The 2016 Best New First Day of School Book Award

Kenny Brechner -- August 25th, 2016

The first day of school is all about embracing new possibilities, experiences and friends. Yet when we are compiling our back-to-school displays at the bookstore our thoughts go to old favorites. We cling to familiarity, which is always a danger in life. Isn’t it true, after all, that some of those favorites were themselves winners of our Best New First Day of School Book Award, such as last year’s winner, Steve Raised by Wolves, or the 2014 champion Edda? How are we to avoid the disgraceful irony of reaching only for past favorites for books on a topic such as the first day of school, which is all about embracing new possibilities?

The answer to solving that difficulty lies in this year’s winner. Not only is Pat Zietlow Miller’s Sophie’s Squash Go to School completely worthy of any former champion it will spend time with on back-to-school displays, but its theme is none other than overcoming our attachment to the familiar and our consequent resistance to new experiences.

Sophie, you see, does not need new friends. She already has two, her squash friends Bonnie and Baxter. The hard-won knowledge that squash do not live long (Bonnie and Baxter started out as seeds from Sophie’s original squash friend) hangs over her, however. She knows that erelong Bonnie and Baxter will begin to decay and need to return to the earth. (She would never eat a friend.) Thus the lure of new experiences begin to tug at her. “When Roshni spilled her milk. Sophie almost shared her napkin. And when Noreen told her favorite banana joke, Sophie laughed – inside her head.”

The strongest overture of friendship, however, is coming from a boy who shares some of Sophie’s own interests, even so far as squash. As human nature dictates, she resists this overture with all her might. “He is not a good friend,” she tells her mother, “and neither is his frog.”

In the end, however, the themes of renewal, of growing new squash, and sharing new experiences, soften her resolve. Perhaps Steven’s frog, which he left for Sophie in her locker the dark day after Bonnie and Baxter went into the ground, isn’t such a bad frog. In fact maybe Steven isn’t such a bad friend. In fact Sophie has had an idea involving Squash that all her friends, hem hem classmates, can share in: growing squash seeds in cups. Waiting for the squash to grow will take patience, but as Sophie tells Steven at the end, “Sometimes growing a friend just takes time.”

This theme of patience is reinforced in the story’s action as Sophie’s teacher and parents lay a subtle enough path before it that she comes to see wisdom with her own eyes and in her own time. Like Lady Prezmyra before her, Sophie is indeed “ill to goad but good to guide.” A terrific addition to the first day of school book canon, Sophie’s Squash Go to School is just as wonderful as those of us who loved the original Sophie’s Squash hoped it would be. Why, there is even a grammar lesson in the title!

PS: LAST CALL! There’s still time to send me (kenny AT ddgbooks.com) a photo of your favorite personal bookcase, along with a brief note on why you love it, for next week’s ShelfTalker. The info is here.

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