If school isn’t yet in session where you live, it will be soon. School’s back in my neck of the woods: buses are running, traffic is busier, school libraries are buzzing, and students are sharpening their pencils. I thought that this week I would add to the lists of recommended back-to-school picture books I’ve seen here and there online. If you’re an elementary teacher or school librarian, looking for some entertaining new titles, I’ve got you covered, Monday to Friday, for the first week of school.
Monday – Kick off your week by making them laugh. Ryan T. Higgins’ We Don’t Eat Our Classmates, which arrived on shelves in June, has already landed on more than one bestseller list. It’s the story of Penelope, a small T. rex in plum-colored overalls, heading to her first day of school. When she gets there and learns that all of her classmates are children — ahem, human children — she can’t stop herself from snacking on a few. Needless to say, it’s a rough start to the school year when all your classmates are scared of you (even if Penelope does get reprimanded and have to spit them back out). Walter, the class goldfish (the rendition of this character alone is one of many laugh-aloud moments in this book), wordlessly gives Penelope some much-needed perspective. There’s quite a bit of delightful and understated morbid humor here. (“Penelope’s mom bought her a new backpack with ponies on it. Ponies were Penelope’s favorite. Because ponies are delicious.”) Any students anxious about the first day of school are going to get a vicarious thrill out of Penelope’s woes, even when classmate-consumption isn’t a danger. (We hope.)
Tuesday – Also already on shelves is what the Kirkus review calls “a sweet affirmation of jitters and comfort in numbers,” Kate Berube’s Mae’s First Day of School. This is another relatable story, like Higgins’, for those feeling anxiety about the first week of school — sans the outrageous humor. Readers meet a girl named Mae, who heads to school with a list in her head of all the things that can and just might go wrong. What if the other kids don’t like her? What if she’s the only one who doesn’t know how to write? What if she misses her mother during the school day? After arriving at school, Mae climbs a tree and plants herself on a leafy limb. A girl named Rosie joins her, and the two refuse to enter the building. When Ms. Pearl joins them, the girls realize adults are people too — and that even teachers have the same worries. “What if the kids don’t like me?” Ms. Pearl says. “Or what if I forget how to spell Tuesday? Or what if I miss my cat?” School is for setting aside fear and learning new things, the girls realize. This tender story is told in the same way Berube’s previous books have been — with great respect for the emotional lives of children.
Wednesday — While we’re on the subject of teachers, be sure to show your students Liz Garton Scanlon’s and Audrey Vernick’s Dear Substitute, illustrated by Chris Raschka. Written from the point of view of a student not at all ready for the change that a substitute teacher brings, it’s a story of the emotional highs and lows (there are tears at one point) of a day in school. In a series of letters, a girl addresses the various elements of a school-day routine (“Dear Lunch,” “Dear Attendance,” Dear Pledge”) that are disrupted by the absence of a teacher and the presence of a sub with an entirely different personality and teaching style. In the end, everyone adapts, and the day is made better for the presence of the unexpected. This one is just right for prompting conversations about daily routines, flexibility and understanding, teacher absences, and daily expectations. Bonus: You witness the girl fall in love with poetry. Let’s not forget that all children need to be exposed, at every possible opportunity, to the art of Chris Raschka. (I’m a fan.)
Thursday — For some delicious mischief, there’s Antoinette Portis’s Best Frints at Skrool, her follow-up to Best Frints in the Whole Universe(published in 2016). What a treat to have the chance to return to the alien world of planet Boborp, where “childrinx go to skrool, just like here on planet Earth.” As with her 2016 release, Portis playfully devises a Boborp vocabulary, and she leaves ample room, and provides helpful context, for students to discover the word meanings themselves. At its heart, this is a story about friendship (and even standing up to the lunchroom bullies), and it includes a wonderful, raucous “spewd fight.” It is sure to enliven your Thursday story time.
Friday — I cannot recommend enough that you find a copy of Jacqueline Woodson’s The Day You Begin, illustrated by Rafael López, to share with children. It comes out in late August, and here is the Kirkus review. More on that later. However, here’s a quick note to say that, when October comes, be sure to also share with students López’s We’ve Got the Whole World in Our Hands. Here, López alters the lyrics of this well-known spiritual to bring readers a truly multicultural adaptation of the song, one with a reminder that all of us, everywhere, have a planet to take care of. His multimedia illustrations sing with color and texture and energy.
As you continue to share picture books all throughout the year, which I fervently hope you do, and you need even more recommended books, you know where to find me. Happy reading!
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.