s illustrated Ted Staunton’s Harry and Clare’s Amazing Staycation and at Harper Collins she has her own written and illustrated book Tea With Oliver. It’s little wonder that Song is popular since she gives her characters a gentle quality that eschews infantilizing. These kids (a diverse crew) may be only distinguished in age from one another based solely on height, but they have personality and pep. Plus, thanks to Derby’s writing, Song got to illustrate an image of Meg White of the former “White Stripes” playing the drums on a poster in Mia’s room.
And just to round everything out, let’s talk about some of the uses this book might have in a school setting. If you wanted to make a school play out of the text it could be done. After all, there are six kids who speak four times apiece. That means twenty-four speaking parts, just perfect for a class. If you wanted to make a play with actual kids from each age you’d have to simplify the language for some of the younger children but that wouldn’t be too much of a problem. There are dramatic possibilities at work here.
A New School Year isn’t the kind of book that will win awards. There is no official poetry award from the American Library Association and even if there were one it would go to something vast and sweeping, not something cuddly and utterly essential. It might have an outside chance at a Schneider Family Award for its depiction of a child with a hearing aid in a classroom setting, but the character is just one of six kids, and not the focus of the book. No, this is the kind of story that has a million uses, but won’t catch the eye of librarians and teachers unless you tell them about it. Perfect for children of a vast variety of ages, there’s a lot to be said for books that assuage fears. Honest and diverse, touching and good, this book’s a keeper. Hand it out when August rolls around and give a kid that sage advice that sometimes things really do turn out all right.
On shelves June 27th.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
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