Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Back to School Books!

Does your young reader have first-day nerves and classroom jitters? 
Making new friends can be exciting (and maybe just a little bit scary) and here are some books that will have you and your child excited to go back to school this year.


Meet Penelope Rex, the newest member of your kindergarten class. She’s a little nervous about the first day of school, just like any regular kid. She has a new lunch box decorated with ponies (because ponies are delicious), and her dad has packed her 300 tuna fish sandwiches and one apple juice. But when she gets to school, there’s one thing she didn’t count on about her classmates: they are children!

“So she ate them. Because children are delicious.”

Oh, did I mention—Penelope is a little T-Rex dinosaur! Thankfully, Ms. Noodleman the kindergarten teacher makes Penelope spit her classmates out.

But it is hard to fit in and make friends when your classmates are scared of you. On the second day of school, Penelope tries really hard, but it’s just so hard to resist eating little children because they are just so delicious.

As Penelope’s dad tells her, “You see, Penelope, children are the same as us on the inside. Just tastier.”

Finally, Penelope gets a little taste of her own medicine when she meets a goldfish named Walter and realizes it is not fun being someone else’s snack.

Seriously clever, adorable, and laugh-out-loud funny, throw in Higgins’ irresistible illustrations, and you will find yourself reading WE DON’T EAT OUR CLASSMATES again and again.

Here is a heroine for every child with a lot of panache and passion—even if it gets them in trouble sometimes. “Lilly loved school. She loved pointy pencils. She loved the squeaky chalk. She loved the way her boots went clickety-clickety-click down the long, shiny hallways. Most of all, she loved her teacher, Mr. Slinger.” 
She admires him so much that Lilly wants to be a teacher when she grows up. That is, until she gets a purple plastic purse and wants to show it to the class in the worst way. She wants to show how her purple plastic purse plays “a jaunty tune” when it’s open, and how the change jingles in the bottom. So when she just can’t wait until Sharing Time, Mr. Slinger must keep it at his desk until the end of the day. Well, Lilly makes a picture of “Big fat mean Mr. Stealing Teacher” and slips it in his desk when he’s not looking. Meanwhile, Mr. Slinger has slipped a note of his own to Lilly (inside her purse). “Today was a difficult day. Tomorrow will be better.” He even slipped her some tasty snacks. Boy, did Lilly feel terrible. She told her parents how terrible she felt, and together, Lilly and her parents make it up to Mr. Slinger. Lilly’s story shows that it’s okay to get excited, but sometimes you have to wait until the right time to share your excitement.

Bobby’s teacher Ms. Kirby is the worst. She stomps, she roars, and she definitely won’t let children who throw paper airplanes in class go to recess. Bobby spends his weekend in the park forgetting his teacher problems…until it is right there on a park bench that he runs into Ms. Kirby and her monster-self! When a gust of wind blows off Ms. Kirby’s hat, as she says, “My dear old granny gave it to me,” it turns out that Bobby is the one for the job. He saves the day, and the hat, and Ms. Kirby calls him a hero! The two former arch enemies, student and teacher, spend the rest of the beautiful day in the park together, where progressively, Ms. Kirby’s monster-ish appearance fades away, until Bobby sees her as a normal human again. Until Bobby is back at school…and he throws a paper airplane that lands at Ms. Kirby’s feet.

Peter Brown’s trade-mark humor and clever character illustrations can be found once more in MY TEACHER IS A MONSTER! (No, I am Not.), and shows that sometimes, monsters aren’t always what they seem.

PLANET KINDERGARTEN by Sue Ganz Schmitt, illustrated by Shane Prigmore

Sue Ganz-Schmitt's clever picture book about a brave boy about to start kindergarten will put children in a similar predicament immediately at ease.

Shane Prigmore (illustrator of the Spaceheadz series) uses comics-style panels to build suspense, with strips showing a spaceship "countdown" and the boy's athletic preparations as "day one" draws near. The artist reveals the child's passion for space through his wall calendar and knowledge of all things NASA. The car's taillights double as "boosters" on a rocket ship, and a full-page "Blast-off!" indicates the time has arrived. The author pulls out all the stops, with the boy's teacher as "commander," the classroom as his "capsule" and his fellow students as "crewmates." Prigmore uses a deep space–black backdrop and a brightly lit school and playground to underscore the "planet" allusions, and Mom gives a Vulcan sign as she and Dad deposit their son at the classroom door. The analogy works well for fidgety five-year-olds who defy gravity in an attempt to stay in their seats and who find rest time challenging ("In the quiet and the dark, I get really homesick," says the boy narrator). Yet he stays the course ("Failure is not an option," he quotes, remembering what they say at NASA). Before he knows it, the intrepid kindergartner is splashing down in the tub on his "home planet."

The inventive approach of both author and artist will give anxious children a creative way of looking at their new experiences, as explorers of a new frontier.

