School is almost out, but pirates are most definitely still in, which is why it is wonderful to come across a picture book like A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade. In it, a young boy gets ready for his first day of school, accompanied by all of his imaginary pirate friends. He awakens to his scurvy dog happily licking his face, but there’s no time to wait! Ye must set sheets to the wind and sail!
The text, all in pirate talk, might be a bit distancing at first, but with a glossary in the back and the clear illustrations, I think most young first mates will be able to figure out what’s going on. A parent could even make up a game with their child, figuring out what “Gangway me hearties!” could possibly mean.
When Phyllis Reynolds was in first grade, she had a hard time making sense of the stories her teacher wrote on the blackboard. Those little, squiggly characters danced crazily across the open space and didn't mean a thing to her. One day, her teacher asked her to read a story out loud. Phyllis didn't hesitate for a second. She plunged into an exciting story-- her own story-- about a cat and a tree and an autumn day. The teacher shook her head sadly at Phyllis. No, she hadn't gotten it. But she had gotten it-- the desire to tell stories. In time, she did learn to read, and soon she was writing her own books on notebook paper. Phyllis had found a love for writing that she has never lost through the tough times and the good.
In Peter McCarty's Henry in Love, magic can be found in the simplest pleasures of an ordinary school day. The main character gets ready for school and decides that this is the day that he is going to talk to the loveliest girl in the class. Perfect cartwheels, games of tag, and the sharing of afternoon snacks follow.
The look of McCarty's characters is quite special. The illustrations are reminiscent of two children's classics. Henry and his classmates, all animals, recall the characters from Rosemary Wells' Max and Ruby books, but with smaller eyes and a less cartoony demeanor. They look sweet without treading into cutesy territory. The wide margins and very selective use of color reminds one of Ian Falconer's Olivia books.
Jack Gantos knows that a kid can be wacky AND wonderful. Crazy things happen to kids all the time. Take Joey Pigza. He can't sit still in class, and accidents seem to be waiting to happen. He's a live wire, just like his dad and his grandmother. No matter how hard he tries, he just can't settle down. But Joey is lucky; he does have people who care about him and can help him get what he needs to be happier.
Beverly thought she had the greatest life. Things were exciting on the family farm for a little girl, and her mom and dad were working too hard to keep their dark-haired daughter from having fun. On glorious days filled with sunshine, she helped bring the lazy cows in from the pasture, picked armfuls of wild flowers, and learned the names of the trees and the birds from her father as they rode in the wagon across the field to gather firewood.
Gary Soto came from a hard background by anyone's reckoning. His young father died in an industrial accident when Gary was only five years old. His Mexican-American family was struggling and lived in a tough neighborhood--next to a junkyard and across from a pickle factory. All through school, he and his family worked at whatever jobs they could get, including picking fruits as migrant laborers.
Barbara Tidswell was born in Mount Holly, New Jersey, on April 21, 1947. Mount Holly was a small town, surrounded by farms. Young Barbara was the class clown in elementary school. Whenever she thought of something funny, she would just blurt it out to share with everyone in the room. In fact, she got sent to the principal's office for talking too much. This was not a cool thing to have happen as her dad was then president of the school board! She also loved to read comic books. In high school and college, she studied to be a teacher. She thought she might be able to add some humor to dull science classes. Barbara never thought back then that she would be a writer.
When Betsy Cromer was a young girl, someday being a famous author never crossed her mind. To her way of thinking, book writers led dull lives, shut away in some quiet room without company, just typing and typing. There was no way she wanted to live that kind of life. Yet years later, Betsy has written dozens of books. Unlike the authors she imagined, Betsy's ability to understand and work with people was absolutely essential to making her books a success.
Paula Danziger sometimes said she wished she had had her own books to read when she was growing up. As the nerdy, clueless daughter in a family where Dad yelled and Mom just tried to make Dad happy, life was not fun. When her dad said mean things to her, Paula would tell herself that someday she would put it in a book. And she did.