Back to School Roundup

Twenty picture books to set the tone for the new school year, ease first-day jitters, and build the confidence kids will need to embrace their learning environments, make new friends, and shine academically.  

The King of Kindergarten (Barnes), ©2019 by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

BARNES, Derrick. The King of Kindergarten. illus. by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. 32p. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Bks. Jul. 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781524740740.
PreS-K –Joyful and empowering, this picture book celebrates the first day of kindergarten. A child wakes up on his first day of school with the knowledge that he is going to be the King of Kindergarten. On this special morning, everything takes on a royal shine, from brushing teeth to pulling on pants. Right after breakfast he’s off for a ride on a “big yellow carriage” to school where he meets his fellow students with typical royal grace and charm. With the introduction of each part of this brand new day comes the assurance that nothing is too difficult for the King of Kindergarten. The vibrant and cheerful hand-drawn and digital illustrations feature a diverse classroom of children all helping one another. The text leads readers through a typical first day of school with lots of emphasis on being a kind and brave classmate and ruler. The young protagonist is backlit by a crown of a rising sun on several spreads; on others his imagined crown is seen reflected in windows or in chalk outlines on the ground. This marvelous story will give each reader an opportunity to see themselves as “the charming, the wonderful, and the kind King of Kindergarten.” VERDICT Perfect for storytime or one-on-one readings, this book is an absolute first purchase. –Laken Hottle, Providence Community Library, RI

BLEVINS, Wiley. First Day of School. illus. by Jim Paillot. 32p. (First Chapters: Ick and Crud: Book 5). Red Chair Pr. Jan. 2019. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781634402613; pap. $4.99. ISBN 9781634402651.
K-Gr 2 –Ick and Crud are dogs owned by Bob. When he gets out the leashes, the dogs know that it’s “time to take Bob for a walk.” Unfortunately, the dogs’ idea of a good walk forces Bob into the lake to cool off or to tangle their leashes to successfully avoid Miss Puffy, the cat. Bob decides to take the pups to doggie school. Bark Busters School for Dogs is a mystery to Ick and Crud, who struggle to understand how the drills will help them train humans. The dogs will not come on command or respond to their names, and after three strikes from the bull-faced instructor, it seems the pair may not graduate. The command to “stay,” however, is no problem for Ick and Crud. Bob is overjoyed, and their graduation certificate is granted. The font size is large against white space, and the text is presented in short paragraphs. VERDICT The dogs’ humorous dialogue and narrative paired with slapstick, cartoonish illustrations work well in this easy reader for confident newly independent readers. –Ramarie Beaver, Plano Public Library System, TX

BROWN, Jeffrey. My Teacher is a Robot. illus. by Jeffrey Brown. 40p. Crown. Jun. 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780553534511.
K-Gr 2 –Fred thinks school is boring and is convinced that his teacher Mr. Bailey is a robot. As the school day starts, Fred is already unhappy until he spots a spider during math. He suddenly envisions a giant spider taking over the class. Fred’s class ventures outside for recess but the rain cuts their playtime short. Fred thinks its because Mr. Bailey will short circuit. During history class, Fred is excited because he wants to learn about dinosaurs. He finds they are learning about Japan and decides not to participate. After lunch, Mr. Bailey says he’s going to test them. Fred interrupts him saying he thinks Mr. Bailey is going to assign numbers to his classmates so he can keep track of them when he turns them into robots. Mr. Bailey is really just testing their writing skills and Fred is finally happy they get to write about what they want. When his dad comes to pick him up, he asks Fred about his school day and he says it was boring. Readers can see he is really smiling, thinking about the story he created. This picture book is sure to be a hit because of the large, colorful illustrations. The characters look modern, and Fred’s futuristic vision of the classroom is fun to contemplate. VERDICT This is a great pick for a read-aloud to first and second graders who will understand the concept of not wanting to go to school but enjoying it anyway. –Amy Lukich, Tinley Park Public Library, IL

