The 4th Annual ‘Best New First Day of School’ Book Award

Kenny Brechner -- August 29th, 2017

I have what appears to be terrible news. The winner of this year’s Best New First Day of School Book Award, A Letter to My Teacher by Deborah Hopkinson, is different from its three glorious predecessors, Edda; Steve, Raised by Wolves; and Sophie’s Squash Goes to School.

At first this idea of difference appalls us. We want, like nervous schoolchildren, a comforting and familiar continuance, a benign recurrence of established themes. Yet it cannot be. For in our inclination to stasis we are betraying the very lessons of First Day of School books, a dark irony if there ever was one. Change must be. Stasis is itself a negative agent of change, it deforms the very thing of value we wish to preserve from change. The first day of school is all about transforming expectations, anxiety, and knowledge into a multi layered learning experience, how can we pervert its intrinsic character by expecting well trodden genre tropes from First Day of School books?

No. We are better than that. In the end our impulse for security is appropriately upended by the same engaging, expansive, and ultimately liberating element of change experienced by the struggling but ultimately successful new students we encounter in these books. Let us embrace change just as the protagonist of A Letter to My Teacher ultimately did.

What makes A Letter to My Teacher different from its glorious, Best New First Day of School Book Award predecessors, is that it is told retrospectively. The story is conveyed by a letter written by a young woman on the eve of beginning her first adult job. This current point of looming transition has made her think back on the guidance and growth she experienced under the wing of her second grade teacher, whom she is now writing to thank.

Our narrator and her teacher are never named, which is a nice touch, however we meet a headstrong child, uninclined to broaden her interests or horizons, nor to modify her impulses. A difficult student but one with some genuine interests, potentially fertile ones rendered fallow by her unwillingness to engage in learning. The teacher is perceptive, firm and patient, though not inexhaustibly so. Her focus on process leads the narrator to come fully to life within the school experience, a transitional dynamic which has become relevant again on the cusp of another life change.

The story’s retrospection resonates deeply with adult readers who can see all that is unsaid. Yet the story will resonate strongly with young readers too, who can sense what is unsaid while also connecting with the character and engaging with the book’s elusive, but promising certitude of being elevated and enhanced by change. The illustrations by Nancy Carpenter are just sublime, and accentuate the book’s intimations and characters, opening the door wider for all readers. This is a book to assure children that they do not need to let go of who they are to engage with learning. Not a bad lesson, eh?

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