Monday, August 31, 2015

Teacher's Choice…some old and new favorite picture books about school

I've been going through my shelves of books, getting ready to donate some of them to a good cause here in NYC, and realized I have a bunch of old and new books about school, probably because, as a classroom teacher, I love a good school story.  I thought since this is back to school time, I would share some favorites with you.  Today, I am looking at picture books: 

The Way to School by Rosemary McCarney
Second Story Press, 2015, 32 Pages (Age 5+)

With minimal text, and stunning full page photographs, young readers discover the different ways that kids around the world go to school in this nonfiction book.  Each photograph is labeled with the name of the country, but the photos speak for themselves - whether the kids are riding on a donkey or their school bus is a crowded ox cart, whether they are being pulled in a dog sled, climbing a high cliff, or walking across a collapsed bridge, each photograph shows how determined these children are to go to school and get educated, even if the way there is difficult and dangerous.  And some kids not only have a long walk, but must also carry their own water and desks to school every day.       

Rain School written and illustrated by James Rumford
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, 32 pages (age 4+)

It's September and the first day of school in a village in Chad.  Thomas is going to school for the first time and he can't wait to begin learning like the older siblings.  But first, Thomas and the other children must all help to build their school   The kids, under the guidance of the teacher, make bricks from mud, a frame from wood and a roof by weaving reeds together.  When it's finished, the children begin regular lessons, learning something new each day.  Nine months later, school is over for the year.  Just in time, too, because the annual heavy rains come and wash away the school.  Next September, Thomas and the other students will begin school again by rebuilding their school.  Rumford's illustration reminded me of brightly colored crayoned drawing, nicely depicting daily and school life in Thomas's village.  A nice addition to any classroom and library.  Kids can explore themes of diversity.teamwork, education, community, and self-reliance in Rain School.

Nasreem's Secret School, a True Story from Afghanistan
written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter
Beach Lane Books, 2009, 40 pages (Age 6+)

Forced to remain at home all day, every day once the Taliban takes over Afghanistan, Nasreen is no longer able to go to school.  After the Taliban takes her father away, and her mother disappears while looking for him, since women are not allowed out of the house without a male escort, Nasreem's grandmother becomes very worried about her granddaughter, especially after she stops speaking.  When she hears whispers of a neighbor running a secret school for girls, the two make their way to the neighbor's house, despite the danger.  Day after day, Nasreem does her work well, but never says a word to anyone in school.  Returning to school after the winter break, a classmate named Mina tells Nasreen that she had missed her, and Nasreem whispers back that she had missed Mina.  As she begins speaking more in school, Nasreem learns how to read, and learns all about her country's art and culture, and its scholars.  The nice thing about knowledge is that Taliban could never take it away from Nasreen and her classmates.  The acrylic illustrations are done in a folk art style using bright colors reminiscent of Middle Eastern art.

Ruby's Wish by Shirin Yim Bridges, illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Chronicle Books, 2002, 36 pages (Age 5+)

Living in her family's splendid home with more than 100 relatives, Ruby and her cousins enjoy the privilege of an tutored education.  Yet, becasue she is a girl, Ruby is expected to give up her education and learn how to be a wife, but she wants to go to the university like her boy cousins instead.  Ruby's poem about her feelings, Alas, bad luck to be born a girl/worst luck to be born into this house/where only boys are cared for, is shown to her grandfather who calls her to him to talk about it.  But grandfather is a fair man who loves his grandchildren and on New Year's Day, he presents her with an acceptance letter to university.  This is a charming story based on the author's grandmother and shows us that sometimes breaking with tradition is a very good thing and that hard work can pay off.  Sophie Blackall's beautiful watercolor illustrations help create the culture of a by-gone time in China while retaining the universal desire of girls to get an education.

Little Cliff's First Day of School by Clifton L. Taulbert, illustrated by E.B. Lewis
Penguin, 2001, 32 pages (Age 4+)

Little Cliff really does not want to go to school and leave Mama Pearl and Poppa Joe.  He doesn't want to put on his new school clothes or his new brown shoes or his new hat with the ear flaps.  He's scared of school and just wants to stay home with his toys and his great-grandparents.  On the first day of school, Little Cliff finds every which way to procrastinate, but after saying goodbye to everything in the house and on the farm, it is time to go.  Little Cliff decides maybe not and hides under the house.  When Mama Pearl finally gets him out from under there and brushes him off, the two of them set off for school.  When they arrive, Little Cliff is greeted with a big, happy surprise waiting for him there.  E.B. White's realistically rendered watercolor illustrations really help set the tone and mood of this charming story of a boy growing up in the South in the 1950s in this second book of Taulbert's Little Cliff trilogy.

