April 27, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Backpacks, Lunch Boxes, and Giggles Galore: Back-to-School Adventures

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It’s time for school and time to share some fresh and funny picture books that will help students conquer first-day jitters, settle smoothly into classroom routines, and get stoked for a great year. This year’s crop of back-to-school titles is particularly delightful, balancing familiar elements with inventive plots to explore commonplace qualms and quandaries with creativity and pizzazz.

Memorable First Days
BBearandLollyB. Bear and Lolly Off to School (Harper, 2014; PreS-K) demonstrates that even storybook characters experience first-day nerves. In A. A. Livingston’s once-upon-a-time world, Lolly (aka Goldilocks) and her ursine counterpart have become the best of friends—“And why not? They liked the same porridge, the same chair, and the same comfy bed.” As summer winds down, they also share an eagerness to start kindergarten. On the big day, the pals set off down the forest path together; the worrywartish B. Bear (“Don’t call me Baby!”) lugs an overloaded backpack while the happy-go-lucky Lolly carries only a pencil and a bright smile. In true fairytale fashion, they opt to follow a winding shortcut that leads them to a stream, a slippery crossing, and a tremendous splash landing. Noticing that his carefully assembled school supplies have floated downstream, B. Bear is distraught, until Lolly’s gentle encouragement (and offer of her pencil) help him to realize that he already has the one thing he needs: a friend. Joey Chou’s spirited digital illustrations make the most of the humorous text, expand the fairytale setting, and provide plenty of fun-to-notice details.

planetkindergartenA small boy with a big imagination gathers his gear, suits up, and blasts off to Planet Kindergarten (Chronicle, 2014; PreS-K). Assigned to his new commander, the intrepid youngster is anxious but determined to stand tall as he bids farewell to Mom and Dad (“Parents are sent back to their own planets”). So begins a day spent adapting to the capsule’s unfamiliar atmosphere (“…gravity works differently here. We have to try hard to stay in our seats. And our hands go up a lot”), testing exterior conditions (recess), negotiating relations with crewmates, and more. From countdown to splashdown (evening bath time), Sue Ganz-Schmitt maintains the inter-planetary ploy with panache while incorporating easy-to-relate-to moments and a payload of can-do attitude. Teeming with bright colors, bold shapes, and waggish touches, Shane Prigmore’s animation-style artwork tandems with the text to demystify the brave new world of kindergarten, making this mission a stellar success.

chusfirstdayofschoolChu’s First Day of School (2014, Harper; PreS-K) looms large and despite his parents’ patient reassurances, the sneeze-prone panda is filled with apprehension. What will it be like? Will the other boys and girls be nice? Welcomed by a friendly teacher, he sits wide-eyed and silent as his classmates introduce themselves and share their particular talents: a giraffe named Jengo likes to get things down from high places, Robin the bird loves to sing, and other students enjoy dancing, reading books, or hanging upside down. Recording each answer on the blackboard, the teacher does some enthusiastic erasing just before Chu’s turn, stirring up a cloud of chalk dust and providing impetus for Chu to reveal his signature specialty—his colossal “achoo!” blows the roof off the school and sends the classroom into joyful disarray. “That’s what I do,” he deadpans, as his anxieties dissipate along with the chalk dust. Neil Gaiman and Adam Rex load on the charm with perfect comic timing and lushly detailed paintings. Though humor abounds, Chu’s gradual evolution from nervous to nonchalant is deftly depicted and resoundingly sincere.

eddaAdam Auerbach’s engaging picture book mixes folklore with first-day trepidations. Edda (Holt, 2014; K-Gr 3), the youngest of the Valkyrie (maidens in Norse mythology who conduct slain warriors to Valhalla), lives in the wondrous land of Asgard but longs to find a playmate her own age. Fortunately, her wise papa has a solution, and flies her to Earth on a magical horse to attend school. Determined to be brave, Edda must adapt to her new surroundings, learning to sit still, wait her turn in line, and get along with others. A journaling assignment has her struggling at first, but when she finally decides to write about her home, her tale of “danger, bravery, victory, and forgiveness” wows her classmates and helps her to make new friends.

Drawn in pen and ink and digitally colored, the cartoon artwork is as imaginative and witty as the text. Though Edda, garbed in winged helmet, leather sandals, and breastplate, hunts unruly monsters without batting an eyelash, she must muster courage, patience, and resilience to take on school, a message that will speak to and fortify young mortals.

