Overcoming Fears – New Chapter Books for the First Grade Set

Lynn: I am firmly convinced that writing well for children is extremely difficult and writing well for the K-Gr. 2 set is one of the most difficult challenges of all! My all-too-necessary-in-Michigan stocking hat is off to people that manage to be authentic, engaging, and developmentally appropriate while telling a wonderful story! One of the best is Emily Jenkins, author of one of my favorite chapter book series, The Toys Trilogy. I am delighted to report that Jenkins has a new chapter book that will be published in June, Harry Versus the First Hundred Days of School (Random/Schwartz & Wade, June 2021. I fell in love with 5-year-old Harry Bergen-Murphy on the first page.

Harry doesn’t think he is ready for first grade. He has worries. Will he get lost in the big building? Will his teacher yell? What about mean kids and scary classroom guinea pigs? Not even the new Fluff Monster keychain on his backpack makes Harry feel ready. This absolutely endearing tale chronicles Harry’s experiences with school, the ubiquitous Hundred Days lessons, and how he becomes an expert at, not one, but three things! Jenkins masterfully puts readers right inside Harry’s head as he takes on the challenges of first grade. Funny, sweet, and absolutely dead-on authentic, this book addresses the complicated whirl of a child’s fears, misunderstandings, and confusions as well as the growth, revelations, breakthroughs, and triumphs of that important early school experience.

Harry is a complete delight. Loaded with Jenkins’ signature wry humor, the book is as insightful in the ways a young child thinks as it is funny. This will be a perfect read-aloud for classrooms, for parents helping prepare a child for that first day of school, or as a solo read for kids tackling chapter books on their own. Kids will delight in finding their First Grade experiences reflected here. Adults will find a heartwarming story of a little boy discovering his strengths, aided by caring teachers and supportive adults. Jenkins includes a terrific Author’s Note that includes comments on the lessons and a list of the many stellar books referenced in the story. I’d also just like to say the “Fluff Monsters” that Harry loves and invented for the story are the next fad waiting to sweep First Grades everywhere! Emily—you need to copyright this now!

I read this in galley which included just a few of the promised illustrations by Pete Oswald and I’m eager to see the finished copy. I can’t think of a better book to use as a first-grade classroom read-aloud or one for a parent to read with a first-grader to be. Absolutely stellar in every way.
Cindy: I have a story about a girl who has tackled and survived first grade, but has many more fears to conquer. Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey (Greenwillow, May 2021) by the talented Erin Entrada Kelly introduces us to 8-year-old Marisol who is afraid of everything. Small, quiet, and timid Marisol Rainey is a main character that many children will relate to, although they may need to be introduced to silent movies and their stars like Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. Marisol is a fan of those funny movies and how the actors can say so much without saying anything.
Marisol names everything, her stuffed animals, the refrigerator (Buster for Buster Keaton), and the huge scary tree in the back yard, which she named Peppina. She names all of the important things in her life as she says she wouldn’t want to be called “human” or “girl” so why shouldn’t refrigerators and trees have names?
Marisol has a supportive family and a patient best friend, Jada, who all understand Marisol’s fears and let her tackle them when she is ready. She also has mad Claw-Machine skills that have helped to grow her stuffed animal collection, but even then, she uses them to rescue the one-eyed misfit animal in the far corner of the machine. Marisol is kind. She is the kind of friend all first to third graders should get to know.

I Talk Like a River – A Perfect Pairing of Text and Illustration

Cindy:  It mystifies me that people can still be mean to others for their looks, their disabilities, and other things out of their control. Little is more isolating or heartbreaking than the loneliness of being singled out or mocked or bullied for something that is just a part of who you are. No matter how many “Kindness Matters” or “Be Kind” movements there are, we still have work to do to spread compassion. I Talk Like a River (Holiday/Neal Porter Books, 2020) by Jordan Scott and illustrated beautifully by Sydney Smith, shines a light on one such effort. The young boy in this book stutters. With poetic metaphor, Scott writes of words that take root and stick and turn to dust in his mouth. Speaking aloud in front of a class often makes for a “bad speech day.” His father can tell and offers to “go somewhere quiet.” They head to the river, a favorite place, where his father one day points out the movement in the river, the bubbling, churning, whirling, crashing. But after the rapids are calm places where the river flows smoothly and he tells his son, “You Talk Like a River.” That line comes from Scott’s own father, who helped him with his own stuttering. This will make a beautiful read aloud in a classroom and would pair well with Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness.

Lynn: We were lucky enough to see this book in galley at a Midwinter preview a year ago and it has been on my to-read list ever since. The finished copy is even more outstanding than I remembered. Sometimes the text of a picture book and the illustrations aren’t always equal in quality but that is not the case here. Rarely have I seen a case of the two coming together so perfectly. The text is deeply moving with writing that is ideal for a young audience and metaphors that every child can grasp.

“The P in pine tree grows roots in my mouth and tangles my tongue.

The C is a crow that sticks in the back of my throat.”

The illustrations are perfectly partnered with the text. Some are luminously beautiful, especially the scenes of the river. Some are ominous and threatening such as when the class has turned to stare when the boy is called on to answer in the classroom. Using watercolor, ink, and gouache, illustrator Sydney Smith’s art doesn’t just extend the text, it amplifies each emotion and experience. There is a gatefold center spread that opens to a shimmering image of the boy standing in the river backlit by the sun that is stunning! There are no words here but the images refract the overall healing sense of the place, the experience, and the father’s love and support.

Readers will come away from this book with a clear sense of the struggles the child experiences with his stutter and that is valuable. Perhaps more valuable is the underlying knowledge that the child is loved, supported, and understood and the strength that provides.

Update: We had this post in the queue and missed getting it published before the book was honored at ALA Midwinter with a 2021 Schneider Family Book Award for Younger Children. Congratulations!