BROZO, Patty. The Buddy Bench. illus. by Mike Deas. 36p. Tilbury House. Aug. 2019. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9780884486978.
PreS-Gr 2 –This story shows a variety of children at recess who choose to stay on the sidelines until another child asks them to join the group. Gabe holds back because his leg is in a cast, Emma is self-conscious about her clothes, Sloan is shy, Cooper stutters, Lilly isn’t good at games, Jerome feels small and unaccepted, and Will is new\. Jake invites a child no one notices to play; this causes a ripple effect. This child invites another child on the outside of the group to join in. Lively and colorful cartoon illustrations work well with the text and encourage imagination and also help lighten the mood. After recess, the children approach the Buddy Bench in order to wordlessly express wanting to play when feeling sad, shy, or proud and not knowing how to join in. Two pages at the back of the book describe the history behind the Buddy Bench, suggestions for starting a Buddy Bench, and list resources for more information.VERDICT This is a must-have addition to school and public libraries. It promotes kindness and inclusion in a way that will appeal to children and can be used by teachers to promote emotional intelligence in their classes. –Robin Sofge, Prince William Public Library System, VA

DEAN, Kimberly & James Dean. Pete the Kitty’s First Day of Preschool. illus. by James Dean. 24p. (Pete the Cat). HarperCollins/HarperFestival. Jun. 2019. Board $7.99. ISBN 9780062435828.
Toddler-PreS –Pete the Kitty—a preschool spin-off of the popular button-popping, shoe-soiling cat—licks his first day of school with style. What should he take to school? Pencils, paintbrush, and a groovy rocket backpack he picked out himself. Pete knows what to do when he gets on the bus. His brother asks: “‘Are you nervous?’ ‘No,’ says Pete. ‘I’m cool.’” At school, Pete loves reading, singing, and painting. When it’s time to go home, Pete doesn’t want to leave. Pete loves preschool. Flat illustrations are the Deans’ signature style. Vibrant colors draw attention, while the irregular fill and thin black outlines feel relaxed and childlike. Big-eyed Pete and his classmates look similar to the popular big-eye plushies. The illustrated content clearly matches the narrated text. The text reads like a voice-over and describes the action and Pete’s own thoughts and feelings. Tots headed for their first day of preschool will find this straightforward approach accessible and encouraging. Pete is confident on his first day and embarks with a can-do attitude. While touching only briefly on the activities a new preschooler may encounter, Pete’s mind-set is one for youngsters to emulate. VERDICT This title is an excellent choice for a new crop of Pete the Cat fans to appreciate. –Richelle Rose, Kenton County Public Library, KY

HELING, Kathryn & Deborah Hembrook. Clothesline Clues to the First Day of School. illus. by Andy Robert Davies. 40p. Charlesbridge. Jun. 2019. Tr $14.99. ISBN 9781580898249; pap. $7.99. ISBN 9781580895798.
PreS-Gr 1 –What friendly faces will be encountered on a child’s first day of school? Look at the clotheslines to find out! As the title indicates, clothing and accessories hang from clotheslines throughout this book. Readers are given pages of textual and visual clues alternating with the reveal of the character described in their expected environment. For example, “Raincoat and warm gloves,/a hat and stop sign, too./Safety vest and badge./Who wants to meet you?/Your crossing guard!” Other clothesline clues reveal a teacher, cafeteria worker, custodian, gym teacher, art teacher, and new friends. The predictability and welcoming nature of each segment will help young children find comfort in the story as they are faced with the potentially nerve-wracking introduction to school. A variety of children and adults are depicted in the images, adding inclusivity and connectedness to the story that is not directly stated by the text. Every illustration gives readers the opportunity to name recognizable objects and places, enhancing the readability of this book. VERDICT Whether readers are entering school for the first time or are old pros, all will enjoy the guessing game and overall message of this lovely story. –Mary Lanni, formerly of Denver Public Library

