Now that our readers are back in school, many stories will play out in the classroom. Here are two recent picture books centered in a school setting, each in their own way exploring themes of kindness.
In “Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse” (2018, Dial Books for Young Readers, written by Marcy Campbell, illustrated by Corinna Luyken, ages 5-9), we meet Adrian Simcox, who sits all by himself at school. He tells anyone who’ll listen that he has a horse, but our narrator, his classmate Chloe, doesn’t believe him. “He lives in town like me, and I know you can’t have a horse in town,” Chloe scowls.
As Chloe tells her parents later, Adrian Simcox gets free lunch at school and has holes in his shoes. “He can’t take care of a horse.”
Though their teacher says, “We must try to be understanding. We have to be patient,” Chloe is tired of being patient when Adrian Simcox describes his horse’s white coat, golden mane and “the biggest, brownest eyes of any horse, anywhere.” One day, Chloe yells, “He’s lying! Adrian Simcox does NOT have a horse!” She can see how sad that makes him.
At home, after Chloe brings up Adrian again, her mother decides it’s time for them to take the dog for a walk — on a different route. There, “all the houses looked like they might fall down,” and there is Adrian Simcox, sitting in the yard of the tiniest house. In a close-up spread, showing Chloe’s sourness and Adrian’s vulnerability, Chloe feels the words coming up in her throat ... “You. Do. Not. Have. A. Horse.” But they get tangled there, and she swallows them.
Instead they play, and Chloe notices, “It was kind of cool to see Adrian Simcox smile.”
She asks him if his horse is at a farm. He begins to talk about the horse, and Chloe grows to appreciate his imagination, which must be “just about the best imagination of any kid in our whole school.”
“I also thought,” Chloe says on the last page, “he had the most beautiful horse of anyone, anywhere.”
While the text tells the story of a judgmental girl who learns empathy, the illustrations tell their own story. On the last spread, on the book’s cover, and on several spreads in between, Luyken’s warm sketchy multimedia illustrations use negative space to show the figure of a horse in the midst of the grasses and foliage around Adrian Simcox. This brings the story to a higher level, giving Adrian Simcox and his imagination validity and power. This beautiful story, its brilliant illustrations and its message of kindness will stay with readers for a long time.
“So Big!” (2019, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, written and illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka) has a foundation of kindness as well, with a simplicity that makes it accessible to the youngest students.
As Bear wakes up exuberantly on the first morning of school, on the warm, colorful spread, we read the words, “So big.” Bear gets dressed and ready. “So-o-o big!” and heads off to the bus stop, where a small squirrel with scared eyes looks up at him. The school bus is “So Big. The elephants and rhinos (older students on the bus) are “So BIG.” And the school itself, seen towering above Bear, is “SO BIG.” Now, sitting on the steps outside the school, Bear feels “Not so big.” And as we see Squirrel, crying, the text reads, “TOO big.” In a wordless spread, Bear reaches a hand toward Squirrel. Together they walk into the school. “Not so big ” and into the classroom, “Just right.”