You Can Do It!
poutpoutfishThe Pout-Pout Fish Goes to School (FSG, 2014; PreS-K) in a memoir featuring Deborah Diesen and Dan Hanna’s beloved finned protagonist. Mr. Fish recalls his long-ago very first day at S.S. Rock Bottom Elementary, floating through the halls, shyly peeking into classrooms, and realizing that he is unable to do the assignments everyone else is completing. Dispirited, he counts off his woes in a repeated refrain, “Trouble One: I’m not smart!/Trouble Two: I’ll never get it!/Trouble Three: I don’t belong!/So Four: I should forget it!” Fortunately, his kindhearted teacher catches him just before he rushes out the exit, gently explains that he’s not expected to know the things he has not yet been taught, and settles him into the correct classroom (“Brand-New Fish”). His “flub-flub troubles” soon evaporate, as he and his classmates dive into learning with buoyant self-confidence: “Fact One: We are smart!/Fact Two: We can get it!/Fact Three: We belong!/And Four…‘We won’t forget it!’”

Awash with warmth and wit, the rhyming text makes a rousing read-aloud, and children will giggle at the antics of the humorously emotive young fish. They will also want to take a closer look at the illustrations, which pack in appealing characters and humorous details like sardines.

monstersloveschoolA gaggle of sherbet-hued, squiggle-lined, sweet-faced creatures join together to demonstrate that Monsters Love School (Harper, 2014; PreS-K). Though his cohorts are enthusiastic, Blue is filled with unease, and wonders why he has to go to (“I already know my ABGs and 413s and XYDs”). Throughout the day, his classmates and teachers animatedly point out the many reasons to go to school—to learn reading and writing, make friends, try new things—and by the final bell, Blue is 100 percent sold. Mike Austin’s effervescent artwork and lively text delineate typical first-day happenings with upbeat élan and trumpet the message that anyone can succeed.

dinovsschool“Roar!” Bob Shea’s feisty red protagonist is ready to conquer another new milestone in Dinosaur vs. School (Disney/Hyperion, 2014; PreS-Gr 1). Equipped with a toothy grin, unwavering self-confidence, and his trademark exclamation, Dinosaur goes head to head with familiar school-day challenges—meeting new friends, playing dress up, glue-and-glitter projects, snack time, making music—consistently chalking up victory after victory. The only glitch occurs when the youngsters are asked to venture into frighteningly unfamiliar territory, cleaning up (“OH, NO! It’s too much for one dinosaur!”), but they soon discover that teamwork results in a win for everyone.

Drawn with bold crayon outlines, Dinosaur and his all-in attitude are irresistible, and occasional photo images in collage (e.g., a slice of monkey-snack bread complete with orange-slice lips, banana eyes, apple ears pretzel-stick hair) add extra visual zing. This roaring-good read-aloud will amuse listeners and stomp out first-day jitters.

bigdayformigsIt’s A Big Day for Migs! (Andersen Pr., 2014; PreS-Gr 1), a little mouse who is apprehensive about starting school. Feeling too shy to contribute more than the tiniest “squeak” during circle time, he heads for the dress up station, slips on cape and shiny red boots, and transforms himself into the Mighty Migs. While rushing around and showing off his superpowers, he accidently wrecks another student’s painting and is unable to repair the damage. When Rokko tells him to “go away,” the teary Migs finds a quiet place to hide and think things through; however, he soon concocts a “super plan” that results in fun for the entire classroom, smiles from Rokko, and a new friendship. Jo Hodgkinson’s breezy rhymes, ebullient artwork, and amiable animal cast offer a heartening message about navigating first-day ups and downs and positive behavior.

littlelolaLittle Lola (Greenwillow, 2014; PreS-Gr 2), a sweet-faced stray cat, is ready for an adventure. Donning denim skirt, striped shirt, pink-framed glasses, and matching backpack, she boards the bus and heads for school. Wholeheartedly accepted by her fellow (human) students, Lola spends a busy day “painting, playing, hiding, singing, swinging, and sharing.” When her show-and-tell item (a live mouse she has been chasing) makes a run for it, the classroom is left in a shambles, but her conscientious clean-up efforts result in an invitation to return. Julie Saab and David Gothard’s cheery text and whimsical soft-hued watercolors introduce school routines through the eyes of enchantingly eager protagonist.

Miscreants and Misfits
dogdaysofschoolNot everyone loves to go to school, and Charlie is tired of practicing letters, drawing pictures, and “trying to explain himself to the teacher.” One Sunday night, as his stomach flip-flops with anxiety, he takes a look at his contented dog and makes a wish on a star. Monday morning, he and Norman have switched places, and it’s the pooch who must get up early for school, hurry out the door to catch the bus, and spend his days engrossed in a whirlwind of learning activities. Meanwhile, Charlie eats dry biscuits and drinks water (out of the toilet), masters the game of fetch, digs up the garden, and ends up locked in the laundry room for the weekend. Consigned to the doghouse on Sunday night, Charlie again makes a heartfelt wish. He awakens the next morning as a boy, relieved and ready to take on the day. Pulling off this comedic switcheroo with deadpan wit and blithe cartoon artwork, Kelly DiPucchio and Brian Biggs show readers how to take on the Dog Days of School (Disney/Hyperion, 2014; PreS-Gr 2) with laughter and a upbeat attitude.

