The New Girl . . . and Me
by Jacqui Robbins; ill. by Matt Phelan
When I was in sixth grade, my family moved cross-country from Los Angeles to the rural South. It was a miserable move for me, for many reasons. One of them was the fact that we moved in October, after the school year had already started.
Even if I had started school with the rest of the students, I still would have been an outsider, the newcomer in a town full of kids who had literally known each other all their lives. But now I was conspicuously so: the student who appeared obviously and abruptly after everyone else had already acclimated to the year’s teachers and classes.
I remember that first day, standing in front of my homeroom class as the teacher introduced me, realizing that I didn’t dress like any of my classmates. As the day progressed and I heard them speak to their teachers and to one another, I realized that I didn’t sound (or, for that matter, think) like most of them, either.
But there’s something else I remember about that first day: the three students, two girls and one boy, who broke with the pack to welcome me. They smiled at me, introduced me to their friends, asked me about myself. Within a couple of weeks, both the girls had invited me over to spend the night.
Those connections grew into enduring friendships; I remained close to all three of those kids for about eight years, until we had all graduated from high school and settled into our new, post-childhood lives. And though we’re no longer particularly close, we still maintain contact today, 25 years later.
I’ll be honest: I never stopped feeling like an outsider in that town. It never became home. But those three friends, and a small handful of others like them, made me feel “at home” when I was with them. Without them, the situation would have been unbearable. But with them, I made memories–really, really good ones.
And those memories, of course, are what drew me to Jacqui Robbins and Matt Phelan’s The New Girl . . . and Me, a just-sweet-enough picture book about two little girls who meet when one joins the other’s class mid-year.
The new girl (Shakeeta) is clearly nervous–when the teacher asks her name, she blurts out, “I have an iguana!”–and the other students are clearly curious about her. All goes well at first, until she runs afoul of the class pest, who then induces their classmates to shun her.
Meanwhile, the narrator (Mia) has been watching and waiting. In her own way, she’s been trying to understand Shakeeta and her feelings. And when Shakeeta ends up on the playground bench, Mia (also benched by the bully) decides to take a chance on reaching out.
The two little girls shyly edge closer together, a bond forming between them; later, we see that Mia’s acceptance of Shakeeta has encouraged the other students to accept the new girl as well.
It’s all cleverly depicted with spot-on language and child-to-child dynamics, no doubt thanks to Robbins’ years as an elementary-school teacher. Phelan’s portrayals are expert, too. His pastel watercolors on white backgrounds could easily devolve into something saccharine; instead, they’re lively, funny, and evocative.
But what I love most is Mia’s open heart. Even before she befriends Shakeeta, she’s striving to understand her new classmate. She looks up iguanas in a reference book, mulls over how Shakeeta must be feeling. She genuinely wants to make Shakeeta feel “at home”–which is probably why she succeeds, despite her shyness.
I want my daughter to be that girl: the one who reaches out to strangers, comforts the hurting, tries to grow her mind and heart to understand the unfamiliar. And this book is inspiration to do just that.