The Name Jar written and illustrated by Yangsook Choi
Random House, 2003, 40 pages (Age 5+)

When young Unhei leaves Korea, her grandmother gives her a wooden block with her named carved on it so she will always remember who she is.  When she begins her new school, everyone wants to know who she is, but when Unhei realizes the kids have trouble saying her name, she decides to pick another one.  The kids set up a name jar for suggestions.  Running into a boy in her class at the Korean market, Joey discovers that her name is Unhei and that it means grace.  The next school day, the name jar was missing from her desk.  She announces to the class that she had decided to choose her real name Unhei.  Later, Unhei learns that Joey took the name jar hoping she would chose Unhei and not an American name.  This is a nice book about difference and identity and the importance of being just who you are.

My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits, illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska
Square Fish, 2014, 32 pages (Age 5+)

Like Unhei, Yoon has also come to the US from Korea.  She is about to begin school, and her father wants her to learn to write her name in English.  When Yoon is reluctant to do that, he reminds her that her name means Shining Wisdom regardless of how it's written.  One the first day of school, Yoon is supposed to write her name on a piece of paper, but she decides to call herself CAT.  The same thing happens the next day, with the word BIRD, and yet again on the third day with the word CUPCAKE.  Yoon's teacher lets this happen each day, accepting it and smiling at the young girl.  Finally, on the fourth day, Yoon heads her paper with her own name - YOON.  Gabi Swiatkowska's beautifully rendered illustrations elaborate Yoon's feelings of discomfort and isolation in her new country, and her yearning daydreams to go back home to Korea.  

Both The Name Jar and My Name is Yoon do an excellent job depicting the difficulty young people can experience after moving to a new country, feeling displaced yet being expected to assimilate all the while they are trying to hold on to the country and culture that had been so comfortable and familiar to them.

The Sandwich Swap by Queen Rania Al Abdullah
with Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Tricia Tusa
Disney-Hyperion, 2010, 32 pages (Age 4+)

Salma and Lily are best friends, doing everything together - playing, drawing, jumping rope, eating lunch in school.  Everyday, Lily brings a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and Salma brings a hummus and pita sandwich to school.  Each girl thinks that the other girl's sandwich looks awful, but neither says anything until the day Lily blurts out that Salma's sandwich looks yucky.  Surprised, Salma tells Lily her sandwich looks gross.  The two friends get angry at each other and stop speaking, playing, drawing, jumping rope, and eating lunch together.  News of the fight spreads, until one day, the other kids in the lunchroom begin taking sides and throwing insulting comments around and the result is a food fight.  Ashamed, Lily and Salma make up, try each other's sandwich and to their amazement, Lily likes hummus and pita and Salma likes peanut butter and jelly. The girls come up with an idea to educate and celebrate the diverse foods of all the student's cultures.  According to the Author's Note, the idea for this book came from an experience she had in nursery school.  Tricia Tusa whimsically colorful watercolor illustrations are expressive of the emotions the girls feel when they are friends and when they aren't.

Dad's First Day written and illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka
Bloomsbury, 2015, 40 pages (Age 4+)

Oliver and his dad had lots of fun playing together all summer long but now, it's the first day of school and Oliver is all ready - his lunchbox is packed, his crayons and pencils are bought and put into his shiny new backpack.  Oliver is so excited, but wait a minute - dad has a tummy ache, and now, he wants to finish doing a puzzle and uh oh! Oliver may be ready to start school, but is his dad?  Oliver's dad is sure going to miss him, but when he sees his son with his new friends, and sees how much fun he's having, maybe Oliver's dad is ready for for his son to go to school after all.  A really nice father/son book, and an interesting take on kindergarten empty nest syndrome.  Kids will like knowing they are missed at home, no matter how much fun school is.

Miss Nelson is Missing by Harry G. Allard, Jr., illustrated by James Marshall
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1977, 1985, 32 pages (Age 5+)

What does a sweet teacher do when her class misbehaves so badly that she can't get them to do anything?  She doesn't come to school and the kids in Room 207 have  a substitute - the stern looking Miss Viola Swamp in an ugly black dress.  And the kids know immediately that Miss Swamp means business.  Pretty soon, Miss Nelson's class is working harder, behaving better and missing their sweet teacher.  What to do? Some kids hire a detective, other kids go to her house, day after day the whole class speculates about what could have happened to Miss Nelson and just when they begin to think she will never come back, she's back.  And so plaeased and surprised by her now well behaved class, but whatever happened to Miss Viola Swamp?  That's Miss Nelson's little secret.

