For most of the country, school has let out or is about to do so. You’ll have to forgive me for writing today about a picture book that is centered on the first day of school, but it’s about to see its release in a couple of weeks. Why it’s being released now, and not near the beginning of the school year, is beyond me, but I’m sure publishers have their reasons.
I don’t write about it today, however, from such a utilitarian perspective. I write about it because I think it’s one of the best picture books I’ve seen this year – and can be enjoyed any time of year. I’d heard from various, trustworthy sources that this was a good one, and now I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
Adam Rex’s School’s First Day of School is told, just as the title tells you, from a school’s perspective. A book told from a building’s point of view might sound iffy—perhaps boring at best—but it’s an endearing story. I’m in a book club focused on children’s literature. It’s the only kind of book club I think I could stand (I, otherwise, bristle at being told what to read), and it includes, but isn’t limited to, teachers and librarians who love to keep up with the best in children’s books. At our last meeting, someone read this to us all, and we laughed and laughed. And compared to some of the other new picture books read aloud that night, it stood out as the most child-friendly (and entertaining) one by far.
On the title page spread, illustrator Christian Robinson shows us that the school is brand-new. We see construction workers (men and women, damn skippy) with their huge machines, building what we learn is Frederick Douglass Elementary. The opening spread solidifies this: “That summer,” Rex writes, “they dug up the big field, and poured the foundation, and set brick on top of brick until they’d built a school.” I like how Rex dives right in to the narrative there. (And since it kicks off in the summer, perhaps that’s why the book will see a June release.) In the second spread, we are even closer to the school, as if we are students about to enter. Robinson subtly personifies the front door: Its two windows, door handles, and base make the entire thing look like a face, smiling slightly, if not apprehensively. (Wisely, Robinson doesn’t take this too far; I think a full-on, detailed anthropomorphizing from all angles would be slightly creepy and/or altogether too earnest.)
School has every reason to be apprehensive, though it’s also excited: It’s not really sure what its very purpose is. School has an intimate conversation with “a man named Janitor.” This is delightful in its absurdity (the building talking to someone inside it), but Rex brings us this conversation right away so that we, as readers, just run with it. Janitor tells the school that it will soon be filled with children and assures the school it will like them. In an honest moment that can certainly be read for laughs, while simultaneously communicating the school’s hesitancy, Rex writes: “But the school thought that Janitor was probably wrong about that.”
When the children arrive, the school is overwhelmed. “They got everywhere,” Rex notes. Cue the loud laughter of children, who will recognize the humor in being obliquely likened to something like an invasion of ants. At first, the school observes the goings-on with a sort of cool distance, such as when it figures out the purpose of the jungle gym. But then some children start to complain. The bullies at recess (the ones who gather by the fence and have “bored faces” – I love that description) say, “This place stinks” and “I hate school.” One girl is even brought in late, kicking and screaming. This is the school’s lowest point—it sags, in fact—as it starts to wonder if it’s simply odious.
It even retaliates a bit, squirting a bully in the face with a water fountain. It goes from a little bit bitter to penitent. After a fire drill, it says “sorry” to each child who walks back into the building after grouping outside. Things turn around, though: The girl brought to school against her will starts to smile; the school hears a killer joke; and it learns, along with some kindergarteners, all about shapes.
Rex personifies school in subtle and detailed ways: When, for instance, the girl who finally warms to school makes a great picture of the building, the teacher hangs it on the classroom wall with a pushpin. “Ouch,” says the school, though it is also thrilled that the girl finally loves and accepts it. This, I think, will utterly charm children in the best possible way.
In fact, the book’s child appeal is off the charts. It makes me want to snap my fingers and be back in an elementary school in an instant, sharing this with, say, kindergarteners. (Even older elementary students can appreciate this, but I think those brand-new students are the book’s sweet spot.) I can just imagine children getting inspired, attributing a personality to the building in which they spend their days, and seeing it in an all-new way – as if it is actually alive in some way.
To ask children to put themselves in the shoes of another, yet it’s a building? And it works on every possible level? That’s a special kind of magic the author and illustrator have spun. It’s a true delight, this one. Don’t miss it, especially (but not only) when the school year rolls around.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
SCHOOL'S FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL. Copyright © 2016 by Adam Rex. Illustrations © 2016 by Christian Robinson. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press, New York.