by Sam Juliano
A popular idiom goes something like this: “I would have loved to be a fly on the wall to witness that great event you just experienced.” A variation on that theme centers around a newly constructed school that is ready to host students for the opening day of the academic year. The only different is that wall itself is privy to what is transpiring. School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex and Christian Robinson, may well induce adults preparing to read the book to their own classes to hum strains from the standard “See You in September” by the Happenings. This is no ordinary opening of school book as the perspective is posed by the school itself. We’ve seen those horror movies about haunted houses that are cognizant of every nook and cranny of the real estate as well as the actions of those who spend time under their roof. We’ve seen real estate like the Overlook Hotel and a mansion in Amityville evince an all-knowing countenance and occupants soon enough understood that forces beyond their control were setting the chain of events. The focus of Rex’s benign picture book of course has nothing to do with nefarious possession but one of academic appreciation and the workings of a school day from a refreshing new perspective. Frederick Douglas Elementary School has been given a heart and a conscience, and the point of view has been turned upside down with a number of observations
School’s First Day of School sports end papers that rate among the very best of any picture book released in 2016. Robinson’s patented chalky pastel watercolors depicted a school yard populated by kids engaging in a bevy of of activities, all cordoned off by the white chalk parameters of each game. The dark gray acrylic paint provides terrific contrast, provoking the colors to practically jump off the panels. The illustrator’s minimalist etchings of the kids jumping rope, hitting swinging balls, playing basketball, and spinning a bottle showcase in glorious color kids having the most fun of their school day. The front color in white allows the illustrator to show contrast in a more wide open general expanse, with the stone school in the title, parents and kids, school buses (yellow of course!), homes and a few spare tress and this extraordinary artist has set the stage for that exciting opening day for children and their parents. The first page launches the point of view from a building that is as insecure and as uncertain as the population that will soon invade its halls, classrooms and outside courtyards, though the school does feel it was named correctly. It is only natural that the person in the school that is trusted with the innermost thoughts would be the janitor whose job is its maintenance. Rex presents a back and forth dialogue between inanimate object and the person closest to its physical upkeep as something as natural as a person conducting an intelligent back and forth with his pet. The school initially much prefers to limit communication with its congenial caretaker – “This is nice,” the school said to Janitor “Just the two of us.” But the Janitor clues the introverted mass of bricks, mortar, steel doors and stairways that in short order teachers and children will be filling the place.
Robinson’s tapestry of the combined auditorium/gymnasium is an illustrative gem, with colored circles populating the ball rack, the two hoops, yellow-brown floor and a flag, clock and floor buffer reinforcing everyone’s impression of this roomy expanse. The school is still in doubt as it asks the janitor if he will still be there when the kids arrive. The efficient custodian assures him he’ll be there at the end of the school day, but the school is still skeptical. Soon enough a bus loaded with kids and the walking brigade converge on the school and the numbers are higher than it imagined. Robinson’s jungle gym is sparely and sublimely etched; the school didn’t know previously what its use was for. The school continued hearing what the kids said and nearly all of it was uncomplimentary. This place stinks. I hate school. But much of the book’s charm comes from this omnipresent institution’s naivete. A very young freckled, adverse to going, had to be carried in, and the school whispered to himself: “I must be awful.” The closest we get to haunted happenings is when the school induces a water faucet in a bathroom to squirt a puffy-haired kid in the face as the other kids look on with glee. And the school was quick to go tit for tat with the freckled girl when it answered the girl’s declaration “I don’t like school” with the rejoinder “maybe it doesn’t like you either.” The drawing of all the kinds sitting around the blue rug, identified by the names is another one of the books most fabulous tapestries, one with plenty of color and facial expressiveness.
The school was none too proud about the fire drill though and was quick to offer apologies staccato style, even to that infernally resistant freckled girl. A boy telling a joke at a cafeteria table adorned with multi colored chairs produces a funny vignette as milk funnels out of his nose. And the front of the classroom capture of the teacher standing in front of the board and under a blue, green and yellow alphabet scroll is rendered in Robinson’s trademark configurations, where detail is much less important than shape. The kids working with glitter and paste wound up a day of diverse instruction that ends at three o’clock when the parents arrived to pick up the kids. By then as the janitor had portended the school had fallen for its occupants and excitedly asked about the coming encore. They share dialogue as the latter stands on the roof in sentinel like fashion, telling this veritable shelter of learning and protection that it was lucky to be a school. And the school agreed.
Going with the school’s point of view brings a fresh new perspective, one that coaxes to understand the meaning of that famous quote from To Kill A Mockingbird when Atticus Finch tells his daughter Scout “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Adam Rex and Christian Robinson have brought a unique element of theatricality etched in alluring impressionist pastels to speak directly to the fears and hopes of kids trying to find their way on the first academic day of the year. For adults it is a sublime opportunity to reflect on their own days and to trace the remarkable similarities. Robinson again shows why he’s one of the best in the business, and the Caldecott committee should be monitoring events from the halls of this fortress of learning.
Note: This is the fifty-eighth entry in the ongoing 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include in the neighborhood of around 60 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 23rd, hence the reviews will continue till two from the days before that date.