ninjaboygoestoschoolFitted out with all-black clothing, a hooded cowl, and a backpack crammed with secret supplies, a self-fashioned Ninja Boy Goes to School (Random House, 2014; K-Gr 2). The youngster exhibits all of the necessary traits—the strength of a gorilla (to carry said backpack), the balance of a flamingo (standing on one leg while waiting at the bus stop), and the ability to become one with his surroundings (camouflaging himself during the bus ride). Sitting in his classroom with patience of a “deep-rooted tree,” he waits until the moment is right, strikes “with the viper’s speed,” and “leaps like gazelle” out the window for his own personal early recess. He knows that Ninjas never give up, even “when facing a strong enemy” (the fuming teacher who promptly sends him to the principal’s office), and must keep their emotions as “smooth and still as a clear pond” when encountering “injustice and hardship” (the uncomfortable car ride home with his angry dad). Though his gear is stowed away on a high shelf and he is sent to his room, the youngster resolves to remain true to his Ninja heart, even if he must keep it under wraps. N. D. Wilson’s tongue-in-cheek text and J. J. Harrison’s exaggerated cartoons add up to an uproarious adventure that could serve as tension breaker or cautionary tale to potential mischief-makers.

onmywaytoschoolIt’s time to get out of bed and get ready for school, but Livi is less than enthusiastic. Though her mother tries to spur her along (through insistent speech bubbles), the supreme dawdler opts to take a more meandering route and plunges into numerous imagination-powered detours—oozing out of bed like a slimy and slippery snail, hauling a heavy backpack to the top of Mount Everest, bidding farewell to her mother before crossing the plains in an “Ol’ Wild West” covered wagon (school bus), sashaying celebrity style down a red carpet runway (on her way to class), and more. And, of course, Livi dillydallies at day’s end before going home, busy taking on the role of teacher. A vivaciously illustrated ode to imagination and procrastination, Sarah Maizes and Michael Paraskevas’s On My Way to School (Bloomsbury, 2014; PreS-Gr 2) soars with eye-dazzling artwork and sparkling humor.

myteacherisamonsterAsk Bobby, and he will unequivocally proclaim, My Teacher Is a Monster (No, I Am Not) (Little, Brown, 2014; K-Gr 4). Depicted as pickle-green, sharp-toothed, and steely eyed, Ms. Kirby expects the not-always-perfectly behaved youngster to toe the line and keeps children who throw paper airplanes (i.e., Bobby) in for recess. The boy spends his free time in the park, hoping to forget his teacher problems, but one Saturday finds a terrible surprise occupying his favorite bench—Ms. Kirby. They sit for a bit, sharing an awkward silence, until a gust wind blows away Ms. Kirby’s beloved hat, and Bobby valiantly retrieves it; the two spend the morning together, discovering some common ground (they even sail a paper airplane in the most epic flight ever). As Bobby gets to know his teacher in an out-of-school context, her appearance gradually softens and transforms to human—that is, until the boy acts up in class again. Peter Brown’s droll, earth-toned artwork plays up the comedy and conveys the message that teachers are people too.

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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.



  1. I couldn’t be more honored to be among so many great books! Thanks for including “On My Way to School”!!!

  2. Ann Niederkorn says:

    After all the conversation that been sparked by the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, I can’t help but notice that among these 13 books, I do not see a single child of color in the cover illustrations – white kids and animals/monsters. As a (white) school librarian who really wants to build a collection that reflects the diversity of my school, I am demoralized and depressed.

    • Joy Fleishhacker says:

      I absolutely concur about the importance and validity of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, and like you, wish that there was more representation of children of color on picture book covers, more books like James Ransome’s My Teacher (Dial, 2012), or Antoinette Portis’s Kindergarten Diary (HarperCollins, 2010), Robert Neubecker’s Wow! School! (Hyperion, 2007), and Margaret McNamara’s The First Day of School (Simon, 2005) that depict the diversity that exists in today’s classrooms. Though unfortunately not reflected on the covers of these 2014 titles, many of the books selected for this post do feature a diversity of students within the interior pages. If anyone is aware of other noteworthy picture books on the topic that meet this criteria, (from any pub year), and would like to add them to this list, I would welcome your suggestions.

  3. Pamela Hansen says:

    I too am saddened by the lack of diversity on the covers of these books. As I teach in a school with 90% students of color, I need to purchase materials that reflect my student population. If the cover art depicts only white children, my students are not likely to choose the book. There may be the obligatory black and/or Hispanic student, but those children will not be the main characters. When will the publishers create books for my students?

    It seems that the belief is that black children will read books with white characters, but white children will not read books about black characters. Is this like girls will read books about boys, but boys will not read books about girls? What then is a black girl supposed to read?