HOOKS, Gwendolyn. The Buddy Bench. illus. by Shirley Ng-Benitez. 32p. illus. Lee & Low. Jun. 2019. Tr $14.95. ISBN 9781620145715.
K-Gr 2 –A delightful story about a group of children who create a buddy bench where children can meet and make new friends. Padma is excited to start school. She is the first of her friends to get to the school yard. Padma is a charismatic and friendly child and makes friends easily. She notices a boy all alone during recess. Padma then gets an idea to create a buddy bench where new children can sit and make friends with the rest of the kids. This beginning reader is broken into short chapters. This novelty is great for children who are learning the concepts of transitioning from one story line to the other. There are three to four sentences on each page, which is just enough for kids getting familiar with reading on their own. VERDICT This story teaches children how to be a friend, especially to someone who needs a friend. A great addition for school and public libraries.–Annmarie Braithwaite, New York Public Library

MELLOM, Robin. Hannah Sparkles: Hooray for the First Day of School! illus. by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. 32p. HarperCollins/Harper. Jun. 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062322340.
PreS-Gr 1 –Hannah Sparkles and her best friend, Sunny Everbright, are about to begin first grade. Though Hannah prides herself on being “the type of girl who can make friends with anybody,” she encounters unexpected difficulty in connecting with her new classmates. The other students aren’t interested in glitter pens, butterfly nets, or cheers, but with a little help from her pal Sunny, and their classroom’s “refill station,” Hannah learns that being a good friend means watching and listening and allowing her soon-to-be friends to take the lead. Hannah Sparkles is perpetually optimistic, energetic, and unwaveringly girly. The illustrations are brightly colored and dynamic to match. The illustrations are created with a combination of hand sketching and digital art. The human characters are depicted with a variety of expressive features, which provide readers with a good indication of how Hannah’s classmates feel about her exuberant behavior. VERDICT The theme of friendship and first-day jitters will surely resonate with new students. The story introduces mindfulness as a tool even for young students and is told using primarily short sentences, suitable for reading aloud to young children or independent reading for early elementary students. –Kelly Topita, Anne Arundel County Public Library, MD

PARR, Todd. The School Book. illus. by Todd Parr. 32p. Little, Brown. Jul. 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780316423809; ebk. ISBN 9780316534178.
PreS-K –Parr’s signature bright, bold illustrations introduce an exciting day at school. Kids—and some creatures—with different skin colors including green, purple, and blue, go to school on foot, by bike, skateboard, bus, car, and flying saucer. They participate in myriad activities, including eating snacks, napping, visiting the library, painting, sharing stories, and exercising. The small children with round heads and smiley faces stand with arms open wide indicating their joy and inviting readers into their sunny world. Little details fill each page creating scenes that will jump-start discussions: The “We share our things” page reveals a show and tell session in which a skunk shows his frog and worm to the class while a girl waits her turn to talk about her robot which hovers nearby.VERDICT Each page offers one short, concise sentence creating a story geared for preschoolers and kindergartners and works well as a beginning reader. The energetic artwork and nonstop fun activities will have youngsters eager to go to school. –Maryann H. Owen, Oak Creek Public Library WI


PAUL, Ann Whitford. If Animals Went to School. illus. by David Walker. 32p. Farrar. May 2019. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780374309022.
Toddler-PreS –Paul and Walker reunite for their fourth animal “what if” picture book—this one imagining what animals would do if they went to school. Using simple, bouncing rhymes and sounds, this charming narrative follows a reluctant, shuffling beaver on his way to school. Soft-hued acrylic artwork captures the imagined scene of animals in the classroom: “Kangaroo would jumpity-jump-jump past/and be first to the room” while “Fox would rush to the story nook,/and bark-bark, ‘Goat! Stop eating that book.’” Animals are shown joyfully singing, building, counting, reading, and playing at school; now Beaver is sad that he has to go home. The gentle, delightful illustrations paired with the simple, sweet story line are sure to please little listeners everywhere. VERDICT Pair with Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama Misses Mama to soothe nursery school jitters. A lovely recommended read-aloud for toddlers and preschoolers.–Brianne Colombo, Fairfield Free Public Library, NJ

