Review by Karl Verhoven
These days Dan Santat is a successful author and illustrator, and indeed A First Time for Everything added to his list of awards. However in the late 1980s he was just another thirteen year old middle school student not cut out for being suddenly exposed to the jungle.
The opening chapter reveals how bad that could be, supervised by teachers who seemingly had no understanding of matters beyond the immediate classroom. However, although Dan doesn’t know it on departure, a three week school trip to Europe is the making of him, designating A First Time for Everything as a type of coming of age experience. As well as the opportunity to experience new cultures and what people eat and drink, it’s the freedom that really resonates. It’s definitely a sign of the times, though, as imagine the outcry now if a bunch of thirteen year olds were allowed to wander through Paris without adult supervision. Other surprises follow.
Santat keeps the illustration simple, the better to communicate, but it’s expressive in conveying how he felt all those years ago, and the wonder of the places visited, starting with Paris. A nice touch is having some dialogue in different languages, with ordinary people commenting on the American schoolkids. These aren’t translated, so a bonus for readers who learn French or German. The scenes of the tour are cut with flashbacks to the past, featuring rather sweet sequences about how Dan already knows some of the girls also taking the trip.
That has some relevance, as although Dan likes girls, he’s never considered moving beyond an awkward friendship as a possibility. What he doesn’t quite realise then is that having a personality and being able to make girls laugh is a good starting point. “There’s been this guy who looks exactly like me who’s been following me around constantly for the last 13 years”, he explains in Munich, “and doing embarrassing things to make me look pathetic”. It could be the case that the older and wiser Santat is making his younger self seem more endearing, but the negative and embarrassing moments included would suggest not, especially as interviews note some moments have been switched around for dramatic purposes, making him seem even more of a dork. The teenage angst is very true to life, though, in what’s a heartwarming experience throughout.
In addition to the great sites of six cities, Dan discovers Fanta, MC Solaar and Wimbledon, and returns home with a bag full of good memories and enough bolstered confidence to see him through the start of high school. An afterword acknowledges privilege and offers sound advice to young adult readers.
A First Time for Everything skilfully negotiates the mixture of joy and angst in a constantly charming way, while also underlining the value of other cultures, something that seen from the outside so rarely seems an American priority. Santat’s experiences made him a more fully rounded person, and if they consider things, the same ought to apply to any reader.