Thursday, September 3, 2015

Teacher's Choice - some favorite chapter and middle grade books about school

"Don't you just love fall...?  It makes me want to shop for back to school supplies.  I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address."
                                                                                                          Joe Fox in You've Got Mail

September is here and Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) has captured that back to school feeling perfectly.  It is a time I replenish my stash of compostiton notebooks (which I use for everything), my Sharpies and my erasable pencils (PaperMates gift to this dyslexic).  But it is also a time for reading school stories.  Below are some of the favorites I have shared with kids over the years.  Have you or your young readers read any of these, too?

Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus written and illustrated by Barbara Park
Random House, 1992, 80 pages (Age 6+)

When Junie B. goes with her mother to meet her new kindergarten teacher before school begins, it's all fine until they begin talking about the school bus.  Even after it is explained to her that the bus takes her to and from school, Junie B. is determined not to ride it.  But of course her determination is overridden by her mother and Junie finds herself on a bus full of unfamiliar kids.  The first seat she tries to sit in is being save for another girl, then a boy named Jim gets on and it's clear they won't be friends.  To make matters worse, there is a stampede out of the bus when it arrives at school, and Junie is knocked down.  So, after an OK day of school, she decides she is NOT getting back on that bus and hides from the teacher. And once everyone is gone, Junie begins to explore the school and, yes, it's kind of fun until she needs to use the girls' room and finds it locked.  What to do? Call 911.  (Not to worry, there are people looking for her the whole time, but she hid while they searched the school).  Even though Junie can be a real brat, and uses the word "hate:|" way too much, I always think this is a good book for addressing a child's fear of school, the bus, the teacher, the other kids and a close reading shows the Junie's fear is manifested as anger, probably because she doesn't have the words yet to talk about how this all makes her feel.  Maybe that's why every kindergartner I've ever read this with has loved this book, even if they didn't go on to read the rest of the Junie B. Jones series.

Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary
HarperCollins, 1968; 1992, 208 pages (Age 7+)

Ramona can't wait to finally begin kindergarten, if only she didn't have to walk there with Howie.  But she really likes her new teacher, Miss Binney, and when Ramona is told where to sit for the present, she figures her teacher must like her the best to want to give her a present.  But trouble seems to follow Ramona even to school.  When Miss Binney is absent, Ramona hides behind the trash containers, afraid of the substitute and ends in the Principal's office.  And when she puts her Halloween mask on to be the baddest witch in the whole world, she gets scared no one will know who she is underneath.  It is when Ramona is sent home by Miss Binney for pulling a classmate's ringlets and told not to come back until she can behave, that Ramona learns her most important lesson.  Ramona is stubborn, and according to sister Beezus, a pest, and, let's face it, a bit of a busy-body, paying more attention to what others are doing than to what she should be doing, but she is also a lovable character that has stood the test of time (after all, Ramona the Pest was first published in 1968, and yes, kids Ramona's age could walk to school without an adult back then, I know I did).

Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco
Philomel Books, 1998, 40 pages (Age 6+)

Even though not a chapter book, I put this here because it is text heavy and the subject is an important on, but  a little sophisticated for picture book readers.  Young Tricia can't wait to go to school and learn how to read.  She already knew how to draw wonderful pictures, but when she tries to read in first grade, the letters are all just wiggling lines that she didn't understand, and numbers are just as confusing.  When Tricia and her family move, nothing changes - she still feels dumb and the kids call her dumby. especially a boy named Eric, who seems to delight in torturing Tricia with name calling.  In 5th grade, there is a new teacher named Mr. Falker, who loved Tricia's drawing.  But when he catches Eric calling her name, Mr. Falker takes Tricia under his wing and slowly and patiently, he and Miss Plessy, the reading teacher, help Tricia master the art of reading.   This is a somewhat autobiographical story about a young dyslexic girl at a time when no one knew about it, so you can imagine Tricia's struggles and what she went through.  This is an inspiring story for any student dealing with learning difficulties.

