“Ms. Gillis couldn’t wait. Here she was on Prince Edward Island on the east coast of Canada and tomorrow she would be off to Kenya on the east coast of Africa. Six whole weeks doing what she loved most: teaching children!
She quickly cleaned the whiteboards and did a final check of the classroom, noticing neat rows of desks, overcrowded bookshelves, and colourful bulletin boards.
Then because no one was looking, she gave a little skip and a hop as she closed the window, turned off the lights and left. “Jambo, Kenya! Here I come!”
Sponsored by Farmers Helping Farmers, Ms. Gillies is leaving to teach in a Kenyan school for six weeks. Pupils in her Prince Edward Island classroom share her excitement, bidding her bon voyage and expressing hopes she will see an elephant and to be careful of lions!
Ms. Gillies loves her impressions of Kenya and the happy, enthusiastic faces of her new students, but she is sad to see their impoverished schools. There are 55 children in this class, no computers, no whiteboards and rickety desks, each shared by three pupils. When she distributes gifts of small crayon boxes for each child, they are delighted. However, when they suddenly begin to break each crayon into pieces, Ms. Gillies is shocked. As she learns that this crayon-breaking behavior comes from the children’s desire to share their treasure with friends and siblings, she recognizes the education they are providing her.
This lovely picture book tells a satisfying story, but it also makes a profound statement about the disparities that the world faces, disparities of which we are often unaware. The author reveals these inequalities with a light touch in her writing, painting the picture clearly without proselytizing. This is typified by such simple reminders to her Canadian classroom to prevent wastage by picking up pencils and crayons scattered carelessly on the floor. These same items are seen as a shared treasure by her African pupils.
Ms. Gillies whose observations are the vehicle for gently revealing these inconsistencies is a compassionate figure who has genuine affection for all the children she teaches in both countries. She also appreciates the culture of each country, seeing each on its own terms.
The thoughts conveyed in the text are beautifully augmented by the illustrations. Many are double page spreads in muted shades of browns and greens with occasional splashes of bright color. They depict the natural ebullience of children everywhere and the contrast between the affluence of the PEI school compared with its less privileged counterpart in Kenya. Charming details and whimsy will have children poring over the pictures as they view two worlds.
A portion of the sales of Broken Crayons will benefit FHF School Twinning Project. Based on a true story, this understated, gentle book is a thought-provoking title for children aged 4-8 and a great addition for storytimes.
Aileen Wortley is a retired Children’s Librarian from Toronto, Ontario.