ROBINSON, Lisa. Pirates Don’t Go to Kindergarten! illus. by Eda Kaban. 32p. illus. Amazon/Two Lions. Aug. 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781542092753.
PreS-Gr 1 –Entering a new grade can be hard. Emma does not want to leave her pirate-themed preschool class to attend space-themed kindergarten. She does not want to abandon her beloved pirate Cap’n Chu for spaceship Cap’n Hayes. Her teachers work together to lure Emma into kindergarten — fun space theme, good kids and great activities, a guinea pig, a reading nook— but again and again Emma “swims back” to her pirate ship. She even rallies the new pirates into a mutiny, which peters out when naptime begins. In the end Emma is reassured that she can visit Ms. Chu who will of course miss Emma, too. Finally, a confident Space Pirate Emma joins the spaceship crew because as it turns out, “Pirates do go to kindergarten!” Using a mixture of fantasy (Emma literally swims back to preschool) and reality (Emma and Ms. Chu hugging goodbye), Kaban’s illustrations perfectly capture Emma’s defiance, sadness, and acceptance with sincerity and humor. Robinson’s fun-to-read text is chock-full of pirate lingo and heart. This dynamic text uses various fonts, locations, and colors to mesh with the illustrations. Warning: The super cool pirate and space-themed classrooms may make both children and adults wish they could attend this school. VERDICT A fun and raucous ride with great pirate lingo that reminds readers that change isn’t bad, but it can be challenging. –Catherine Callegari, Gay-Kimball Library, Troy, NH

SHAFFER, Jody Jensen. It’s a Field Trip, Busy Bus! illus. by Claire Messer. 40p. (Busy Bus). S. & S./Beach Lane. Sept. 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781534440814.
PreS-K –In this sequel to It’s Your First Day of School, Busy Bus!, a helpful vehicle is excited to be taking students on his first field trip to the fire station. The children meet the captain of the fire station, and he introduces them to shiny, red Engine 4, a “fire-fighting beast!” that saves lives with special hoses, a ladder, and a siren. Busy Bus begins to feel insignificant compared to such a wonderful Engine, and his pleasure in the field trip begins to dwindle. Busy Bus feels small and insignificant. Luckily, the captain soon points out to the children that Engine 4 cannot transport children safely, something that Busy Bus can do. Young children will enjoy this story. The anthropomorphic Busy Bus is gentle and kind, and the simple text shows clearly what makes fire engines and school buses special to children. Plus, it gently reinforces that focusing on one’s talents is far preferable to being jealous of the capabilities of others. There are very few words on each page, and the use of some repetition will be appealing to preschoolers learning to read: “Engine 4 is red. Engine 4 is shiny. Engine 4 is huge.” VERDICT Many preschool classrooms have a unit of community helpers, and this satisfying story will be perfect for such a unit. –Sally James, South Hillsborough Elementary School, Hillsborough, CA

SHEA, Bob. Unicorn Is Maybe Not So Great After All. illus. by Bob Shea. 40p. Disney/Hyperion. Jul. 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781368009447.
PreS-Gr 1 –Unicorn is ready to start school with his friend Goat, but becomes upset when he is not the center of attention. In an attempt to win back favor, Unicorn dons a new fancy look, covers everyone in glitter, and throws flaming birthday cakes into a crowded soccer game. He is told to go home, leaving Unicorn to doubt himself and his friendships. Shea never fails to deliver and the follow-up to Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great does not disappoint. Unicorn and Goat’s classmates include some familiar Shea characters, including Dinosaur and Ballet Cat, along with a humorous ice cream cone and piece of toast. Much like Unicorn, the illustrations dazzle and excite, and the text is hilarious and packed with rich vocabulary for young readers. Text and images in the margins and background are equally as engaging and funny, inviting readers to revisit the pages again and again for small details one might have missed. While Unicorn is home and depressed following his failed attempts at gaining positive attention, the pages take on a darker tone. His eyes become bloodshot and he wears a bathrobe, another example of subtle details that are among Shea’s strengths. Eventually, the pages return to a cheerful palette of pastels and sparkles once readers reach the happy ending complete with a valuable lesson about friendship. VERDICT A sensational choice for any collection and a welcome addition for Shea’s many fans. –Kaitlin ­Malixi, Kensington Health Sciences Academy, Philadelphia

