Remember the First Day of School?
Every year one event rolls around that is profoundly meaningful for children: the first day of school and these stories can offer a special opportunity for writers. First day of school pieces most often explore the first day of school ever, usually focused on kindergarten, though there are first day of preschool stories for still younger children. First day of school stories can go beyond this first time introduction to the school experience and can include the first day of the new school year and the first day at a new school (either because the child has moved or because the child has moved up to a new school). Both magazine publishers and book publishers know these days are scary and thrilling and worrisome for children, so they often examine these times in the materials they publish. Magazines may publish articles to help students make their first day of middle school or high school (or even college) a big success. Magazines for young children often run first day of school themed poetry and short stories as well to help readers emotionally prepare for the transition from summer time to school days. Book publishers examine first day of school through picture books, easy readers, and chapter books.
Because the first day of school has always been an important topic in children’s publishing, it also means that it has become harder and harder to impress an editor with a story about the first day of school. Many editors have reads dozens if not hundreds of first day of school manuscripts, and are rarely inspired to buy one unless it is extraordinary. Many book publishers feel they have sufficient coverage of first day of school with books that they’ve published in the past and are still in print. These backlist books are really only promoted when it comes time to pitch first day of school displays to book sellers (or, in the case of educational publishers, to schools and libraries). This doesn’t mean that book publishers won’t consider a book about the first day of school. Instead, it means they’ll almost certainly publish only a truly unique first day of school book. However, it also means that if you do write an extraordinary first day of school book, it may continue to thrive on a publisher’s backlist for years.
The Same but Totally Different
One thing is ubiquitous in all pieces about the first day of school: they share universal truths to help prepare the reader for a new experience. Content tends to be intended to both demystify and encourage the reader. Often the books acknowledge that firsts can be hard for everyone. Even great adventures are a little scary. Editors aren’t interested in books that ignore this aspect, but they do want to see it explored in totally new ways. For example, a story might look at the first day of school for a little fish in the sea or the first day of monster school or the first day of astronaut school. The unusual location or character helps to give the often-seen story a different spin. A book might also explore how scary the first day of school could be for a brand new teacher or a brand new school custodian. In whatever way the first day of school is re-examined, the core truth remains, namely that new things can be hard and scary, but you can make it through. This is the same kind of story theme you might also see in first stories such as first trip to the dentist or first trip to a hospital.
The Scariest Part is the Unknown
One way first day of school stories serve children is to help demystify what the first day is likely to entail. Often stories will get students used to the idea of riding a bus, finding a desk, eating lunch in a strange place, going to the bathroom, and other issues that might worry the child. By taking the character through the experience, the story whittles away some of the fear of it. So a story about a monster heading off to school will often include things like riding on a bus, finding a seat, eating away from home, etc.
One way to approach a good back-to-school story is to make a list of all the scary things about the situation for a young child. As parents, we assume the scary part is being away from home, but there are far more things to consider. For instance, many kindergarten children who didn’t attend preschool have never entered a public restroom without an accompanying parent. Now they must use the school bathroom and, possibly, all alone. Children also fret about whether they’ll like their teacher, and if the teacher will like them. Also meeting a room full of kids is frightening as well. Children who depend upon certain things to help them stay calm at home (favorite toys, blankets, etc) won’t have those things at school, which adds another level of stress. As you list the things that can be new and stressful about the first day of school, you may choose to focus on just one of those for your story. Maybe you will write about a child telling his beloved stuffed T-Rex not to be scared, that he’ll be home soon. Maybe the child even walks the stuffie through all the things that scare the child, sharing the child’s own fears in the process. He may tell T-Rex not to worry, the other toys are scared of being alone too, and T-Rex will make new friends while the child is gone. Maybe the child will even take T-Rex to the bathroom a few times so the T-Rex knows the way and can do it alone. Things like that would give the reader a less frightening way to process those common fears.
Magazines also publish first-day-of-school poetry. In those pieces, the focus is usually quite tight and only examines one element of back to school. I’ve seen poems about back-to-school shopping, about new backpacks, about packing a school lunch, and about riding the school bus. Each of these only captured a single bit of the back-to-school experience and did it in a fun, active way. Poetry like that is often a staple of back-to-school magazine issues.
A Matter of Perspective
Stories for children work best when children succeed in the story. So making the main character whiny (especially if you define him as such) or prone to loud crying or temper tantrums is usually not going to work well in a first day of school story, even though both parents and kindergarten teachers have seen and heard children whine, cry, and throw tantrums. Keep in mind that children tend to see themselves as more stoic and sensible than adults do. So a normal day to a child might be typified as whiny or difficult if described by an adult. To succeed in story writing for children, you need to see the child as the child would see himself. Maybe in real life he whines, but to the child he merely objects to an unacceptable situation. In real life, he might cry loudly and snuffle for the next hour, but to the child, he would probably say he “cried a little.” Your perspective as the writer of a main character is the child’s perspective. One of my favorite stories of all time is Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems. In the story, a child who is too young to speak clearly loses her favorite toy. She knows where it is, but she cannot convey it in words to her dad. Since the story is from her perspective, the experience is written to show that Trixie is trying to communicate in the only way she can: crying, fussing, and going boneless. It’s a perfect balance of what happens when a child is upset and a lovely look into toddler motivation. Readers don’t blame Trixie for her behavior, they’re simply eager to see Trixie reunited with Knuffle Bunny. That’s more the sort of perspective you need for your first day of school story. Remember that the book perspective isn’t yours, it’s the child character’s perspective.
So whether you focus on a single very specific fearful element of first day of school or whether you approach the whole of the experience in a new way, the first day of school story can sell and might be one you want to try. Brainstorm new elements to feature or new approaches. Keep your perspective young. And give it a try. The child who finds comfort in your story will appreciate the effort. And that’s the best thing a writer can achieve.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.