Once Upon an Ordinary School Day by Colin McNaughton

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McNaughton, Colin.  Illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura.  2004.  ONCE UPON AN ORDINARY SCHOOL DAY.  New York:  Farrar Straus Giroux.  ISBN: 0-374-35634-3.

The protagonist of Colin McNaughton’s Once Upon an Ordinary School Day is an ordinary boy.  He lives an ordinary life and does ordinary things and goes to an ordinary school.  One day his ordinary life is changed when his class gets a new teacher, Mr. Gee, who is anything but ordinary.  The first thing Mr. Gee does for the class is play music and have them draw pictures and write stories about what the music makes them see in their minds.   The ordinary boy had a wonderful time with this assignment, and that night, after he went through his ordinary bedtime routine, the ordinary boy went to sleep, “and had extraordinary dreams.”

In this USBBY-CBC Outstanding International Books for Children, Colin McNaughton explores how an extraordinary teacher can change a child’s life.  Everything is ordinary in the ordinary boy’s life.  He is so ordinary, in fact, that the reader never even learns his name.   But a new teacher who encourages the children to think and use their imaginations and write stories and draw pictures about their interpretation of music, makes the boy and his ordinary classmates extraordinary.  Illustrator Satoshi Kitamura, in a technique used in the 1939 movie version of The Wizard of Oz keeps the illustrations of the boy’s pre-Mr. Gee life in muted tones of black, white, tan, and gray.  When Mr. Gee arrives in the classroom, he and his phonograph and records are in color while the rest of the classroom and students remain in muted tones.  As the boy listens to the music, he is drawn in color and his imaginary scenes are full of color and life:  wild animals in a jungle, fish in the sea, even flying.  By the end of class, all the children are portrayed in color, and even when the boy goes home his world remains in color. 

The cultural markers in Once Upon an Ordinary School Day exist in Kitamura’s illustrations rather than McNaughton’s text.  Our ordinary protagonist wears the classic English schoolboy uniform, short pants, shirt, tie, blazer, knee socks, and tennis shoes.  His neighborhood looks like many of the neighborhoods in London and other cities in the U.K. and prominently displayed in his bedroom are a cricket bat and a poster of McNaughton’s famous porcine character, Preston Pig.

It is interesting to evaluate Mr. Gee’s influence on the ordinary boy when reading McNaughton’s response to a question about his own childhood:

drawing is a natural thing for children, it’s just another game. If you’ve ever listened to or watched a child who’s fully absorbed in drawing, they’ll be saying this car went along here and they’ll be drawing a little car, and an aeroplane came down, they’ll draw a little aeroplane and he was shooting at him and they’ll be talking and all they’re doing is telling a story but with images rather than words. It’s just a game that they play and it’s only when somebody says you’re not a very good drawer that they stop.    

Works cited:
Harper Collins Children’s Books, Interview with Colin McNaughton.  http://www.harpercollinschildrensbooks.co.uk/Authors/Interview.aspx?id=401&aid=3924.  Accessed April 7, 2006.

 By Monica Wood