A Year with Butch and Spike by Gail Gauthier
Puffin Books, 2000, 216 pages (Age 8+)

As the new school year begins, sixth grader and star student Jasper Gordon is pretty confident he have yet another successful year avoiding the Cootches - class troublemaker cousins Butch and Spike.  But Jasper gets quite a surprise when his teacher Mrs. McNulty assigns seats and he find himself sitting in the front row between the two Cootches - as a "role model" for them, according to the teacher.  But over the course of the school year, as Jasper gets to know the Cootches better, and though they are still troublemakers, he learns a valuable lesson about how looks and actions can be deceiving and maybe his real problems aren't Butch and Spike, but the insulting, intimidating somewhat sadistic Mrs. McNulty.  A very funny novel with lots of heart, it would pair up nicely with Barbara Robinson's The Best School Year Ever.

The View from Saturday by E.L. Konisburg
Atheneum, 1996; 1998, 176 pages (Age 8+)

Young readers meet four sixth grade students and their teacher Mrs Olinkski in this 1997 Newbery winner.  The four students are connected to each other in various ways which readers discover in their personal stories.  They  form a group, meeting every Saturday at 4 P.M. for tea, and call themselves the Souls.  When it is time for teachers to pick teams of four to enter the annual Academic Bowl, Mrs. Olinski picks the Souls, but can never explain why she chose those four particular students.  The Souls compliment each other so well, behaving with courtesy and kindness towards one another, a start contrast to some of the mean kids in their class.  Mrs. Olinski is a widow and a paraplegic, the result of a car accident and a not very happy woman, until she is drawn into the circle of kindness that her 
Academic Bowl team has formed.  A little slow to begin with, but such a satisfying read in the end.

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea
Delacort, 2010, 288 pages (Age 8+)

Seven students in Mr. Terupt's fifth grade class narrative their stories on a monthly basis, beginning with the first day of school.  Each student has their own particular story as well as their shared experience of being in Mr. Terupt's, class.  Mr. Terupt is new to teaching but seems to have a knack for creative lessons and engaging even the most reticent of students.  The students may feel stereotypical, but having been a classroom teacher, I like to think of them as diverse individuals with specific demons to overcome (naturally with the help of Mr. Terupt, but not in the way you might think).  There is Peter - class cutout; Jessica - the new girl from California; Luke - smart and obsessive; Alexia - the class bully, excellent at starting girl wars; Jeffery - unhappy because of serious problems at home; Danielle - overweight and picked on for it, living with a judgemental mother and grandmother, who are ultra religious; and Anna - a loner who is paying the price for her parents actions.  A terrible accident helps all these students come to terms with who they are and the ways in which Mr. Terupt has helped them do that.  Keep tissues nearby for happy and sad tears, but do read this compelling novel.

There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom by Louis Sachar
Yearling, 1988, 224 pages (Age 8+)

Nobody, not fellow students, not even the teachers or the librarian, like repeat  fifth grader Bradley Chalkers.  In school, he is disruptive, disrespectful, and refuses to do his work, but at home, he is a master liar, skillfully pulling the wool over his mother's eyes about how he is doing in school.  When new student Jeff Fishkin must sit next to Bradley, he attempts to be friends with him.    Both Bradley and Jeff must visit the new, young school counselor Carla Davis once a week and over time, she helps Bradley change.  Jeff, who starts out as Bradley friend, later leaves him flat for some cooler friends who think he gave Bradely a black eye.  When a student, Colleen, goes to speak with Carla without her parents permission about her crush on Jeff, they rally other parents to have the school board dismiss Carla as an unnecessary expense.  This is quite a blow to Bradley, who is able try to come to terms with it because of the ways she helped him.  This is a interesting book with themes about about bullying, 
friendship, and second chances.

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin
HMH Books, 1944; 2004, 96 pages (Age 6+)

Every day Wanda Petronski, the daughter of a poor Polish immigrant, wears the same ill-fitting faded, but clean blue dress.  One morning, a classmate shows up wearing a beautiful outfit that everyone admires, when suddenly Wanda announces that she has 100 dresses in her closet at home, all lined up neatly.  After that, Peggy and Maddie begin to wait for Wanda to play the teasing game, asking her about her 100 dresses.  They think it is harmless teasing, but when they learn that Wanda and her family have moved to NYC to get away from the name calling and mocking, they also learn the truth about Wanda's 100 dresses.  Maddie, whose family is also not a well off as her classmates, vows to never to stand by and let that kind of cruel treatment happens to another person again.  The beautiful, but moody and undefined illustrations reminds of the any one of us could be Wanda for whatever reason at any given time.  This book pairs nicely with Jacqueline Woodson's Each Kindness.