This review first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Follow up with the sequel in PLANET KINDERGARTEN: 100 DAYS IN ORBIT


Chrysanthemum’s parents picked an absolutely perfect name for their absolutely perfect child. It was a long name, but as she grew older, she came to love her name even more.

“Chrysanthemum loved the way her name looked when it was
written on an envelope.
She loved the way it looked when it was written with icing
on her birthday cake.
And she loved the way it looked when she wrote it herself
with her fat orange crayon.
Chrysanthemum, Chrysanthemum, Chrysanthemum.”

But then, she started school.
During roll call, everyone giggled when the teacher read Chrysanthemum’s name. Rita tells her that her name barely fits on her nametag.

“ ‘I’m named after my grandmother,’ said Victoria. ‘You’re named after a flower!

Chrysanthemum, heartbroken, runs home after school in tears. Day after day, she receives taunts and teasing about her name, until the class has music with the amazing Mrs. Twinkle. It turns out that Mrs. Twinkle has a long name too—Delphinium—and soon after, all the little girls want long names.

“In the end, Chrysanthemum did not think her name was absolutely perfect.
She knew it!”’

Kevin Henkes’ Chrysanthemum was published over 25 years ago but is still one of the most wonderful back-to-school stories to read to kids. Henkes’ mice families and delightful illustrations are fodder for story time again and again and again.

CHU’S FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Adam Rex

This is the second Chu book by Neil Gaiman, but perhaps it is one of my favorites. “There was a thing Chu could do,” begins the story, with an illustration of Chu walking off the page and blades of grass were flying in the air.
Chu wonders what will happen and if his classmates will be nice. His parents assure him, “Of course they will like you.”
When Chu goes to school, the teacher is a bear who has a friendly face. She shows her students where they are supposed to sit. And then, she asks them to stand up one-by-one and introduce themselves with something they are good at doing.

Jengo the giraffe likes to get things down from high places.
Robin likes to sing and can fly.
Tiny the snail says, “I like to go into my room and close the door and not come out until I want to.”

All the new students have a special thing they all can do.

Chu just sits there, quietly. But when the chalk dust from the board tickles his nose…


Chu sneeze is SO big that it blows the roof off of the school.

“That’s what I do,” Chu tells the class after they climb up off the floor where Chu’s sneeze flattened them.

If you have not met Chu, this is the perfect time to do so! Adam Rex’s illustrations are bright and colorful and he paints a very detailed picture of all the little animals, capturing their childlike expressions so perfectly.

SCHOOL’S FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL by Adam Rex, illustrated by Christian Robinson

While most back-to-school books focus on a character who feels a little out-of-place on the first day of school, this story is told from the perspective of the actual school building, written by Adam Rex and illustrated with simple shapes by Christian Robinson.

After a new school is built and Janitor is mopping the floors and getting the school nice and clean for the new children, school is a little worried about so many children arriving, and it isn’t sure what to expect.

And then, the children arrive. And on a page with a great illustration of children playing on the jungle gym, hanging upside down on the monkey bars and sliding down the slide, the text reads: “They got everywhere. They opened and closed all of his doors and lockers, and drank water from the fountains, and played on his jungle gym. ‘So that’s what that is for,’ thought the school.”

But not everybody likes school. A girl with freckles has to be carried in by her mother and school thinks, “I must be awful.”

School’s fire-alarms accidentally go off and he’s really embarrassed about it. He listens to a funny joke told during lunch, even if it means that a boy laughed so hard milk came out his nose and “now I’m covered in nose milk,” thought the school. But he also learns about shapes alongside the children, and the girl with freckles draws the best picture of the school and the teacher puts it up on the board.

Finally, when the children have gone home and Janitor comes back to pick up the school, school tells Janitor all about his big day. He tells Janitor that at first he thought he was a house, but Janitor tells him, “But you get to be a school. That’s lucky.”

And school agreed.


What could be more fun than a substitute teacher? A green, one-eyed, seven-tentacled substitute Creacher in a brown cardigan and bow tie. Chris Gall's (Dinotrux) exuberant illustrations capture the children's penchant for high jinks. As redheaded Peyton stands on a desk and announces, "Substitute teacher today!," a bespectacled boy balances a teetering tower of books on one hand. Meanwhile, a green limb snakes through the door. "Good morning to all!/ My name's Mr. Creacher./ Ms. Jenkins has asked me/ to step in as teacher." The sub's rhyming speech balloons glow with green slime. As the kids pull pranks, he warns, "Please don't even try;/ in the back of my head, you'll find more than one eye!" How can he anticipate their every move? He's been observing kids' antics for 49 years. "I've collected some tales/ whose lessons are grave/ about boys and girls/ who didn't behave."

Each "case file" unfolds in pixilated panel images that recall Sunday comics. Mr. Creacher tells of Keith, "a hungry young lad" who snacks on glue: "Soon no one could find the boy underneath/ all of the objects that stuck to poor Keith." Sara (case #724C) piles so much in her desk that it blows itself into bits (like Peyton's overstuffed backpack). But the worst fate befalls a boy who steals candy from a "magical gnome." Who might that be? With that story, Mr. Creacher finally gets through to the students, and the ending will stir up much discussion. Doubling as an ideal back-to-school and Halloween tale, Mr. Creacher's story delivers both humor and wisdom.

