Friday, July 29, 2011

Kindergarten Friendships

If not for my childhood friend Frances, it’s hard to say what would have become of me. Frances stuck by me even though I clearly was not a kindergarten, first or second grade star. My early report cards were a smattering of Cs with an occasional B, plus a red DAYDREAMS in the comment section. I didn’t make friends easily; too often, when I opened my mouth to speak, nothing came out. And I was not good at recess games, especially not dodge ball.

However, I did have my refuge—a corner of the school library that was all mine. While my classmates scattered among the shelves, I tucked myself away in that corner with Frances, a badger who was as spunky as I was meek.

Why was I so enamo
red with the star of the Frances books? Perhaps it was because, when insulted, Frances thought up sassy rhymes on the spot instead of falling silent. When Albert excluded Frances from his activities, Frances created a special day of her own, complete with Albert’s favorite foods and a marching sign: BEST FRIENDS OUTING—NO BOYS (Best Friends for Frances by Russell and Lillian Hoban). When my friends excluded me, I slunk into my house and told my mom.

Frances was not perfect. She made messes. She ran aw
ay from home. She ate her little sister’s birthday chocolate bar. But Frances had spunk. And I didn’t—not yet.

In the real world, we choose our friends for a variety of reasons (and not because they are perfect). Some are like w
e are, and some are like we wish to be. The same is true of our favorite book characters. All of these friends, those in the pages of our books and those in the real world, become part of us. My friendship with Frances and other book characters made the school day less lonely and helped me find my voice and make real-world friends. Eventually I gained some spunk of my own (though never as much as Frances).

As an author, I also have the opportunity to rewrite my personal history—and reach children like myself—through my characters. In Polka-dot Fixes Kindergarten, the main character Polka-dot is a bit apprehensive about her first day of school. But unlike me, Polka-dot is resourceful; she’s packed a fix-it kit just like Grandpa’s—complete with duct tape, the fixer of all trouble.

Polka-dot faces a variety of challenges, including a stripe-loving girl named Liz who criticizes everything from Polka-dot’s painting to her fashion choices. (Try to guess the name of the girl from my old neighborhood who was mean to me…) But, unlike me, Polka-dot speaks up. And she uses the duct tape to deliver an unexpected kindness and forge a friendship with Liz, who is experiencing kindergarten troubles of her own. Polka-dot has given voice to my shy kindergarten self and, with her trusty fix-it kit, created a happier, albeit fictitious, ending to my childhood relationship with the real-life Liz.

I hope that teachers, parents and librarians find the book helpful in conveying lessons about kindness and bullying prevention. I hope that Polka-dot becomes a safe and easy friend for some shy child, perhaps hiding in the corner of her school library. And I hope Polka-dot helps that child find her spunk, like Frances helped me.

It’s almost the start of another school year. So here’s to students everywhere—those of you who bound into your classrooms and those who stand back and watch:

You are stars, e
very single one of you.

Posted by Catherine Urdahl, author of Polka-dot Fixes Kindergarten and Emma's Question.

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