Fall is in the air! It's hard to believe, because our summer started so late, but pretty soon those big yellow buses will be rolling out and the kiddos will be on their way back into the classroom. And as with all transitions, the new school year can be a tough thing for many students, especially those who are learning new languages and new living situations as well. Whether the child is an adoptee or part of a family of immigrants, an unfamiliar place presents more than a few challenges and fears.
In Sumi's First Day of School Ever, Soyung Pak tells the story of a young girl just beginning her first day of classes. Sumi is Korean, and she speaks very little English, though her mother has taught her what to say if someone asks her name. She's never been to school before and she finds the whole experience frightening. From the forbidding fence around the schoolyard to the noisy, boisterous children who all seem to know just where they belong, Sumi is overwhelmed. School is a scary place, Sumi thinks, and she hangs back, watching others to know just what she should be doing. It's all pretty intense for this shy newcomer.
Fortunately Sumi's teacher is kind and gently encouraging to her new student. When she's allowed to draw a picture later in the morning, things begin to seem a little better. And then at recess, Sumi finds a stick and is drawing in the dirt when another student approaches. Mary quietly joins Sumi in drawing a scene, then introduces herself. And Sumi knows just what to say, thanks to her mother. Maybe, Sumi thinks, school is not-so-lonely after all.
Pak's sensitive portrayal of a young girl struggling to find her place in a new environment will hit home with many readers, particularly those who have felt the same way Sumi does, like she's in over her head. Joung Un Kim's soft color palette and warm backgrounds add depth to the story, and Sumi's emotions are evident in every scene. Kim keeps Sumi as the focal point of each spread, but provides appropriate context for what's happening, such as the scene where another boy makes fun of Sumi (he later apologizes after prompting from the teacher). Most importantly, the book doesn't make light of Sumi's feelings or her struggle to find her footing. Rather, it emphasizes that the most important key to fitting in might just lie in being yourself. When Sumi begins to draw, she finds common ground with another student, and in such a simple moment a friendship is born.
For those transitioning to a new environment, whether that means a new school or a new country, Sumi's First Day of School Ever can be a great tool to open discussion about how they are feeling. Equally important, this is a great way to talk with other kids about how to reach out to an unfamiliar face in their classroom, making a new friend and building a connection that benefits everyone.
NOTE: this is an older title and not readily available - check your library or a used bookstore, it's worth finding!
Sumi's First Day of School Ever by Soyung Pak, published by Viking
Sample: "A boy stuck out his tongue. He made a noise. He squished his eyes. / School is a mean place, Sumi thought."