This review first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


Steve’s favorite activities include wrestling, hunting, and chasing campers. Steve was also raised by wolves.

And his idyllic existence is one day shaken up when his mother, a mama wolf, drags him all the way through the forest to the bus stop. His mom says,

“It’s not easy to get along with humans but just be yourself. I know you’ll have a great day.” The reader then sees a very disgruntled Steve on the bus.

Steve did not have a great day. He howled and growled, shredded banners and tore down posters. And he gave everyone fleas, which is never a great way to start off school.

Steve brings home a note from his teacher…

“Mrs. Wolf,
Steve had a hard time staying out of trouble today.

Mrs. Meadows.”

But the next day was no different. Between marking his territory under the playground on the slide, burying his teacher’s laptop, and drinking out of the toilet, Steve was not trying to get along with the other humans. He was so much trouble that Mrs. Meadows has to visit the wolf den.

But when the class pet, a hamster named Reggie, goes missing, Steve’s wolf instincts kick in and he tracks Reggie down just by smelling the ground. Hooray! Steve saves the day.

When he brings home a note from Mrs. Meadows that day, it’s a good one.

Jared Chapman’s story may resonate with many students (and parents!) who are hesitant about going to school. Thankfully, (we hope) your children haven’t been raised by wolves!

MERMAID SCHOOL by Joanne Stewart Wetzel, illustrated by Julianna Swaney

Told in a sing-song rhyme, this is an easy read-aloud for children who love mermaids and are going back-to-school.

The mermaids get ready for school, count using sea-shells, and sing their “A-B-Seas.” During music, the mermaids make music alongside a trumpetfish and a drumfish. During recess, the mermaids build sandcastles and swing on a kelp swing, but the best part of the day is story time, when Ms. Marina reads a book to the class.

“Our teacher reads a story that
She calls a fantasy.
Of boys and girls who have no tails
And can’t breathe undersea.”

This “fantasy story,” is accompanied by an illustration of human boys and girls playing on THEIR playground.

Sweet rhymes with cheerful illustrations by Swaney, there is even a Mermaid School Handbook that follows the story with a rule that reads:

“New Students: If you meet a new mermaid swimming by, ask her name and tell her yours. It’s a great way to make friends.”

Read this mermaid story with a friend and get ready to make new friends at school!

If your child is starting to match letters with their sounds and perhaps recognize a word or two, you are in luck! This charming book tells a multilayered story about learning to read and making a friend, through a series of very simple words and images. A shift in palette conveys the passage of time, and the changes in the puppy hero’s expressions and body language indicate the furry pupil’s gradual openness to his little feathered teacher’s patient and persistent overtures.

First off, we meet Rocket, a dog who loves to play: “He loved to chase leaves and chew sticks. He loved to listen to the birds sing.” One day, after a full morning of play, just when he’s “settl[ing] in for a good nap,” a little yellow bird alights on Rocket’s tufted forehead. “Aha! My first student! Wonderful!” she sings. Rocket responds by moving on to a new napping place. When the bird begins the story of an unlucky dog, Buster, who’s lost his favorite bone, we see only the tip of Rocket’s tail protruding from a bush. “At first Rocket was disturbed,” and his expression shows it. But as Buster’s story progresses, Rocket perks up. The little yellow bird flies off, leaving her furry listener on a cliff-hanger.

Now the pooch is hooked, and “every day Rocket returned to the little yellow bird’s classroom.” Each morning, Rocket learns a new letter, and student and teacher put the letters together. Hills delightfully drives the plot with the sounds the letters make: with “G” and “R” they spell brown-and-white spotted Mr. Barker’s growl (“GRRRRRRRRRR!”). Hills makes children aware of the omnipresence of sounds of all kinds—a dog’s growl, the whoosh of the wind. Meanwhile, the sky darkens, and the leaves turn “R-E-D.” It’s fall—time for the little yellow bird to head South. “Don’t forget! Words are built one letter at a time!” she cries as she flies off. In her absence, Rocket practices his letters; a snowy field becomes his whiteboard. He traces “A-B-C” in the snow, and sounds out “W-I-N-D” and “C-O-L-D.” Just when Rocket looks the most downcast, we watch the snow “M-E-L-T” and know that spring will soon return and the little yellow bird with it. The pup sees the bird’s chalkboard  with the message “Class starts tomorrow,” and spells “W-A-G” as he happily awaits his friend and instructor. All of the words are simple enough for beginning readers to sound out for themselves. And of course the tale of Buster, “the lucky dog who found his bone under the lilac bush,” is one that Rocket and his yellow-feathered teacher read “again. And again. And A-G-A-I-N.” Together Rocket and the little yellow bird reveal a magical world that reading opens up for all of us.

See some other back-to-school favorites below!