The Day You Begin
Written by Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrated by Rafael López
Nancy Paulsen Books, 2018, 32pp.
2019 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award
Winner, Books for Younger Children
Is there anyone who can’t recall a personal story that begins “I was the only one who (insert lonely experience here) and it felt awful?” Whether because of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, size, or any number of reasons, most people have felt like the “other” at times. In the opening scene of The Day You Begin, Jacqueline Woodson counsels a shy, young girl as she pokes her head around a new classroom door: “There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you.” She acknowledges and validates those existential feelings of loneliness and fear that come from the ordinary childhood experiences which make so many children feel different — it may be “your skin, your clothes, or the curl of your hair,” or “the beautiful language of the country you left behind,” or perhaps that special lunch your mother made for you “is too strange or unfamiliar for others.” Perhaps you didn’t go on a family vacation over the summer or get picked for the team and are now on the sidelines of a conversation or the playground. In her lilting, lyrical text, Woodson makes these slights real, and, more importantly, she gives voice to the feelings that accompany them.
Rafael López’s vibrant, imaginative, organic illustrations depict scenes in the classroom, the cafeteria, the playground, and at home. One of the recurring visuals that López includes is a ruler — on the classroom door, trunk of a tree and across the top of a table — depicting a child’s feelings of not measuring up or being too different to belong.
Woodson’s narrative also gives voice to hope. The turning point in her story is that day, that moment, when a child takes a risk and opens up, sharing a story without guarantee that anyone will listen. But someone does, and as Woodson writes, “the world opens itself up a little wider to make some space for you.” Through that courageous step, a child learns just how much she has in common with others while, at the same time, realizing she is “fabulously” not like anyone else.
For her significant contributions to the world of children’s literature, Woodson was selected as the 2018-2019 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, an honor that is presented biennially by the Library of Congress. The Day You Begin was inspired by a poem in her New York Times best-selling memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming (2014), which earned many prestigious awards. In Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson weaves the story of her childhood first in South Carolina, then later in New York, never feeling totally at home in either place. Experiencing a state of emotional limbo and caught between the vestiges of the Jim Crow era and the developing Civil Rights movement, she found her voice and happiness through written composition. Woodson knows what it is like to be the outsider, the courage it takes to climb out of a pit of loneliness and reach out to others, and the joy “when the world opens itself up a little wider to make some space for you.”
Rafael López grew up in Mexico City, the child of architects who spent weekends in flea markets looking for books that others had cast aside. Early in life Lopez was introduced to drawing and images coming from many countries. He has illustrated many award-winning books, but also led his San Diego community in creating murals to add color reflecting a Mexican heritage.
Many books with themes of empathy and friendship pair well with The Day You Begin, including the 2016 Addams Award Winner, New Shoes, by Susan Lynn Meyer and Eric Velásquez (2015); The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes and Louis Slobodkin (originally published in 1944); as well as the Addams Award Winner, Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson and E. B. Lewis (2012). New beginnings and the powerful feelings that newness bring could also be examined in a text set that includes All are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman (2018); School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex and Christian Robinson (2016); The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi (2001); My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits and Gabi Swiatkowska (2003); and Dreamers by Yuyi Morales (2018). Together, these selections provide wonderful opportunities for exploring the importance of respect and understanding differences, and building a solid foundation for compassionate and empathetic communities.
Tracy Randolph, St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School, Sewanee, TN
WOW Review, Volume XII, Issue 2 by World of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on work at https://wowlit.org/on-line-publications/review/xii-2/