Phil Bildner: Firsts

Guest Post by Author Phil Bildner

This is the second month in a series of author guest posts about diversity in children’s literature and the BookPeople Modern First Library initiative. We’ve enjoyed many posts by local Austin authors and now look forward to sharing guest posts written by national authors. For more about BookPeople’s Modern First Library initiative, and for more recommendations of wonderful new and classic picture books to read, visit

Previous posts in this series:

Varian Johnson: A Better World
Meghan G., Kids book buyer: Introducing BookPeople’s Modern First Library
Chris Barton: A Modern First Library List
Chris Barton: Loved, valued, unique? Yes. Center of the universe? No.
Cynthia Leitich Smith: Books as mirrors
Cynthia Leitich Smith: This book is for you
Liz Garton Scanlon: Soul reflecting 101
Liz Garton Scanlon: Fear No Difference
Liz Garton Scanlon: All the World Is All of Us
Don Tate: When I Began to Read, I Began to Exist
Don Tate: Maybe It’s Just Plain Fate
Varian Johnson: Diversity for Our Youngest Readers
Varian Johnson: A Better World
Grace Lin: The Wishes Many Readers Don’t Know They Have
Mike Jung: More Than a Start
LeUyen Pham: My Kids See Themselves in Every Book They Read


Firsts.  We remember our firsts.  Life’s stepping stones, life’s milestones.  The celebratory ones, the regrettable ones, the unexpected ones. Indelibly etched.

We remember them all.

My first baseball game:  Shea Stadium on a Saturday afternoon. April, 1974.  After “tax season” because my dad was (still is) an accountant.  We sat in the green seats, the mezzanine section.  The Mets against the Pirates.  Jerry Koosman on the mound for the Amazins’.  The Mets won, 5-2.

My first kiss:  Summer camp in New Hampshire.  Sneaking out to the soccer field after evening activities.  Half the bunk went. At least.   Waiting for the girls.  Then pairing off.  We timed each other (“1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi…”) to see who kissed the longest.

My first concert:  Air Supply.  Yeah, “Lost in Love” Air Supply.  “All Out of Love” Air Supply.  The Westbury Music Fair.  We had to see the hot new Australian super group that was lighting up Casey Kasem’s American Top 40.

My first cigarette:  The summer before high school.  The teen bike tour up Cape Cod, Hyannis to Provincetown.  Newport Lights on the dunes.  Because Newport Lights were cooler than Camels.  Then came another first — the Rocky Horror Picture Show… like I knew what I was watching!

My first real summer job:  Wendy’s.  Because of the unlimited free Frosty desserts.  Closing every night.  But that lasted all of three nights. The parents weren’t having it.  Ended up working with my friend Mitchell Hill in a warehouse in Melville.  Packing bicycles and bicycle parts.  We listened to 102.3 WBAB all July and August.  Lots of Phil Collins and Genesis.  It was the summer of Live Aid.

The first book I ever read to my class.  Of course, I remember it.  My first year teaching. Class 5-405 at C.S. 6.  The Tremont section of the Bronx.  I didn’t have any teaching experience.  Just six education credits and a two-hour child abuse seminar. It was trial by fire.

But I knew about books.  I knew the importance of reading, the importance of reading aloud to kids.

I read Scorpions by Walter Dean Myers.  His Newbery Honor Book from 1988. The story of Jamal, Tito, Dwayne, Randy, Angel, Indian. Gritty realistic fiction. Set in Harlem. A few subway stops away on the 2 or the 5.

I can still see the faces of the kids as I read.  I can still hear the “No, Mr. B!” when I stopped at the end of a chapter and refused to go on until the next day.

For many of those kids, it was the first time anyone ever read to them.  For many of those kids, they didn’t know such books existed.

We need diverse books so that the first time kids sit in a classroom riveted by a teacher reading out loud, the kids hear themselves in the book.

My Modern First Library

Of the several hundred titles I’d include as my top ten for the Modern First Library, here are my ten.

Yo? Yes!

I loved reading this Chris Raschka picture book to my class at the beginning of the school year.  It has only thirty-four words.  It’s a beautiful story of two boys — one white, one black — making friends.

The Little Engine That Could

A top ten list must have a train book.  A top ten list must have a book with paintings by Loren Long.  A top ten list must have a book where the female character (the engine) repeats the mantra “I think I can” and then does. You go girl!

Independent Dames

At an early age, kids need to be introduced to the writings of Laurie Halse Anderson.  This book focuses on the women and girls of the American Revolution.  Their role cannot and should not be overlooked.  Matt Faulkner created the wonderful illustrations. A non-fiction title that’s not to be missed.

Salt in His Shoes

Michael Jordan wasn’t always the greatest basketball player who ever lived.  As a kid, he almost gave up on the sport.  Who better person to tell this true story than his mom (Deloris Jordan) and his sister (Rosalyn Jordan).  Who better to paint it than the incomparable, Kadir Nelson.

A Wish for Wings that Work: An Opus Christmas Story

Berkeley Breathed’s Christmas story is my all-time favorite Christmas book. As a teacher, it was my favorite Christmas-time read aloud. The book’s message doesn’t just resonate during the holidays, it resonates all year long — everyone is special, everyone matters.


Written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Dan Santat, this picture book is laugh-out-loud funny. Carnivores are going to do what carnivores are going to do. Not every story will have a happily-ever-after ending.  Kids need to know that.

Punk Farm

In Jarrett Krosoczka’s picture book, when Farmer Joe goes to sleep, it’s time for the animals to jam! It’s a rockin’ and rollin’ good time as the animal band — Punk Farm — puts on a show. Featuring the pig on guitar, the chicken on keyboard, the goat on bass and the sheep on vocals, get ready for a rousing rendition of Old MacDonald and much, much more!

Not Inside This House

Okay, I’ll admit I have a certain bias toward this book written by Kevin Lewis and illustrated by Dave Ercolini.  But every kid and every grown-up kid will be able to relate to Livingstone Columbus Magellan Crouse.  A great pre-K and Kindergarten read aloud.  Pair it with Punk Farm.

hello! hello!

This is the first of two titles by Matthew Cordell on my list because it’s never too early to begin an author (illustrator) study.  You can’t just watch your life, you have to live your life.  That’s what little Lydia wants everyone to see in this story that celebrates imagination and personal interactions.

Rooting for You

This is the second of two titles by Matthew Cordell on my list.  Well, Matt illustrated this one, and the sensational text –an exquisite allegory — was written by Susan Hood.  On one level, it’s the story of how a seed becomes a plant, but on another level, it’s an inspirational tale about taking risks and becoming who we’re meant to be.


Phil Bildner is the author of numerous children’s picture books including the Texas Bluebonnet Award-Winning Shoeless Joe & Black Betsy, Twenty-One Elephants, The Hallelujah FlightThe Unforgettable Season, and The Soccer Fence.  He is the co-creator of The New York Times Bestselling middle grade chapter book serial, Sluggers.  A former middle school teacher in the New York City public schools, Phil spends much of the year visiting schools around the country conducting writing workshops and talking process with students.  He lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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