The Secret School by Avi
HMH Books, 2003, 178 pages (Age 7+)

When the teacher of the one-room Elk Valley, Colorado school must leave, the School Board decides to close the school even though its close to summer vacation rather than find a new teacher.  But Ida Bidson, 14, and her friend Tom Kohl were supposed to take their 8th grade exam.  More than anything, Ida wants to go to high school and become a teacher.  Tom suggests that they secretly keep the school going, with Ida teaching the younger kids.  Sworn to secrecy, the kids continue going to school, but after a while Ida finds it difficult to teach, study and do her chores.  But Ida is determined to take her exam and become a real teacher.  She even manages to convince Miss Sedgewick, the school inspector from the County Education Office to keep her secret.  But secrets are hard to keep and it looks like this one is about to discovered when a disgruntled parent threatens to report Ida.

Schooled by Gordon Korman
Disney-Hyperion, 2008. 224 pages (Age 10+)

Raised and home-schooled by his grandmother, Rain, on the remnants of the commune she founded in the 1960s,  Capricorn "Cap" Anderson, 13, may know a little something of modern life, but he has certainly not experienced it.  When his grandmother falls and breaks her hip, Cap finds himself in a foster home, with a woman who had once lived on the commune,and her daughter, who despises having Cap in her home.  Needless to say, in school for the first time, Cap is the subject of curiosity by some, and by others, a gift from the gods.  At last, mean boy Zach Powers has the perfect chump to be 8th grade class president, a position reserved for the most unpopular kid with the intention of making their life living hell for the pure enjoyment of it.  But Cap has a few tricks up his sleeve, even though he may not know it.  Soon, his caring and kindness begin to win kids over, including some of Zach Powers gang.  Can peace and love win over the cynicism of Cap's classmates?  With multiple narrators by different kids, as this story unfolds, we see the different ways Cap and his hippie beliefs impacts their lives.  This is a fun novel with an important message. 

Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone by J.K. Rowling, illustrated by Mary GrandPré
Scholastic, 1999, 320 pages (Age 8+)

This is my very favorite Harry Potter book.  This is the book in which Harry gets his acceptance letter to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, gets to leave a horrible Dursley's, makes two best friends - Ron Weasly and Hermione Granger - and one enemy - Draco Malfoy.  It is also the book in which Harry discovers the truth about his parent's deaths, and encounters He Who Must Not Be Named for the second time in his life.  This first Harry Potter basically sets the stage for the six books that follow, but, for me,  it is a bittersweet coming of age novel  I love the innocent wonder 11 year old Harry experiences as he encounters life in his new magical world, yet knowing what lies ahead for HP does cast a shadow on things.  I also really love that this is the book that turned so many kids into avid readers, including my Kiddo.      

Here are other school stories I have read and reviewed:

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes 
The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy
Wonder by R.J. Palacio  
Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff
El Deafo by Cece Bell
The 14 Fibs of Gregory K by Greg Pincus        
PS Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia
Catch You Later, Traitor by Avi  
Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin  
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy  

Kizzy Ann Stamps by Jeri Watts
Twerp by Mark Goldblatt
The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine
Drama by Raina Telgemeier 
Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky

The Saturday Boy by David Fleming
Planet Middle School by Nikki Grimes 
Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt 
Lois Lane: Fallout by Gwenda Bond
Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

These are just some of the great school stories available to young readers.  Do you have any favorites?


  1. Well, I think you've got pretty much everything covered here from the classics to the more contemporary! ;-) The one that did really catch my eye is "The Hundred Dresses". That one really looks very moving. Thanks for sharing in the Kid Lit Blog Hop and your new webs design looks really sharp! :-)

  2. I'll have to check these out. My grandson just brought home a Junie B. book to read. Thanks for sharing on the Kid Lit Blog Hop!


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