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A New School Year: Stories in Six Voices Hardcover – June 27, 2017
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Through 24 sensitive poems, Derby (Jump Back, Paul) presents six students' perspectives before, during, and after the first day of school. The children represent different grades, kindergarten through fifth, and their perspectives, voices, and concerns are realistically varied. "We were making calendars/for September,/and all my twos were backward," confesses Katie, a mortified second grader. fourth grader Carlos, whose poems are dotted with Spanish, worries that there aren't any other kids with "brownish skin/and black hair like mine" in his class. And fifth grader Mia, who uses hearing aids, winds up at a desk near the door "where the hall sounds get in the way of what I need to hear." Set against white backgrounds, Song's (Harry and Clare's Amazing Staycation) spare ink-and-watercolor images focus on the kids, and their body language and expressions dovetail gracefully with the interior worlds painted in Derby's poetry.
*At the start of a new school year, six children tell of their worries, hopes, and growth in 24 free-verse poems. The book is divided into four sections, with one poem for each of the six children in each section: "The Night Before," "In the Morning," "At School," and "After School." The children and their situations are quite diverse: Ethan is a blond, white kindergartener who lives with his mom, with his grandpa in a nearby apartment; Zach is a confident black first-grader; shy second-grader Katie's skin is light brown, and she lives with her mom and grandmother; Jackie is a blonde, white third-grade latchkey kid; Carlos is a Latino fourth-grader whose poems are sprinkled with Spanish; and Mia is an Asian fifth-grader who wears hearing-aids. While none of the poems by themselves stands out as anything amazing, the four separate poems each child is allotted combine to paint a picture of a full character: Ethan carries Bear's jacket in his pocket and draws extra family members since his little triad looks lonesome on the white page. But he resolves to own up and to leave Bear's jacket at home tomorrow. And altogether, the collection presents readers with snapshots of first days across the spectrum of grades, from stomach butterflies and new-teacher worries to class jobs and making both mistakes and new friends. Song's watercolor-and-sumi ink illustrations clearly show the kids' emotions and some of the sights common to almost all classrooms. Diverse in so many ways, this could be a springboard to readers' own poems about school.
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
Ethan, Zach, Katie, Jackie, Carlos, and Mia prepare for the first day of school. Entering kindergarten through fifth grade, respectively, the children face uncharted territory and cope with their circumstances in different ways. The six kids are of various backgrounds and have a broad range of worries and habits, but they're unified in their anxiety. Amid their uncertainty, the children are pleasantly surprised when their first days turn out to be better than expected. Neatly packed into four sections—"The Night Before"; "In the Morning"; "At School"; and "After School"—Derby's poems guide readers through each child's experiences during the 24-hour period. Designed as vignettes, Derby's free-verse stories depict common themes, which nicely evoke the typical emotional struggles children preparing for their first days of school frequently face. Song's muted watercolor illustrations capture tranquil snapshots of everyday life as well as evocative facial expressions conveying the many moods portrayed in Derby's candid storytelling. Kids anxious about their first days will likely be comforted by this easygoing collection.
About the Author
Sally Derby is the author of many books for children, including Kyle’s Island, Sunday Shopping (Lee & Low), Jump Back, Paul: The Life and Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar (Candlewick), and No Mush Today (Lee & Low). Sally lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Mika Song is a children's writer/illustrator who grew up in Manila, Philippines, and Honolulu, Hawaii, before moving to New York to study animation at Pratt Institute. She is the author/illustrator of Tea with Oliver.
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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.
For ages 5-12