Friday, August 16, 2019

An Eclectic Back to School Roundup

It's hard to believe that the new school year is already underway for so many kids and getting close to beginning for others. And with it comes anticipation, excitement, new school supplies (always the best part), but also new school year jitters. Here are a few favorite school-themed picture books that I have been sharing with my young readers that might make those first days a little more fun.

The King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes, 
illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Nancy Paulsen Books, 2019, 32 pages
I loved Barnes' book An Ode to the Fresh Cut, so I was really excited about to read this, and boy, did it live up to my expectations. A young boy wakes up happy and confident on the first day of kindergarten because his mother already told him he will be the king of kindergarten. Sure enough, as he goes through the first day, everything is royal - from the big yellow carriage taking him to a grand fortress that is the school, to the teacher delighted to meet him, and the other members of his Kindergarten Kingdom sitting at his round table. In fact, it is a typical first day of kindergarten, with the teacher going over the classroom rules, and discussing shapes, the alphabet and "the never-ending mystery of numbers." Royally framed, the confidence and excitement this child carries from home and his loving parents, takes him through the day, making the first day of school (and hopefully all subsequent days) a "Piece. Of. Cake." Along with a buoyant text, are energetic, brightly colored pencil and digitally created illustrations. My young readers wanted this book read over and over, and explored and talked about what the King of Kindergarten experienced and all the different parts of the illustrations.

Lola Goes To School by Anna McQuinn, 
illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw
Charlesbridge Publishing, 2019, 32 pages
Lola is finally old enough to begin school and she knows just what to expect. After all, she and Mommy had already visited the school a month ago. The night before the big day, Lola packs the pencils Nana gave her, and the water bottle from Ty. She picks out her favorite pants and top, and puts it all on a chair for the morning. The next day at school, Lola's teacher, Miss Suzan, shows her where to put her things. There is lots to do in school, but when Lola sees Julia reading, she decides that's what she would like to do, too. After a while, they decide to dress up and play superheroes. Then there's snack time, and afterward, time for Lola and Julia to play with the building blocks with Ali and Tien. Finally, there is circle time and singing, before Mommy picks Lola up when it's time to go home. This is a nice step-by-step look at the first day of kindergarten and young readers, especially those already fans of Lola's, will enjoy following her through her day. Lola's classmates are nicely diverse and there are not any first day tears in Miss Suzan's classroom. Parents are allowed to stay for a while at first, and are there at the end of the day. This will hopefully reassure readers that all will be well as they begin school, too. 

Clothesline Clues to the First Day of School 
by Kathryn Heling and Deborah Hembrook, 
illustrated by Andy Robert Davies
Charlesbridge Publishing, 2019, 40 pages
This is another what-to-expect-when-you're-heading-to-kindergarten book, but with an interesting difference. Here young readers meet the people who help keep the school day running smoothly. From the crossing guard, to the different teachers, the cafeteria cook, the custodian, even classmates. Each person is introduced with a clothesline of job-related clothing hanging from it, and a four-line rhyme, each one ending with the question "Who wants to meet you?" inviting the reader to guess who the person is. Turn the page to discover who these clothes belong to. Each person is given two two-page spreads, the first with the clothing, the second showing that person doing their job. The pencil and mixed media illustrations are cheerful, simple and straightforward.

Butterflies on the First Day of School by Annie Silvestro, 
illustrated by Dream Chen
Sterling Children's Books, 2019, 32 pages
Rosie is so excited to begin school. First, she bought a backpack with flowers, then she practiced raising her hand, writing her letters and saying the name of the teacher. But when it comes time to actually go to school, Rosie claims she doesn't feel good. "You just have butterflies in your belly" her mom reassures her. On the school bus, she meets Violet, and discovers they would be in the same class, but every time Rosie speaks, butterflies fly out of her mouth. Luckily, no one else notices. In class, the teacher has each child say something about who they are. When it's Rosie's turn, butterflies again fly out with her words, but then Rosie notices she is feeling better. In fact, as she gets to know the other kids, she feels better and better. At recess, Rosie makes friends with Isabella, a girl who also has butterflies in her tummy. By the end of the day, all the butterflies have flown away. And Rosie can't wait to go back to school the next day. Kids always seem to think that the idea of starting school is exciting, at least until the first day rolls around and the reality of it can cause some kids to have a sudden case of nerves. Putting that feeling into an expression like 'butterflies in your belly' is a wonderful way for them to express what they are feeling, and seeing them fly out of Rosie and Isabella's mouth is such a delightful image for kids. Rosie's first day is pretty standard, but is also very reassuring for nervous kindergarteners. Dream Chen's detailed illustrations, which include a nice variety of butterflies, are charming and capture Rosie's emotions perfectly. This is an ideal book for nervous kids starting school.

