The first day of elementary or primary school is a momentous event in a child’s life. Some children mark the day with new outfits and a bevy of pictures. Others, meanwhile, begin the first of many intrepid commutes to school.
My First Day chronicles the journey of one such student. Set in Vietnam on the Mekong River Delta, it details a young boy’s first solo journey on the Mekong River. Bolstered by his mama’s encouragement and his papa’s admonitions to be careful (“because that’s what papas do”), he sets off in his little open boat. “Today is the first day,” he narrates.
The first day of what, actually? The purpose of the boy’s trip is not made immediately clear. The reader quickly learns, however, that this is an epic adventure. The small boat balances precariously on the river’s swelling waves, and the sky darkens with rain. The boy navigates his boat into the mangrove forest, dark and filled with the glittering eyes and sounds of unfamiliar animals. Fear slithers in, almost claiming our protagonist.
But he clears the forest, and the sky opens to up to a wide, pastel vista filled with storks. The boy encounters more amazing sights: a school of colorful fish swim underneath his boat, and a herd of water buffalo crowds the shoreline. The water buffalo signal that he has arrived at his destination. The boy greets his friends, who are in their own boats. In the distance, a building beckons; it is the school, and the first day of classes is about to begin.
Although the protagonist’s exact destination is not revealed until the end of the book, there are hints along the way. The “unfamiliar hallways” of the mangrove forest are marked by “the chatter of a classroom full of animals,” and the boy writes his name “across the blackboard of the river” as he makes his way. For those sharing this book with children, bringing attention to these context clues is a good exercise in making predictions about our reading. Children who may be nervous about the first day of school and how they will get there (school bus, public transportation, or carpooling, for example) will find a lot with which to identify in this book.
Creators Phùng Nguyên Quang and Huỳnh Him Liên (also known as Kaa Illustration), have given us a feast of a book. The text is poetically evocative, with beautiful turns of phrase; yet it is accessible to even very young readers. The moments of drama and even suspense in the text make it an engaging read aloud. The illustrations are truly sumptuous; the roiling waves of the Mekong River, an enormous python winding its way through the mangrove forest, bellowing water buffalo— it all makes for a book to pore over and read again and again.
My First Day is published by Make Me a World, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Of note is the fact that this book has been published before. While yet unpublished, it won the Scholastic Picture Book Award in 2015. In 2017, it was published in the authors’ native Vietnam as Hành trình dâu tiên and by Scholastic Asia as The First Journey. GLLI contributor Laura Taylor* even introduced us to The First Journey in a 2019 roundup of Back-to-School books from around the world! I am glad that this beautiful and deserving book has now been released to an even wider audience.
Written in English by Phùng Nguyên Quang and Huỳnh Him Liên
Penguin Random House, 2021
Originally published 2017, Kim Ðông Publishing House
Klem-Marí Cajigas has been with Nashville Public Library since 2012, after more than a decade of academic training in Religious Studies and Ministry. As the Family Literacy Coordinator for Bringing Books to Life!, Nashville Public Library’s award-winning early literacy outreach program, she delivers family literacy workshops to a diverse range of local communities. Born in Puerto Rico, Klem-Marí is bilingual, bicultural, and proudly Boricua.