Back to School with Children’s Books

Reading aloud can be a powerful way to build community and shared understanding at the beginning of the school year. My classes and I used to laugh and talk all year about the picture book Table Manners by Chris Raschka and Vladimir Radunsky, and the first chapter book we read together, The Year of Miss Agnes. Here are some more books I hope you’ll find inspiring at the beginning of a new school year:

The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School, by Laura Murray with illustrations by Mike Lowery, is a humorous take on the traditional tale that will appeal to young children. In this version, the gingerbread man gets left behind by his class as they leave for recess and tries frantically to catch up with them: “I’ll run and I’ll run, as fast as I can. I can catch them! I’m their Gingerbread Man!” You could use this book and the gingerbread man’s misadventures as a precursor to taking your class on a tour of your school or school neighborhood.

Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School, by David Mackintosh, reminds me of another one of my favorite books, Odd Velvet. The narrator initially describes the new student in his class—Marshall Armstrong—with disdain. Marshall is different in every way. He has to wear a special hat because of his pale skin, he doesn’t play the same games as everyone else, and horror of horrors, he does not watch television!

When the class is invited to Marshall’s birthday party at his house, the narrator is positive it will be a disaster. But, Marshall’s unusual activities and interests make the party a grand hit. Without being didactic, the book encourages children to be more open to those who are different. This would be a great book to read as you explore concepts of friendship and how to include and invite others to play. Mackintosh’s publisher, Harper Collins, has also provided other ideas for how you might use this book in your classroom.

Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan by one of my favorite author/illustrators, Jeanette Winter, tells the story of Nasreen, an Afghan girl who stops speaking and smiling after her parents mysteriously disappear. Under the rule of the Taliban, girls and women are no longer allowed to attend school, but Nasreen’s grandmother takes Nasreen to a secret school. There, the joyful process of learning leads Nasreen to rediscover some happiness. The book powerfully portrays how important education is and how people in many parts of the world have to fight to attain an education. You could use it with older children to talk about what school has meant or could mean to them. Use it to get to know students by asking what past learning experiences have left them intrigued or excited.

In Rain School, James Rumfordrelies on his early experience as a Peace Corps volunteer to give children a glimpse of what school is like in yet another part of the world. In a small village in Chad, rain washes away the school building each summer, so when the children return in the fall, they are greeted only by their teacher. They begin the year by helping her build their school building. Children will be intrigued by the story and the dedication to learning the teacher and children show. You could use the book to jumpstart a conversation about how students can help you “build your classroom” during the year ahead or about what students might appreciate about their school.

School for Bandits, by Hannah Shaw, gives a playful twist to the theme of being different at school. Ralph’s parents are frustrated that their raccoon son is “disturbingly well behaved” and does not show promise in carrying out the family tradition of banditry. So, they send him to “bandit school” to learn bad manners and other things bandits need to know. At first, Ralph is completely out of place with his polite ways and frequent aid to others. There seems to be no chance he can win the “Best Bandit in School” competition . . . but the book has a surprising ending. Younger children will find the school’s unusual goals very amusing and will find Ralph a lovable character. You could use the book to talk about what goals you and the class have for the year ahead. It could also inspire a discussion of how important it is for everyone to feel as if s/he belongs at school and of concrete ways students can help each other feel that way.

Waiting for the Biblioburro, by Monica Brown with illustrations by John Parra, is a charming picture book about Ana, who loves stories so much that she has already read all of the few books available in her small village. When a traveling library arrives on the backs of two burros, a whole new world opens up to her. The book’s message about the power of books, stories, and libraries would be a great one to use to introduce reading workshop, or the classroom or school library.

Margaret Berry Wilson is the author of several books, including: The Language of Learning, Doing Science in Morning Meeting (co-authored with Lara Webb), Interactive Modeling, and Teasing, Tattling, Defiance & More.

Tags: First Day of School, Language Arts