As a teacher, counselor, and department chair for 28 years, Betty Thomas Patterson noticed a significant gap in the Oxnard, California, school system. “I realized that college is not always discussed in the home,” she says. The mother of two and grandmother of one thought “something should be available to get the conversation started.” That “something” turned into Patterson’s debut children’s book, What’s College About Anyway?

Released in January 2018, the book introduces college to young children, ages 4 to 9. “Students need to know about college early,” she says. “My professional experience [was] mostly with high school students, but at a young age, children think of and learn so much and are into technology. I thought, ‘Where does college fit in?’ ” If students are informed of their educational options before middle school, Patterson explains, they can figure out where they want to go.

In What’s College About Anyway? an illustrated children’s book, teacher Miss Sims cheerfully engages her class in a spirited discussion about institutions of higher learning. She begins by asking her students what they’d like to be when they grow up. Upon hearing a plethora of responses—everything from pilot to nurse to someone who “build[s] tall buildings”—Miss Sims asks who has heard of college. Spoiler: Not every child raises their hand. 

Patterson, now retired and living in Oxnard, California, north of Los Angeles, chose to set her book inside a classroom for several reasons. Because it’s aimed at young readers, “I wanted to start simple, with ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ ” As a former teacher herself, she also knows the classroom can be a great equalizer. “I like having a discussion in the classroom for students whose parents have gone to college and, more importantly, students whose parents haven’t,” she says. Just as Miss Sims informs her class, Patterson reiterates, “You can be the first in your family to go to college.”

Miss Sims tells her students that colleges come in different sizes, but all cost money to attend. Those funds can be procured through loans and scholarships as well as by working one’s way through school. And not only does college prepare a student for a career, Miss Sims enthuses, but attending college also leads to many other opportunities, such as trying a new sport or art form, meeting people from around the world, and even studying abroad.

There are other opportunities as well. “You can also join groups that get out and do volunteer work in the community,” Miss Sims says. “If you want to help out other students, you might join student government or a tutoring program.” At the end of the book, Miss Sims asks who would like to attend college someday and is met with a resounding positive reply from the whole class. 

A simple and accessible story for young children about college had been on Patterson’s mind for a long time. “My sons always said, ‘You should write a book,’ ” she says. “I always [replied], ‘I don’t have time!’ ” But once Patterson retired, she was determined to make her dream a reality and focused on completing the manuscript, which took a few months. When asked if she encountered challenges in the writing process, Patterson replies, “I just sat down and thought ‘What do I really want to say?’ and typed it out on my computer.”

When Patterson’s publisher, Mascot Books, offered her a choice of illustrators, Agus Prajogo was the clear front-runner. “He had my vision of what I wanted my characters to look like,” Patterson says of Prajogo, whose illustrations in What’s College About Anyway? include students of various races, ethnicities, and genders. “I wanted to have that feel of inclusiveness as far as college is concerned. [The illustrations are] very colorful and very simple, and I think they’re engaging for students.” 

Education has always been a priority for Patterson. Originally from Louisiana, she received a Bachelor of Science degree from Nicholls State University in her hometown of Thibodaux and then a master’s in education from Southern University and AM College in Baton Rouge before embarking on her teaching career. She knows college may not be right for all but wants to ensure every child knows it’s an option. “I think it’s important to be aware,” Patterson says.

Patterson thinks the book is ideal for children with college-educated parents and relatives as well. “In many families, college is an expectation, and that’s wonderful. Even if that is the case, the book very simply describes what college is about. She notes that mature subjects that are well illustrated “can be fun and engaging.” Kirkus agrees, calling What’s College About Anyway? “an informative, exciting book about a truly valuable topic” that “sends a clear message that anyone can pursue higher education.”

Patterson hopes schools and libraries will embrace her debut as part of their curricula and use it as a starting point for a variety of discussions. “You can ask, ‘Do we have any colleges in our neighborhood?’ Kids see media with sports all the time, and you can factor college teams into your discussion. These topics could lead to other assignments and things to do in the future.”

On a more personal note, Patterson says, “I plan to talk to my granddaughter about colleges soon.” Though Patterson’s son has read the book to his young daughter and says she enjoys it, Patterson suspects the child may require a bit more convincing. “She’s 4,” Patterson notes, laughing. “So of course, she knows everything.”

Lauren Emily Whalen lives in Chicago and is the author of two young adult novels.