Lili Macaroni by Nicole Testa, 
illustrated by Annie Boulanger
Pajama Press, 2019, 32 pages
Lili has her mother's red hair, her dad's freckles, her grandma's blue eyes, and her grandpa's magical laugh and she loves to draw polka-dot butterflies. She is the way she is and she's happy with that. But when she goes to school, the kids begin to make fun of her. They call her Lili Macaroni-and-cheese, and say that her hair makes her look like a pumpkin, that her eyes look like squinty blueberries, they call her freckles spots, and tell her that she laughs like a parrot. As the kids tease her, Lili stops playing and wonders why "Mom, Dad, Grandma, or Grandpa tell [her] that it wasn't good to be Lili Macaroni?" Lili thinks maybe she can change, but she is who she is. As a reminder, she draws a polka-dot butterfly and puts it on her shoulder. The next day at school, Lili explains to the class why the butterfly is there. On Monday, everyone, even her teacher, is wearing a butterfly and no one calls her Lili Macaroni-and-cheese again. She is the way she is and she's happy with that, again. This is an interesting book. The kids in Lili's class aren't so much bullying her as they are teasing, and as good natured as they may think it is, teasing can hurt as much as bullying. The fact that Lili finds an open and honest way of dealing with the teasing makes this a book every school child could benefit from. It takes a lot of courage to stand in front of a classroom full of kids and let them know that the things they are saying to her are hurtful. Boulanger's colorful illustrations capture Lili's feelings - happy and sad - so beautifully, making this a totally accessible book for young readers, both the teased and the teasers, and, actually, for everyone else.
Bunny's Book Club Goes to School by Annie Silvestro, 
illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss
Doubleday BFYR, 2019, 40 pages
We know Bunny and his friends love to read, and they love spending Saturdays at the library, doing all kinds of things. One Saturday, Bunny's friend Josie is feeling a bit down. She's about to begin school and is afraid she won't make any friends. Later, Bunny comes up with a plan to go to school and be Josie's friend, but along the way all the book club members decide to join him. At school, they begin to look for Josie, but each animal gets distracted by all the different things to do in school - arts and crafts, singing, gym, eating lunch. Finally only Bunny is left looking for Josie, that is, until he discovers the library and all his favorite books. By the time the book club finds Josie, she's playing in the schoolyard with her new friends. But that doesn't mean she isn't thrilled to see her library pals, and soon, everyone is friends with everyone else. Bunny's plan is hatched because of Josie's first day of school jitters, but the book isn't really about that. It is a sweet story but it is more of a celebration of libraries (public and school), reading, friends, and finding your niche. Mai-Wyss' colorful illustrations are detailed and expressive, and really display a nice sense of humor. This is a book that is sure to appeal to kids will share Josie's jitters, and those who liked the first book, Bunny's Book Club, will enjoy these further adventures of Bunny and Co.

Truman by Jean Reidy, 
illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins
Atheneum BFYR, 2019, 40 pages
This is a book not about Sarah's first-day-of-school nerves, but about her pet turtle Truman's, left behind at home. Truman and Sarah have always lived a peaceful life high above the honking taxis, growling trash trucks, shrieking cars, and the southbound number 11 bus. One day, Truman witnesses Sarah, wearing a new sweater, a bow in her hair, and carrying a larger than usual backpack, getting on the number 11 bus. He waits and waits and waits for Sarah to come home, but when he can't wait any longer, Truman decides to find her himself. Truman comes up with a plan to escape his aquarium, and make his way down to the number 11 bus, though just crossing the rug seems endless and fraught with danger, and which way is south anyway? Slowly, the little turtle makes it to the front door, but oh, that ray of light coming in is just so peaceful. Then, just in the nick of time, in walks Sarah, who scoops up Truman, puts him back into his aquarium, and reads him a story. Readers will admire Truman's tenacity, bravery, and loyalty in his quest to find Sarah, and they will especially understand his impatience after waiting "a thousand hours" for her to come home. Cummins colorful gouache, color pencil, charcoal, and brush marker illustrations are sure to please young readers. My readers loved seeing Truman eating a pink-frosted donut, and seeing his trek across the rug from his point of view, where suddenly familiar toys take on a scary look. This is a delightfully different school story that has nothing to do with school per se and Truman is truly an enchanting protagonist, his story is sure to become a classic, read over and over again. 

