Bossiness, messiness, lying, and tattling are some of the issues Rosemary Wells addresses in Kindergators, her new picture-book series set in Miss Harmony’s kindergarten classroom. On sale June 21 from HarperCollins’s Katherine Tegen Books, the inaugural title, Hands Off, Harry!, centers on a boisterous young alligator who must learn to respect his classmates’ personal space. Harry does just that—thanks to the guidance of his wise teacher and the help of his peers—and harmony is restored to the classroom. At least temporarily.
Hands Off, Harry!, which has a 50,000-copy first printing, will be followed by Miracle Melts Down, a June 2012 title about a girl who is very easily upset.Each book in the series addresses a specific behavioral issue and concludes with an educator’s note on the topic. Gina Goldmann, who currently teaches first grade in New York City, contributes a note to Hands Off, Harry!
Wells’s inspiration for Kindergators grew out of her ongoing and close contact to teachers all over the country. “I have been on the road for many years, talking at length to teachers,” says Wells. “I got a clear picture of what’s going on in our schools, especially in the youngest grades. Children are coming to school completely unprepared to learn. This doesn’t have to do with reading or math skills, but with behavior. Many children are just not socialized. So I asked myself, ‘How can I create something that would be of help to teachers and parents?’ I wanted to address these issues with humor, and in such a way that children will recognize themselves in the books.”
As she researched the field of early childhood education and talked to kindergarten teachers, Wells learned about Responsive Classroom, a teacher-created approach to learning that aims to decrease problematic behaviors and improve social skills—and engages the students themselves in problem-solving. “It is a very well thought-out approach, and I decided to use it as a basis for Kindergators,” Wells explains. “Miss Harmony calls on her students to form Friendly Circle—sometimes even emergency sessions—where the kids themselves solve the problem. It shows the power of even a very young peer group to help with behavioral issues.”
Wells and her editor, Katherine Tegen, worked together to shape the series (which has a planned 10-book arc) and to pinpoint what Tegen calls “the specific behavioral issues that are hot buttons for children at this age.” Tegen believes that Kindergators breaks new ground. “Other picture books may address these kinds of social and behavioral issues obliquely, but they rarely offer solutions,” she observes. “In this series, kids figure out solutions together, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this teacher-student collaboration portrayed in a picture book.”
Wells’s trademark humor also makes Kindergators stand out, observes Tegen, who first worked with Wells on her Yoko series when Tegen was at Disney in the mid-1990s. “With Kindergators, Rosemary wanted to create books that would help teachers and parents without being didactic,” she says. “Rosemary is always very funny, and humor is very important here. If you can get kids to identify with the characters, not by laughing at them but laughing and empathizing with them, it’s always a win-win.”
According to Wells, all of the characters are based on real children, including her own, and their friends. “Harry is based on a boy who was in my daughter’s second-grade class. And I now have six-year-old twin grandchildren, and through them I’ve having a wonderful reincarnation of my own experience as a parent. It’s fantastic.”
And why gators? “I’m tired of doing bunnies!” Wells says with a laugh. “I wanted something new and different. I tried hippos but they didn’t work, and I tried elephants, but they were too Babar-like. So I decided to do gators.”
To promote Kindergators, HarperCollins Children’s Books has just [launched a Web site]www.kindergators.com, which features an animated book trailer, downloadable activities, and tips for teachers. The publisher has also created a classroom poster with a teacher’s guide and activities on the back. Wells will visit schools and bookstores in five cities at the end of August and beginning of September.
Not surprisingly, the personable author is greatly looking forward to her tour—especially her visits to schools. “I love speaking to the kids, of course, and that will be wonderful,” she says. “But this series is so much for the teachers. I think teachers in our country are the most misjudged and underpaid professionals. So often they are stuck between a rock and a hard place, with their administrations and school boards telling them not make waves and to teach to the test. That’s difficult for creative teachers to deal with. And I’m not sure how they deal daily with 18—or more—little bunny rabbits hopping around the classroom. I admire teachers more than anything.”
Kindergators: Hands Off, Harry! by Rosemary Wells. HarperCollins/Tegen, $14.99 June ISBN 978-0-06-192112-4