With school starting this week for many children, it’s time to sharpen those pencils, shine those brand new shoes and (for some) shear those long summer hairdos!
It’s also time to find the best back-to-school children’s books for your little ones, no matter what grade. I’ve scoured the local bookstores and have come up with a great top 10 list of books to usher your children into a great new academic year. I’ve tried to think outside the box on these.
Instead of listing some of the more well-known back-to-school books, (for example, Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten, Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing and others), I’m including books that, for me, cover new back-to-school themes — everything from first-day jitters to making friends to pimples and everything in between.
Age ranges are indicated for each book. These are by no means a required, but rather a general idea of which books are for younger or older children. If you have great recommendations on your favorite back-to-school books, please share them. I’m always on the lookout for wonderful new books!
Justin Case: School, Drool and Other Daily Disasters
Written by Rachel Vail, illustrated by Adrian Johnson
Ages: 7 and up
As the mother of an incoming third grader, it was with great excitement that I heard of Rachel Vail’s new book Justin Case: School, Drool and Other Daily Disasters. Chronicling, in diary style, the life of Justin Krzeszewski (a last name completely bungled by everyone), Vail’s book is as charming as it is heartbreaking as it details every disastrously awkward moment of Justin’s life. Dropping the ball at baseball practice…bungling his violin recital…a play date with a girl?
Little Justin K faces each new obstacle with a humorous self-deprecation that most adults could learn from. From dinosaur reports to school elections, Justin’s repeated attempts at fitting in and making his way through third grade are spot-on, particularly for any child (like me) who ever felt a bit on the edges. Example? In the third grade, among Cyndi Laupers, robots and superheroes, I famously dressed up as Betsy Ross for Halloween, complete with bonnet and bloomers. Just about sums it up, doesn’t it?
So, for me, Justin feels like home and will touch the minds and hearts of any children who might be struggling with finding their way in school, friendships and self-confidence. In a market currently overrun with diary-format books, Justin Case stands out as a smart, witty and perhaps more innocent version of Wimpy Kid. It feels authentic in its voice and will bring a little bit of comfort to children, like mine, who get stomachaches at the thought of cursive writing.
I am Too Absolutely Small for School
Written and illustrated by Lauren Child
For starters, there’s really nothing better than Charlie and Lola. And for any who have not yet fallen in love with Lauren Child’s dynamic brother and sister duo, you must do so immediately. Charlie and Lola are two of my favorite characters of all time (right up there with Anne Shirley and Veruca Salt) — perhaps slightly because they’re British and I have that thing for all things British, but also because they’re beautifully rendered as hilariously lovable children. Therefore, I must include them in this list for their delightful book I am Too Absolutely Small for School.
Lola has decided she is not going to school and it’s up to her eternally patient brother, Charlie, to come up with imaginative ways to persuade Lola toward her classroom. Lola’s arguments are valid: Why learn to count to more than 10 when she only ever eats 10 cookies at a time? Yet Charlie perseveres and ultimately makes school sound better than Disneyland. The wit of her words and the brilliance of her cut paper illustrations make Lauren Child’s book a must-have for any back-to-schooler.
The Art Lesson
Written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola
Ages 4 and up
Now, I’ll admit…I’m a sucker for Tomie dePaola. Strega Nona. Amazing. Big Anthony. Hilarious. But the artist in me must say that his little book, The Art Lesson is my all-time favorite. It is the wonderfully autobiographical tale of Tomie’s own experience as a child artist and the differences between two art teachers — one who limits his creativity and the other who’s a little more bohemian, a little more willing to let him use all the colors in the 64-crayon set.
As an art teacher now, I can truly appreciate the difference between Miss Landers and Miss Bowers. I think we’ve all had a Miss Landers and a Miss Bowers in our lives. I hope, sincerely, that I am one who allows her students to express themselves independently and creatively, and, therefore, brings out the artist in each of them. So, here’s to Tomie…here’s to art…And here’s to using all 64 crayons.
Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon
Written by Patty Lovell, illustrated by David Catrow
Ages: 4 and up
Meet Molly Lou Melon. She has buck teeth. She is short. She has a voice that sounds like “a frog being squeezed by a boa constrictor.” But what little Miss Melon lacks in beauty and grace, she more than makes up for in charisma, nurtured and supported by her beloved grandmother who tells her to stand up tall and shine her light for the world. Molly Lou lives her grandmother’s words..that is until she moves to a new town and a new school and must encounter the ultimate bully, Ronald Durkin. But what Ronald Durkin doesn’t know is that little Molly Lou, with her bushy hair and her buck teeth and her enormous buggy eyes, is a force to be reckoned with and a voice that will, in the words of her grandmother, “sing out clear.” Patty Lovell and David Catrow have given us a gorgeous book and an important one for all of the Molly Lou Melons and Ronald Durkins of the world.
Follow the Line to School
Written and illustrated by Laura Ljungkvist
Ages: 4 and up
Swedish writer and artist Laura Ljungkvist has long been on my list of favorite creative people. My sons have loved her Follow the Line books for years, so imagine my delight at finding her new book, Follow the Line to School.
Children will love literally following the line through the book. They can follow the chalk from the blackboard to the tire swing…follow the paintbrush from the yellow paint to the yellow lunchbox…and follow the pencil from the white paper to the white piano keys. Parents will love the fact that, along the way, the children will be counting, identifying letters and more With bright, modern illustrations and just the right amount of whimsy, Ljungkvist has struck gold once again.
