Meet Henry. He's the protagonist of Jenn Bailey's A Friend for Henry, illustrated by Mika Song, and he's entering Classroom Six (“second left down the hall”) and looking for a friend.
It can be daunting for anyone to make friends at this age—these are very young children populating the classroom, so we can assume this is a preschool or perhaps even a Kindergarten class—but it's even harder when you're on the autism spectrum, as Henry is.
As the other students socialize, Henry stands in the middle of the room, scoping it out and weighing options in his mind: he can't be friends with the fish, who is quiet but can't play on the swings, and the friendly teacher shares well, but Henry figures she is required to do so.
Henry's attempts to socialize with several classmates don't go so well; as an autistic child, he struggles with social communication and interaction and has a hypersensitivity to sounds, as well as difficulties in understanding others' body language. None of this is laid out explicitly in the book—it's never even stated in the text that he has autism (though it is mentioned on the front book flap)—but it's clear in his interactions.
Vivianne confuses him, for instance, when she shows him her brightly-colored fingernails, which her mother painted for her. Henry wants to know if Vivianne's mother got in trouble for that, since painting on people is not allowed. Later, Vivianne gets upset when Henry paints rainbows on her shoes, but Henry doesn't understand this. She likes rainbows, and a real friend, he thinks, would thank him for the gesture. Things also go poorly with Samuel, who over-enthusiastically messes up the carpet squares, which Henry had laid out just right: he had made sure that all the carpet squares' edges met with all their corners fitting perfectly. Henry gets angry at Samuel.
It is with sensitivity and precise language that author Jenn Bailey, who herself has a son on the autism spectrum, writes about these experiences from Henry's point of view. "Vivianne was a kaleidoscope, a tangle of colors," she writes. "She had ribbons and clackety shoes." And Samuel is "a thunderstorm, booming and crashing. He was kind of scary if you didn't have your blanket." Illustrator Mika Song captures the classroom dynamics with unfussy compositions, rendered via soft ink and watercolors, and expressive body language. She rarely depicts Henry looking anyone else in the eye. I like how, during story time when Henry must sit next to the teacher for having just thrown a fit about Samuel, Mrs. Magoon is holding a book that looks as if it could be When Sophie Gets Angry — Really, Really Angry, Molly Bang’s classic picture book on how to tame a temper.
This is a picture book that gently and deftly captures what it's like for an autistic child to make friends in a new classroom. It's a book that listens to them. ("A friend listens!" Henry thinks during his fit of anger over Samuel.) In one of the book’s most detailed observations about autism, we see Henry become frustrated when Samuel imaginatively refers to one of the carpet squares as one from “a genie’s lamp.” Henry’s face gets hot, we read, as he tells Samuel that the sticker on the back of the square plainly states it’s from Rug World.
And it's a book that will help children not on the spectrum understand what it's like for children like Henry. What it does best in this regard is helps them see that children like Henry are making efforts to fit in and that it's not for a lack of concern that they may cause disruptions in the classroom. This is a story that puts them in Henry's shoes and lets them think his thoughts, see things from his eyes, and feel what he does.
Henry does make a friend in Katie, who is thoughtful and who listens and who "reads storybooks all by herself." The final illustration shows them reading independently—yet side-by-side. A happy ending for Henry in a story that truly understands him.
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.
A FRIEND FOR HENRY. Text copyright © 2019 by Jenn Bailey. Illustrations copyright © 2019 by Mika Song. Published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco. Illustration used by permission of Mika Song.