Pa Lia's First Day is the first book in Michelle Edwards' Jackson Friends series, a set of early readers about second graders who attend the Jackson magnet school. I learned about this series from Kelly Herold of Big A little a, who recently reviewed the fourth Jackson Friends book (and 2006 Gryphon Award winner): Stinky Stern Forever.
I think that there is a tremendous need for high-quality early readers, books that are engaging and well-written and speak to the true experiences of first to third graders. The Jackson Friends books, at least from what I've seen so far, fit the bill nicely. They have the added bonus of being about kids of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, which means that they'll appeal to a wide range of readers, and give young readers a glimpse into families different from their own.
In this first book, Pa Lia Vang, an apparently Vietnamese girl with long black pigtails, is about to start second grade, her first year at the Jackson school. Her older brother walks with her to school, but when she lags behind at the entrance, nervous, he leaves her to find her own way. Her fear and uncertainty are palpable, especially when a boy bullies her. But a new friend named Calliope James stands up to the bully ("Stinky Stern"), and helps Pa Lia to find her way.
In the classroom, Pa Lia encounters resistance from another potential friend, a black girl named Howardina Geraldina Paulina Maxina Gardenia Smith (Howie, for short), and gets more grief from Stinky Stern. Pa Lia passes notes, and gets in trouble with the rather firm teacher, but also demonstrates bravery and loyalty to her new friends. By the end of the book, she's made the transformation from outsider to someone who belongs. This doesn't feel message-y, though. It feels like a true story, a depiction of the first day of school by a real second-grader. Pa Lia's fears are universal: How will she find her classroom? Will people stare at her? Will she make friends? Will the teacher call her mother?
Some elements that make this book work well as an early reader include: chapters with interesting titles (so that it feels like a grown up book); a predominantly accessible vocabulary, sprinkled with more challenging words ("dawdling", "Calliope", "Gardenia"); and pictures that aren't always literal representations of their subject. For example, there's a sketch of the teacher, Mrs. Fennessey, who Pa Lia sees as "tall, like a gigantic oak tree." The sketch shows a tree, with a face mid-way up the trunk, and wearing Mrs. Fennessey's glasses. Every page of text has one or more small sketches, mixed in with occasional full-size illustrations. The illustrations frequently reflect Pa Lia's mood, or her internal ponderings. I did think that the cover of this first book felt a bit old fashioned, which is too bad, because I'd like to see this book jump off the shelves and into the hands of first and second graders.
The sentences are short and direct, and easy for kids to understand. Here's a passage that I enjoyed:
"Pa Lia, Calliope, and Howie sat down.
Pa Lia's face turned hot and red.
Howie's chair squeaked.
Stinky Stern farted.
The bell rang for recess." (Page 42)
Some of the metaphors are a bit cliched ("Her mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton", "Her stomach felt like it was filled with a thousand fluttering butterflies"), but the feelings that they describe are authentic.
The end material of the book, in addition to capsule descriptions of the other books in the series, includes short bios of each of the primary characters, complete with favorite food, and what the child is currently learning (to turn cartwheels, etc). This material adds to the feeling that the first or second grade reader will probably already have by this point - that the Jackson Friends are his or her friends, too. Highly recommended for new readers.
Publication Date: 2001
Source of Book: Bought it
Other Blog Reviews: None that I could find of this book, but see reviews of the fourth book in the series, Stinky Stern Forever, at Big A little a, Wordswimmer, and A Fuse #8 Production
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.