We Don't Eat Our Classmates 
written and illustrated by Ryan T. Higgins
Disney-Hyperion, 2018, 40 pages
For the first day of school, Penelope Rex has a new backpack and 300 tuna sandwiches, and a case of nerves - what if the other kids don't like her? When her classmates turn out to be children, Penelope eats them and they are delicious. But then the teacher tells her "WE DON'T EAT OUT CLASSMATES! so Penelope has to spit them out. After that, no one wants to be friends with her. At home, her dad is understanding but explains that sometimes it's hard to make friends, especially if you eat them, but kids are just like her on the inside. Penelope thinks a lot about this that night, and even though she tries very hard, the other kids are still afraid of her. Feeling bad, Penelope tries to make friends with Walter the fish, who promptly bites her proffered finger, giving her a taste of her own medicine. It's a tough lesson to learn, but now Penelope understands how the other kids feel. I've never read this book to my kids without it producing lots of laughs. This is a great book for beginning conversations about how we treat others and for understanding what empathy is, all safely couched in Penelope Rex's mishaps. Higgins' textured illustrations were created using scanned images, graphite, ink and Photoshop. Many of the images are done full color in the forefront against a monochrome background, increasing the focus on what is going on with Penelope. There's plenty of subtle humor to be found in them, too. Higgins' has also placed his t-rex in a very diverse classroom. I suspect your young readers will love this book as much as mine do.
The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson, 
illustrated by Rafael López
Nancy Paulsen Books, 2019, 32 pages
You know that feeling of walking into a room full of different people and feeling like you just don't measure up to them? That's just how Angelina feels at the beginning of the new school year. Feeling like her clothes, hair and skin set her apart, the feeling increases as everyone begins talking about all the different places they went to over summer vacation, except her. As if talking directly to Angelina, Woodson looks at some of the other things that set kids apart from each other, for example, a boy who comes from a different country and has a different name and accent, one girl's unfamiliar meat and kimchi lunch, not being picked for a team because you aren't athletic. But when Angelina tells the class she spent the summer with her little sister, reading books and telling stories and traveling everywhere through them, she discovers that "every new friend has something a little like you  - and something else so fabulously not quite like you at all." This is a story told in such soft, poetic text it slowly takes all the sting out of feeling like an outsider and instead celebrates children's differences and the courage it takes to be themselves, but also to enjoy those things that they have in common. López's mixed-media illustrations are colorful and simple, but he really captures the feelings and emotions of this diverse class through body language, and especially their eye movements. This is the perfect back to school books for kids of any age to remind them that they only have to measure up to themselves, and not anybody else.
I Love My Colorful Nails by Alicia Acosta and Luis Amavisca, 
illustrated by Gusti
NubeOcho, 2019, 36 pages 
Here is a story about the consequences of being yourself when that is different from the other kids in one's class, and the impact their bullying can have. Ben has always loved to paint his fingernails using all different color nail polish. It isn't that Ben doesn't want to be a boy, he does, it's just that he also loves wearing brightly colored fingernail polish. And his parents are fine with that. But when the boys at school begin to tease him, Ben becomes very sad. Even after his dad paints his fingernails in solidarity, things don't get better. Now, every Sunday, Ben has his mother take off his weekend nail polish, and with it goes his bright, cheerful disposition. His dad continues to pick Ben up from school, still wearing his nail polish, though. But then, on his birthday, as Ben enters the classroom everyone wishes him a happy birthday while holding up their brightly colored nails, even the boys. This isn't a story about challenging gender stereotypes, even though the bullies use gendered language to go after Ben. But it is a story about bullying and being yourself. The important message here for kids is yes, be true to yourself, but do not keep silent about the bullying, instead tell an adult what is going on. Here, Ben told his parents. This isn't the best book of its kind, but it did spark some lively conversation when I read it to my young readers. I think this book's redeeming quality is that we began to talk about some of what wasn't apparent in Ben's story. First, we had to speculate that Ben's parents probably spoke with the teacher, and they came up with a solution to support Ben. Secondly, we all wanted to know what happened to bullies. Were they punished? Did they also wear nail polish for Ben's birthday. I was conflicted about including this in a school roundup, but ultimately decided I would because it's flaws turned out to be strengths after all.

Big Boys Cry written and illustrated by Jonty Howley
Random House BFYR, 2019, 48 pages
This isn't so much a school story as it is a story about emotional openness, but it does revolve around a young boy named Levi and his first day at a new school. Levi is understandably scared and his dad really doesn't know what to do. As Levi leaves for school, his dad tells him that big boys don't cry. But as he walks to school, Levi notices different men and older boys with tears in their eyes for all kinds of reasons. Among them are a man who is a fisherman and leaving for a long trip away from his family, another is a musician moved by the music he is playing, and poets who are touched by their writing. Arriving at his new school, Levi makes friends and discovers that it isn't so scary after all. Back home at the end of the day, Levi finds his dad crying because he had been scared for Levi. Levi wisely tells him the lesson he had learned that day - that big boys do cry and that's okay. This is a lovely book with a simple, but important message. The detailed stylized illustrations are gentle, bright, and uncomplicated, set in a charming seaside village. It is important to remember this is NOT a first day of school picture book, but the first day at a NEW school, which is probably why Levi's father didn't accompany him.

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