|Image from JamesRumford.com|
It is the first day of school in Chad, Africa and Thomas is very excited. As he walks to school he asks the big brothers and sisters who lead the way many questions. Will he get a pencil? A notebook? Will he learn to read? When the children arrive at the schoolyard they find the teacher, but no schoolhouse. Their first lesson is to build the school. Thomas learns how to make walls and desks out of mud and he gathers grass and saplings to make the roof. Finally, the students sit in their very own schoolhouse and the teacher begins to teach them the letters of the alphabet. The end of the school year comes just in time; the big rains begin and soon the schoolhouse disintegrates into the landscape. But it doesn’t matter, because next year Thomas will be a big brother and he will lead the younger children to the schoolyard where they will build the schoolhouse again.
This book, named a Smithsonian Notable Children’s Book in 2010, was inspired by the rained on remains of schoolhouses that Rumford and his wife saw as Peace Corps Volunteers in Chad. The text is simple and straightforward. The story takes place over the span of a year and the passing of time is frequently noted in the text. The ink and pastel illustrations use a background of yellows, browns, and golds to convey the dry heat of the environment. Many of the illustrations are impressionistic; shapes and outlines are used to represent distant trees and threatening storm clouds. The characters that create this community are lively and caring, dressed in bright primary colors that stand out against their dark brown skin. The last page includes a map of Africa that includes the names of the countries (accurate as of the printing of this book in 2010). Chad is highlighted in red and the population and capital city of N’Djamena are included.
Use this book on the first day of school for elementary school kids. Talk about the things they expect to find in their classrooms every year. What are the differences and similarities between their school and Thomas’? Use this as a jumping off point to explore classrooms all over the world. If your school has a sister school in another city, this is a good opportunity to connect and ask questions about the students’ school life.
Try pairing this book with non-fiction titles such as Off to Class: Incredible and Unusual Schools Around the World by Susan Hughes or My School in the Rain Forest: How Children Attend School Around the World by Margriet Ruurs.
Here are a few helpful online resources to use with kids. Download the one page sheet of suggested activities from the Washington Children’s Choice Picture Book Award wiki. Although Chad isn’t one of the featured countries, check out the PBS Kids My World: Africa for Kids website, which features four different schools in Ghana, South Africa, Uganda, and Kenya. For ideas for a larger age range (grades 1-8) check out The Classroom Bookshelf Blog, which includes extension activities and discussion questions for this book.