7 Books that Take on Back-to-School Mayhem | Picture Books SPOTLIGHT

The first day of school, separation anxiety, a sandwich running the classroom—all the usual suspects show up in these seven beauts about helping kids cross the transom back into the world of curiosity and learning!


We didn’t start it, but we’ve heard a rumor that educators begin getting ready for September right about now. Among the offerings are a manual on kindergarten readiness as well as a look at what happens when your teacher is a sandwich. And two books that say to educators: “Thanks.”

Arnaldo, Monica. Mr. S. illus. by Monica Arnaldo. 40p. HarperCollins/­Katherine Tegen. Jun. 2023. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9780063003958.
PreS-Gr 1–On the first day of school, a class of 12 children notices a cup of coffee, some papers, and a sandwich sitting on the teacher’s desk—but no teacher. Without someone to conduct the class, half the kids are ready to run amok until a ruler suddenly falls off the desk onto the floor. Startled, the children decide that the “Mr. S” someone has written on the blackboard stands for the sandwich perched up front. Since they believe they’re being supervised by their unconventional teacher, the dozen immediately fall in line and go through their lessons by themselves, including art where they paint pictures of sandwiches, story time, and music where, of course, they sing about sandwiches. Watercolors, colored pencils, and ink are part of the vivid digital illustrations which vary in size and show plenty of movement as well as the children’s engaging facial expressions. The diverse, multi-ability class, including a boy using a wheelchair and a youngster with glasses, work as a team while they discuss and argue the probability of having a sandwich for a teacher. Observant readers will see that there’s a second dramatic story happening simultaneously in the parking lot just outside the window. VERDICT Mysteries for young readers are few and far between and this one is fun and entertaining; it will elicit laughter and ­plenty of discussion.–Maryann H. Owen

Berry, Cate. Thank You, Teacher! illus. by Sara Varon. 32p. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. Mar. 2023. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062491572.
PreS-Gr 4–A love letter to educators, this is written from the perspective of a diverse group of students singing a goodbye song to their teacher on the last day of school. Each page shows students reminiscing about the ways their teacher has supported them over the school year, from suggesting a new favorite book to breaking up classroom arguments. The students thank their teacher for continuing to support them through the behavioral challenges and chaos that can come with an early elementary classroom. Berry highlights the patience and care that the teacher puts into her relationship with her students through endearing poetry. This book does an excellent job of capturing the bittersweet feelings that come with the last day of school while still keeping the story cheerful. Varon’s ­illustrations are funny and visually engaging for an early elementary audience. This book is great for students who are having a hard time at the end of the school year, and could be a useful tool for talking about change, emotions, and school memories. VERDICT This upbeat story serves as a tribute to the endurance of educators. Great for school and public library collections.–Jillian Girardeau

Creech, Sharon. A Smart, Smart School. ­illus. by Anait Semirdzhyan. 32p. HarperCollins. Jun. 2023. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9780063059610.
K-Gr 3–Principal Keene loves his school, and it fills him with joy to see the creativity and color that fill the classrooms as the teachers and students enjoy activities such as painting and reading. When Mr. Keene is rushed to the hospital with appendicitis, everyone is worried, especially Tilly, who loves helping Mr. Keene whenever she can. When Mr. Tatters arrives to take over, he does not like what he finds. What this school needs, Mr. Tatters decides, are tests! Soon every day is full of tests, so much that Tilly doesn’t even have time to play after school anymore. Text and illustrations convey the tiresome repetition of the same activity day after day, with the draining of energy palpable on the pages. When they finally have a chance to visit Mr. Keene in the hospital, the students and teachers take the time to share how much they care for him. And once he returns to school, it doesn’t take long for the color and joy to return with him. The beautiful digital illustrations are reminiscent of classics such as Sarah Stewart’s The Library, and both text and illustrations share a love of creativity and an appreciation for educators. VERDICT This lovely picture book companion to A Fine, Fine School welcomes readers to an incredible elementary school that appreciates creativity and those who make an impact on students’ lives.–Selenia Paz


[Read: The Crayons Go Back to School]


Freitas, Bethany V. Ready for Kindergarten. illus. by Maja Andersen. 32p. HarperCollins/Clarion. Jun. 2023. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780063321977.
PreS-K–Making the jump to kindergarten can be intimidating for children and caregivers alike, but it is also an exciting time of growth and independence. This book gives readers the encouragement and validation they need to be able to approach kindergarten with confidence. Additionally, it provides caregivers with tangible tools they can use to practice and reinforce critical concepts with their children. From body awareness and creativity, to the understanding of letters, numbers, colors, and shapes, there are many skills young children can improve upon that will embolden them the first day they step through the door to their kindergarten classroom. Preschool-aged readers will relish the design of this book as they show off all they know while reading it. Short phrases spoken directly to the reader encourage participation, and young children will love stepping into each page. A variety of characters appear in the illustrations, depicting several backgrounds and family types to ensure that readers will recognize themselves in the pages. Blocky, digitally rendered images embody the feeling of kindergarten while enhancing the visual appeal of the book. Additionally, a note at the end of the book gives caregivers practical and accessible steps to follow to support their child as they prepare for kindergarten, which is sure to be appreciated. VERDICT Whether read aloud in classrooms or shared at home, this is an enjoyable and helpful tool to promote kindergarten readiness in young children.–Mary R. Lanni