The Art Lesson written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola
Penguin, 1989, 32 pages (Age 3+)

In this semi-autobiographical picture book, little Tommy loves to draw picture and wants to grow up to be an artist.  He is especially excited to begin school after his brother Joe tells him there would be art lessons.  But there are no lessons in kindergarten and Tommy must wait until 1st grade.  When 1st grade finally begins, Tommy has a brand new box of 64 crayons, but his 1st grade teacher tells him he cannot use them in class, all the kids must use the same box of 8 crayons.  When the art lessons finally begin, Tommy is disappointed to learn he must copy what the art teacher does instead of being creative, and when Tommy is caught with his 64 crayons, he is told he still cannot used them.  But a compromise is reached between the teachers and Tommy that allows him to finally be creative and use his  64 crayons.  This is a good story about following rules, handling disappointment, waiting, and compromise.

Penny & Jelly: The School Show by Maria Gianferrari, illustrated by Thyra Heder
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, 32 pages (Age 4+)

It's time for the school talent show, and everyone seems to have a talent except Penny.  No matter what she tries, she just isn't very good at it.  Penny makes list after list, trying to find some talent that will knock the socks off everyone at the school talent show.  She ever enlists the help of her faithful dog, Jelly.  But nothing seems to work out for her.  She can't dance or sing or juggle or do magic tricks.  Finally, Penny finds a solution - she and Jelly perform a duet - Penny on kazoo, Jelly on howling.  Talent shows can be a problem for lots of kids in elementary school who don't have the kinds of talent these shows require, and can result in some pretty hurt feelings.  Addressing this and showing that everyone is good at something is a step in the right direction.

And Two Boys Booed by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Farrar, Straud , Giroux, 2014, 32 pages (Age 4+)

A young boy decides to sing in his class's talent show.  He's pretty confident, having praticed his song a billion times, beside, he's worn his lucky boots to school,  and is even wearing his pants with all the cool pockets on them.  What could go wrong?  Unfortunately, the young boy is last to go, and as the other kids perform, he begins to feel less confident and more disconcerted and nervous.  When it is finally his turn, after standing up and sitting down over and over again because he keeps changing his mind about "songing his sing" (yup,  the young singer begins to mix up his words), he finally sings his song and, when he's finished, two boys boo.  But the rest of the class claps.  The young hero survived his stage fright, survives the displeasure of two of his peers and lives to take his bow.  Sophie Blackall's whimsical illustrations really capture the many emotions the young singer goes through the morning of the talent show.  And because every story has two sides, this is a lift-the-flap book to see the other side of the story.  A lot of people didn't like this book because the booing was considered a mean thing to do to a kid, but I liked it because kids to run into these kinds of situations in school and they need to know that it's OK to have fears, they can get through them and be OK, even if it feels like the end of the world in the moment.   

First Grade Dropout by Audrey Vernick, Matthew Cordell
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, 32 pages (Age 4+)

I read this book on the bus coming home one afternoon, and I couldn't help laughing out loud.  A young boy, who feels he is pretty experienced in life (he's been hungry, crazy bored, four years old and mummified in toilet paper), now feels that the embarrassing gaffe he made in his first grade class, is humiliating enough to quite school over.  What happened?  After proudly responding to his teacher's query correctly, he accidentally called her "Mommy" instead of her name and everyone laughed, marching band loud laughter, even his best friend Tyler.  But wait, he would never laugh at his fellow classmates if they, perhaps, slipped on a banana peel or if their drink came out their nose.  Well, there was theat time Tyler's turtle costume fell off, and maybe he laughed a little or maybe even a lot.  After thinking of different ways to handle his embarrassment, he notices Tyler make a blunder in the school yard and finds it difficult not to laugh. But Tyler laughs at himself, and our embarrassed hero learns a valuable lesson about being able to laugh at yourself and about friendship.  Matthew Cordell's whimsical illustrations perfectly compliment the text and are spot on in conveying the young boy's changing emotions.
As his teacher tells him, calling a teacher Mommy happens every year, and I can vouch for that.

I hope you have enjoyed a look at these picture books and wish you all the best in the coming school year!

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