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James Rumford,
Rain School
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2010.

Ages: 4-8

A visual memory from his youthful Peace Corps days in Chad inspired award-winning author-illustrator James Rumford's Rain School. As the back flap recounts, one day on vacation during the rainy season, he and his wife Carol “came upon the mud ruins” of a primary school in the town where they were posted. The story behind that scene comprises the plot of Rumford's fourteenth book.

Rain School begins with the “dry dirt road filling up with children” on the way to their first day of school. In the loose colorful clothing of their hot country, they share the road with little goats, couples on electric bikes, and open air businesses, like the tailor with his pedal sewing machine. At the schoolyard, first grader Thomas realizes that there is no school: no classrooms, no desks. Rumford's spare, clean language builds atmosphere in poetic tandem with his beguiling pastel and ink illustrations:

“It doesn't matter. Vibrant, optimistic
There is a teacher.
'We will build our school,'
she says. 'This is the first lesson.'”

Together the children and their teacher make mud bricks, mud walls, and mud desks, then roof the structure with straw. Wooden stools, a blackboard, and notebooks and pencils appear. Thomas and the other younger children learn their (Roman) alphabet. They study a map of “Afrique,” with landlocked Chad colored in red.

Nine months later, when the “students' minds are fat with knowledge,” school ends for the year, and the rainy season begins.“Slowly, the school disappears until there is almost nothing left. It doesn't matter. The letters have been learned and the knowledge taken away by the children,” who will build a school again when the rains end.

Rain School makes clear the dedication it takes for Chadians to get an education, makes their vitality and resourcefulness apparent.  At the back of the book, a large map of Africa, labeled with all the continent's countries, provides geographic orientation. An exquisite congruence can occur when story and illustrations come from one mind; James Rumford is a master of this magic, and Rain School another great example of his skill. Children around the world will delight in this engaging story.

Charlotte Richardson
September 2011

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