Kerascoët. Bear with me. illus. by Sebastien Cosset & Marie Pommepuy. 40p. ­Random House Studio. Jun. 2023. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780593307670.
PreS-Gr 1–The duo known as Kerascoët once again demonstrates their skill at visual storytelling. This time, they tackle the first day of school—and the difficulty of having to leave a favorite stuffed friend at home. The opening spreads depict a baby growing into a toddler, who grows very attached to a certain teddy bear. When the bear must be washed, a tantrum results; when the first day of school arrives, the child tries (unsuccessfully) to bring the bear along, first in their backpack and then under their shirt. Once at school, the child is at first shy and uncertain, but before long finds a friend and a number of creative ways to keep their beloved bear present after all. At the end of the school day, child and bear are lovingly reunited. The book is largely wordless, with the title repeated as an occasional refrain and changing in tone throughout. The hand-lettered text communicates as much as the utterly charming ink and watercolor illustrations. The art is warm and joyful and filled with details that young readers will delight in noticing and sharing. The protagonist and their family present as white; the child’s classmates are illustrated in a variety of skin tones. VERDICT This sweet story is a lovely choice for all collections serving young readers and their families. Recommended.–Lauren Strohecker

Lamouche, Sandra. We Belong to the Drum. ISBN 9781459834354.
––––. We Belong to the Drum/mistikwaskihk kitipêyimikonaw. tr. into Cree by Dolores Greyeyes Sand. ISBN 9781459834385.
ea vol: illus. by Azby Whitecalf. 32p. (We Belong to the Drum). Orca. May 2023. Tr. $21.95. BL
PreS-Gr 3
–Based on her son’s experience, Cree author Lamouche presents a story of how a young child overcomes separation anxiety. In Cree tradition, the drum ­represents the heartbeat of Mother Earth. ­Nikosis first heard the sound of the drum within the womb, when he heard his mother’s heartbeat. ­Nikosis and his grandmother (Okhoma), mother (Okawiya), and father (Oktawiya) spend summers at powwow gatherings. Surrounded by family and friends, he sings and dances until “the drum made him want to have a nap.” When his mother first leaves him at daycare, Nikosis cries, body rigid with fear. His mother asks the daycare teacher to play a CD of powwow music. The teacher complies and passes out drums so the other children can play along. When ­Nikosis hears the music he associates with family and cultural identity, he feels welcome. The next day, he can’t wait to join his new friends and rushes outside, with his shirt inside-out. Cree illustrator Whitecalf uses flowing lines and colorful details to enliven this simple yet emotionally resonant story. VERDICT ­Offering an appreciative glimpse of Cree culture and traditions, and a gentle message of ­inclusion, this is a welcome addition to the “first day of school” shelves in school and public ­libraries.–Marilyn Taniguchi

Willey, Kira. Breathe Like a Bear: First Day of School Worries: A Story with a Calming Mantra and Mindful Prompts. illus. by Anni Betts. 32p. (Mindfulness Moments for Kids). Rodale. Jun. 2023. Tr $12.99. ISBN 9780593486726.
PreS-Gr 2–This newest entry in the “Mindfulness Moments for Kids” series finds a young bear both excited and anxious for her first day of school. As she makes her way there, she encounters various forest animals who help her talk through her feelings, including an owl who offers a breathing exercise and a mantra to help “change how you feel.” Along the way, the animals notice the ways in which they are unique and remind one another to celebrate their differences. By the time they arrive at school (only to find that Owl is their teacher), Bear feels ready to face the day. Throughout the story, young readers are guided to repeat the breathing exercise and mantra—which originates from one of Willey’s songs. ­Reflection questions are also included on almost every spread, inviting readers to think about their feelings, habits, and identity. While the story doesn’t offer anything especially new to a crowded field of books addressing the first day of school, fans of the series or those looking for offerings on mindfulness or coping with worry will likely be satisfied. Betts’s digital illustrations are whimsical and rendered in a soft, pastel rainbow palette. VERDICT Best suited for purchase where the author or this series is popular or where titles on mindfulness are needed.–Lauren Strohecker

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