Sunday, June 24, 2012

Starting School: Wemberley Worried, Chicken Chickens, Kindergarten Diary, The Kissing Hand, My Name is Yoon

New school nerves

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As summer approaches, I think back to that summer before my elder daughter started school. I was pregnant and on bedrest, so a summer holiday away from Hong Kong was out of the question. To give my daughter something to do besides building forts out of sofa cushions in our living room, I signed her up for a summer session at a kindergarten that had just opened near our home. It turned out to be a good idea because the session was like a dress rehearsal for the kindergarten where she'd be spending the next four years.

That summer, my daughter spent her weekday mornings playing unaccompanied at school, while I logged on from home to the school's webcam to observe her activities. And in the afternoons, we would play games and read books about starting school, such as Kevin Henkes' Wemberly Worried and the Chinese translation of Valeri Gorbachev's Chicken Chickens Go to School. By this time, we were both used to my limited mobility. In hindsight, this also helped to build my daughter's independence and school readiness.

With its story told in the course of the first day of school, Chicken Chickens is easy for a two-year-old to understand. It starts with mother hen taking her apprehensive twin chicks to school and ends with mother hen at after-school pick-up, seeing two happy chicks that can't wait to return the following day.
Wemberly Worried is a brightly illustrated book about a little mouse who worries about "big things, little things, everything". So it's no surprise that her list of worries about the first day of school is long - and written out in extra-large font. The endearing writing style made it easy for a reserved girl like my daughter to relate to little mouse Wemberly.

Since that summer, we've read more stories about school, and it's interesting to observe my daughter's growing command of narrative. This translates to highly interactive storytelling sessions where she will point out things in the background of a scene, or relate an illustration back to her own school experience.

Kindergarten Diary by Antoinette Portis is written in first-person diary form by a little girl who is starting kindergarten. Written in the language of a five-year-old, Portis gives an amusing view of those first few weeks of school.

I'm always looking for books that are not girl-focused which I can introduce to my friends with sons. I recently discovered a good one: The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn. Although it is a story about a boy raccoon starting school, the theme is separation. Mrs Raccoon shares her "kissing hand secret" with her son. And that kissing hand secret can be used to comfort children whenever they need to be separated from their parents.

This summer, I plan to read aloud Helen Recorvits' My Name is Yoon to my daughter, to prepare her for her upcoming school year with new teachers and new classmates. This heart-warming story is about a girl who moves to a new school in a new country where everyone speaks a new language. It isn't until she makes her teacher laugh aloud that she feels a connection to, and finds her place in, her new environment.

All of these stories point to the big difference a special new friend can make in helping a child ease into the daunting experience of being on his own. When my daughter was at summer school, that special someone was a young American teacher with flowing honey-coloured hair. The teacher always gave long hugs to my daughter and my daughter believed her teacher to be a real princess.

And in the case of her early weeks at her current school, it was the bathroom attendant who made my daughter feel special. She always called out my daughter's name whenever she saw her, giving her encouragement with potty training. In fact, people like these treat all children with warmth and sensitivity, but have the ability to make each child feel that he's been given special attention.

When I'm reading aloud to my elder daughter, my younger one often puts down whatever she's playing with to clamber onto the sofa and join in the fun. She seems particularly interested in these stories about going to school.

Fortunately, I have another year of mother-baby activities before my younger daughter starts going to school on her own.

"Between the Lines" will take a break over the school holidays and resume in September. Have a happy summer.

Annie Ho is a board governor of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation devoted to improving children's literacy through reading aloud

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