Season of falling leaves, cooler days, and thoughts of school
Autumn, to my mind, is inextricably linked with the sights and sounds of a new school year. Thoughts of falling leaves and first frosts blend with those of new shoes, school supplies, and books.
In “How Rocket Learned to Read’’ by Tad Hills (of “Duck and Goose’’ fame), Rocket is one happy-go-lucky dog. But one spring, while Rocket is napping under his favorite tree, a little yellow bird startles him by singing out, “Aha! My first student! Wonderful!”
She sets up a small blackboard declaring that “class starts today,” but Rocket doesn’t know how to read. He hides while the little yellow bird hangs out her banner of “the wondrous, mighty, gorgeous alphabet . . . Where it all begins,” and when that doesn’t work, she opens a book and starts reading an exciting story about a dog who’s lost his favorite bone. Despite himself, Rocket soon becomes the little bird’s favorite (and only) student, learning how to read, letter by letter.
Thus commences the most charming part of this charming book. Together they spell out the sound of the cold autumn wind (WHHOOSSHHHHHHHH) and “R-E-D for the color of the leaves.” When the little bird flies south, Rocket goes on spelling in the snow, sounding out words and teaching new friends. With M-U-D, spring returns along with the little yellow bird.
A picture book all about the joys of reading could easily turn preachy and dull. But “How Rocket Learned to Read’’ defies gravity. Rocket is lovable, the little feathered teacher adorable. Hills tells his sprightly story as needed, not one word more or less. His pictures flow with soft color and movement. Hills makes this a story of friendship. It may persuade tentative kindergarteners that school is worth a try; teachers and librarians will love it.
“Kindergarten Day USA and China’’ shows a typical kindergarten day in the two countries. It gives insight into both lands, forward and back — literally, since the book switches halfway through and may be turned upside down, a gentle play on the fact that “the People’s Republic of China is about halfway around the world from the United States of America.”
The book begins in Schenectady, N.Y., at 9 a.m. (with a clock on each page reminding us it’s 12 hours later in China). Teachers and friends greet each other, and the school day moves forward with songs, reading, art, a trip outside, lunchtime, a birthday party, recess, and learning to tell time. At 3 p.m., school ends and it’s time to flip the book to China.
In Beijing, the lao shi, or teacher, greets her children with big hugs. They read books in Chinese and English, and the rest of the day is much the same as in New York, complete with birthday party, art, and recess. Ellen Senisi’s many bright colored photos, both large and small, bring the two worlds vividly to life, showing subtle differences and remarkable similarities. Books like this build important bridges; part of the proceeds go to the Global Fund for Children.
Lest we take going to school for granted, one book reminds us that the right to learn can require a valiant struggle. “Busing Brewster’’ recalls, in picture book form, the early days of school desegregation in the 1970s. Brewster and his older brother, Bryan, are to be bused to Central, the “white school” across town. Mama is happy — “They’ve got rooms for art and music and a roof that doesn’t leak. There’s even a swimming pool inside the building and a real library bursting full of books” — but the brothers arrive to find angry lines of protesters, broken bus windows, police, and detention waiting. Brewster’s hopeful heart sees him through. At the day’s end he tells his Mama, “ ‘Someday I’m going to be president . . . ‘Maybe tomorrow,’ I said, ‘I’ll learn how to swim.’ ”
Liz Rosenberg, whose latest picture book is “Nobody,’’ teaches English at Binghamton University. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.