Barbara Robinson’s The Best School Year Ever

While I was familiar with other books by the author Barbara Robinson, who passed away last week, it was The Best School Year Ever that meant the most to me.  There was a period when I started each school year reading it aloud and I always made sure to tiptoe my whole class past the teacher’s room so they could decide if it fit the one described by Robinson.  The book was funny then; the kids always loved it. More than ever after September 11th which was the first day of school for my NYC 4th graders that year. Here’s what I had to say about it in an article I wrote that year:

The following Monday, as we moved into a routine, I watched the children carefully. I wasn’t going to assume anything. I barely knew them. As we went about our day, I found quiet ways to let them know I was there if they needed to talk or needed a hug. I knew how daunting our crowded, 12-storey building, filled with much older children, could be to new fourth-graders. It was easy to forget where the bathroom was and be afraid to ask; to get lost on the way to music and not know how to get back to the classroom. Such minor problems could easily be magnified in the wake of the disaster.

And indeed, that day after science, a group of girls dashed in to tell me that one of their friends was crying hysterically in the bathroom, complaining of a stomach ache. I retrieved her, hugged her, and took her to the nurse, who sent her home. Later her dad told me she was still scared.

I wondered that day about the book I had planned to read aloud, Barbara Robinson’s The Best (Worst) School Year Ever, about the outrageous Herdman children, which was off-the-wall funny. My class the year before had loved it, but I wondered now if it was appropriate. On the internet I’d seen lists of books to help children cope with disaster: books about natural disasters, books about riots, wars, and other tragedies. For many, it seemed, these were helpful. But still sad and fearful, I didn’t see them that way. And knowing how badly my students had wanted to get back to plain old school, I suspected they would feel the same.

And so I settled into my reading chair with the story of the Herdman children of Woodrow Wilson elementary school. I began, but worried immediately when the Herdmans were described as similar to outlaws who would have “blown up” the Wild West if they’d lived back then. Would those words be frightening? I discreetly looked at the faces around me, but they just looked intrigued.

I read on and was relieved when I got to a description of Imogene Herdman’s science project (something unknown scratching in an oatmeal box) to hear a few giggles. Before long there was more laughter and by the time I stopped, halfway through the first chapter, I had relaxed. It seemed a good choice.

Thank you, Barbara Robinson, for your books and especially for those Herdmans.

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