My Best Friend is as Sharp as a Pencil
Written and illustrated by Hanoch Piven
Ages 4 and up
I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker when it comes to collage. Give me a pair of scissors, some paper and a glue stick and I’m good to go for hours at a time. I love it when illustrators tend toward the collage-tastic — like Lois Ehlert and Lauren Child and Leo Lionni (who all seem to have “L” names…interesting…). So I was enamored of Hanoch Piven’s My Best Friend is as Sharp as a Pencil in all of its collage splendor.
The story begins when a little girl’s grandmother comes to visit and, instead of just explaining what her friends and teacher are like, the little girl decides to show her grandma with a series of found objects. Her friend Jack, for example, is “as sharp as a pencil” and sports a microscope for a nose. Her art teacher has a palette for a face. And her teacher, Mrs. Jennings, doesn’t miss a thing — just like a pair of glasses. Piven’s use of objects as art pieces is truly clever, witty and utterly endearing, and you and your child will keep busy guessing how he’ll incorporate each little doodad into the characters. Not to mention your children will get a subliminal lesson in metaphor and simile. (Shhhh..don’t tell them…)
This is a fun book to bring out at the beginning of the school year to open up conversations with your children about their teachers and their new friends. When you’re through, be sure to check out Piven’s other book, My Dog is as Smelly as Dirty Socks.
The Kissing Hand
Written by Audrey Penn, illustrated by Ruth Harper and Nancy Leak
Ages 3 and up
This book isn’t new, nor does it tackle a new theme of school time. Nevertheless, this book brought about such a turnaround in our household that I can’t help but include it. When my sons went to preschool, I was that mother with the weeping child. The one whose children literally held on to her clothing, begging for her not to leave, whose sticky fingers and tear-stained faces peeked out from the window as I was directed to walk away since I was “upsetting the children.” After sobbing in my car for what seemed like weeks, a friend of mind recommended Audrey Penn’s amazing book, The Kissing Hand.
The powers of this book seem to be widespread at this time, but for anyone who is facing a teary first day of school, it might be just what the doctor ordered. In this lovely little book, Chester Raccoon wants to stay home with his mother instead of going to school. His mother (a significantly more enterprising mother than I) tells Chester of a secret — a “kissing hand” in which she takes her son’s little paw and kisses it right in the middle. When he feels sad or lonely at school, all he has to do is take that kissing hand and press it to his cheek to feel all the love his mother has for him. It may sound sappy, but it worked for me and my sons and turned what once was a saline-laden experience into a new tradition of comfort and love.
What’s Happening to Me?
Written by Peter Mayle, illustrated by Arthur Robins
Ages: 9 and up
For teenagers, a new school year can sometimes bring with it, well, changes. Luckily, in 1975, Peter Mayle (yes, of A Year in Provence fame) and Arthur Robins published a book that would forever change my life and the lives of teenagers worldwide. Their informative and remarkably unembarrassing teenage tome, What is Happening to Me: A Guide to Puberty, would prove to be my personal road map through acne (why yes, it does appear on your back!), periods (why, yes, they do happen on ski trips!) and bras (why, yes, the woman in the bra department will quickly become your worst nightmare!).
Written for both boys and girls, the Mayle and Robins book gently and factually describes every injustice known to plague teenagers —handling each question, no matter how humiliating, with common sense, and no hint of ridicule or judgment. Robins’ illustrations bring a sense of humor to the topics and make the reader feel a lot more comfortable reading about unexpected hairs than you’d ever imagine. I pored over this book as puberty beckoned and found comfort in not being the only person on the face of the earth to experience the new feelings, emotions and struggles of that time. For any parent working through the first signs of adolescence with their children, this book is as powerful now as it was then to a little girl in her pegged jeans who just needed to know that everything was going to be all right.
Silly School Riddles
Written by Lisa Eisenberg, illustrated by Elwood Smith
Ages: 6 and up
If your kids are anything like mine, they can’t resist a good joke. My older son’s current favorite is “Why was the mummy late for dinner? Cause he was wrapped up in his work.” And we all cracked up recently at my dear friend’s son who asked, “How do you annoy Lady Gaga? You poke her face.” Get it? Poker Face? Love it.
If your kids have a tendency toward knee slaps and belly laughs, or even just want to impress their friends with a few jokes on the first day of school, then check out Lisa Eisenberg’s Silly School Riddles. It’s a zany, fantastic collection of great riddles, accompanied by Elwood Smith’s hilarious illustrations. Wanna try one? OK. Which state is the best place to buy school supplies? Why, that would be Pencil-vania, of course. C’mon, admit it. That one’s a keeper.
Written by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake
Ages 7 and up
There’s no getting around it. I’m a card-carrying member of the Roald Dahl Fan Club. As such, I must include one of my favorite Dahl school times tales in this list. Matilda is the story of an extraordinary little girl, making her way in a world that is not quite accepting of her unique talents and gifts. At 4 years old, Matilda can perform academic tasks well beyond her years, despite constant degradation on the part of her parents. When she is finally allowed to attend school, under the evil leadership of the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, Matilda finally blossoms under the loving care of her teacher, Miss Honey.
Every child would be lucky to have a teacher like Miss Honey (mine was Mrs. Klafer), and Matilda thrives under her care and friendship. But when Miss Trunchbull threatens even that friendship, Matilda’s brain takes on a startling new talent. Children will delight in the off-the-wall writing that only Dahl can accomplish while giggling along with Blake’s inimitable illustrations. The best scene by far is when Bruce Bogtrotter is ordered to eat an enormous chocolate cake. And you must read it to find out how he gets his just desserts.