By Susan Polos
At the beginning of each school year, teachers flock to public and school libraries in search of familiar or new back-to-school books to read to classes as they welcome students to a new school year. There is no shortage of titles from which to choose. Typical displays in most libraries showcase dozens of choices. Many picture book series feature a well-known character going back to school. Froggy, the Pigeon, the Pout-Pout Fish, Llama Llama and Lola are just a few familiar characters who face their fears and find that school is a happy place.
School itself may be the focus of the read-aloud. This Is a School by John Schu, illustrated by Veronica Miller Jamison, lets children know that school is not just a place but is also a collection of people, grown up and young, whose diverse identities enrich the process of learning. School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex, illustrated by Christian Robison, turns the perspective from the student experience to the experience of the personified school building, which is happy when children are happy and playfully squirts water from the water fountain in the face of a child who has something negative to say about school.
A perennial favorite in many classrooms is First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg, illustrated by Judy Love. The story follows a reluctant protagonist who resists all efforts to get ready for school. Only at the end is it revealed that this character is actually the teacher. This offers the opportunity for students to appreciate that their teacher is a person, too, who may have feelings about the new year that are complicated, just like their own. It is also funny, and first days are better when the class can share a laugh. Beyond the first-day-of-school perspective from the school and teacher, there’s even a book about the first day of school from the point of view of the bus, Little Yellow Bus by Erin Guendelsberger, illustrated by Suzie Mason. The bus, like the teacher, is nervous, but he pushes through and has a great first day!
Children’s literature provides positive examples of children’s agency in the face of new experiences. The Queen of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes, following The King of Kindergarten, both illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, is the story of a child who is primed to be successful by her family as she internalizes their praise and deep respect. A fun detail occurs as she is asked to select a book for a classroom read aloud and selects Crown, a book by the same author. Another book that shines light on attitude is I Got the School Spirit by Connie Schofield-Morrison, illustrated by Frank Morrison. This book will create excitement in the classroom as students appreciate that they bring the enthusiasm necessary to shape a strong community.
The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Rafael López is a book that will help students who worry that they might not fit in. It will open conversation about the value and importance of welcoming and appreciating everyone and provide a springboard to celebrate differences and to find similarities. This can be paired with All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman, a picture book whose simple message of inclusivity is told in rhyme and reinforced with the images of happy and diverse children.
Every school year is new as students move through different grades, and first days are the subject of books for older students as well as the very young. Beyond picture books, check out the early chapter book Harry Versus the First Hundred Days of School by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Pete Oswald. Harry is in first grade, and each chapter follows the calendar academic year as he experiences the ups and downs of the school year. For added fun, the author refers to over a dozen picture books which can be read aloud during the school year, including Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson, and Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales. Middle schoolers will love New Kid and Class Act by Jerry Craft, graphic novels that follow Jordan, a new student, and his friends as they navigate middle school.
There are many more titles not included here, and this is just a sampling, barely scratching the surface of what is available. First day worries are ubiquitous, and books can normalize the sense of unease while bringing classes together to laugh and to consider how creating a sense of belonging for all can set the tone for the whole year.
Susan Polos is the middle school librarian at Greenwich Country Day School in Greenwich, Connecticut, and is a CLA member.