Toni Buzzeo shares the story behind her story …
I suppose my book Adventure Annie Goes to Kindergarten (Dial, 2010) began when I was 4 ½ years old, living on New York Street in Dearborn, Michigan. The good news was that I loved my new house with a room of my own, painted blue as I’d requested. Unlike in the tiny “garage home” we’d moved from, here there was plenty of space for my toys and my dolls and my books. There were even children in this neighborhood that an only child like me could play with—if I was able to overcome my extreme shyness. I worked on that slowly, learning not to cry when the kids called me “Toni/y the Tiger” (think Sugar Frosted Flakes) and growing accustomed to entreating, “Mother may I?” before advancing three giant steps—or six baby steps—up the front walk.
Then came the bad news. In September my parents enrolled me in Kindergarten. My stomach rolled and tied itself into a knot that first morning as my mother and I walked the block and a half to Long School. The knot pulled tight when I met my teacher, the decidedly unsmiling Miss Smiley. Nothing could staunch my tears.
Fast forward fifty-two years. Annie Grace, my alter ego, had debuted in her first picture book, Adventure Annie Goes to Work (Dial, 2009) where she’d located Mommy’s missing report at the office wreaking more than a bit of havoc along the way. With Annie’s lust for adventure, her can-do attitude, and her desire to take on the world, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen when she headed off for her first day of Kindergarten. No rolling or knotted stomach, I supposed. No sniveling or clinging to Mommy, I was sure. And since we authors of fiction have permission to revise history if we wish, no cranky Miss Smiley waiting at the door!
Adventure Annie Goes to Kindergarten isn’t a common kindergarten story about a reticent child, afraid of new environments and people, who overcomes her fears to thrive in her new academic environment. In other words, it isn’t a story about me. I did not draw on my personal Kindergarten experience to write this book. Instead, I relied both on my imagination and the small cadre of students I’d taught over the years as an elementary school librarian—the ones who arrived for the first day of school with wide-open eyes and hearts, ready for every new adventure.
While Annie’s mother accompanies her to school, Annie is eager to say her goodbyes at the classroom door and get on with it. She assumes that her smiling teacher, Mr. Todd, will know her name, will recognize her abilities, and will award her the daily Gold Star Deputy title. There’s not a shred of reluctance as she launches into the day’s activities but she may suffer a shred of inattention when Mr. Todd introduces the Gold Star Rules. Annie does things I certainly would never have done—release the hamsters and paint their cage, skip out to the climber all alone to practice gymnastics, and launch an all-out search (complete with walkie-talkies) for the missing milk fetchers. And the reward for that last feat? Well, the Gold Star, of course! Bless Mr. Todd.
With Annie, more than with any of my other characters, I found the opportunity to revise my own experience, to imagine how things might have been if I’d been a bold, adventurous, and empowered child, if I’d had confidence in my own ability to interact with a world of challenges and conquer each one.
When I’m speaking in schools, children sometimes ask me about the “messages” in my books. Like all authors, I tell them, I never set out to write a story that carries a predetermined message. But as plot and character unfold, as the story deepens with revision and time, the message, or theme, slowly begins to shine through. So what is my message in Adventure Annie Goes to Kindergarten? I’m sure you’ve guessed by now. The message, for my readers, for my four-year-old self, for us all, is: Be bold, be brave, be unafraid to make mistakes; the whole world is awaiting your gifts.
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