SILVESTRO, Annie. Bunny’s Book Club Goes to School. illus. by Tatjana Mai-Wyss. 40p. Doubleday. Jun. 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780525644644.
PreS-Gr 1 –Bunny’s book club has a new member, a child named Josie, who likes to recommend books to the club members and help Bunny with hard words. Josie will be starting a new school and is nervous that she won’t be able to make any friends. Bunny decides that since he is Josie’s friend, he should also go to school. On the way, the rest of Bunny’s book club members join him. While trying to find Josie at school, each of the animals peels off to explore their favorite activities (computers, gymnasium, science lab) one by one. When they finally meet back together and find Josie, she has already made some new friends, and so have they. The detailed illustrations provide a great deal of information for young readers to pore over. While perhaps not quite as cozy as its ode-to-libraries predecessor, this title will still charm young audiences. VERDICT A comforting choice for readers nervously anticipating their own first day of school or who are worried about making new friends. Recommended for general purchase. –Jessica Marie, Salem Public Library, OR

SILVESTRO, Annie. Butterflies on the First Day of School. illus. by Dream Chen. 32p. Sterling. May 2019. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781454921196.
PreS-Gr 2 –What happens to all those butterflies in your stomach? Rosie is excited and ready for her first day of school. She picked out her backpack over a month ago, decorated it herself, and even practiced raising her hand at home. However, the night before the first day, she cannot sleep. The next morning her belly hurts and she cannot even eat her breakfast. Her mother reassures her, “You just have butterflies in your belly” and hugs her tight. Once on the bus, she quickly makes a new friend, and a butterfly flies out while she’s talking. Her new friend doesn’t seem to notice, and as they continue to talk, more butterflies flutter out. Throughout the day, the butterflies, unnoticed by everyone else, fly out of her mouth. Rosie’s belly begins to feel much better. At recess, she even helps a fellow student get a butterfly out of her belly by saying hello. Rosie’s mom has a butterfly of her own fly out once she realizes that Rosie had a great first day. The mixed-media illustrations match the text well, and the bright colors fit the story’s theme well. VERDICT A first purchase for back-to-school shelves that will reassure both students and caregivers. –Brooke Newberry, Winding Rivers Library System, West Salem, WI

TARSKY, Sue. Brown Bear Starts School. illus. by Marina Aizen. 32p. Albert Whitman. Aug. 2019. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780807507735.
PreS-K –Brown Bear is starting school. He is nervous about whether he has selected the right clothes and if he will be liked by his classmates. His mother assures him that everything will be okay and that she has prepared his favorite lunch. Once Brown Bear arrives at school he enjoys a variety of playground games with new friends. The characters appear to be colored in with crayons in a childlike style. This element gives the book a playful and inviting look and feel. The characters include a set of chick triplets, a pig, a monkey, and a crocodile. They sport cheerful smiles and expressive body language throughout. The brief text occupies little space on the page and gives ample focus to the book’s bright and cheerful artwork. VERDICT A simple and inviting story about overcoming nervousness, starting school, and making friends. –Deanna Smith, Pender County Public Library, NC

VAN DUSEN, Chris. If I Built a School. illus. by Chris Van Dusen. 32p. Dial. Aug. 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780525552918.
K-Gr 3 –School would be infinitely more fun if it were designed by a kid. One day on the playground, a young boy tells his teacher his vision of a perfect school. In it, there are zooming pods to transport students from class to class, classrooms that open up to the sky, and a robo-chef who will make anything requested of it. While there are elements that support traditional learning, most features of this ideal school emphasize fun. Told in excellently structured rhyming couplets, this story has a Seussian feel, although the vocabulary is much more varied and advanced. Though there is a sizable amount of text on each page, its design keeps the flow of the book moving at a comfortable pace. The illustrations have a modern, digital feel, incorporating exaggerated rosy cheeks on the main characters. Bright colors make the pages visually appealing, and the detail invites readers to scrutinize each image. Reluctant readers will be especially intrigued by this book, as it is engaging on a variety of levels. Additionally, the vivid imagination of the main character will inspire readers to create utopian schools of their own. VERDICT This book is an auditory treat to share with early elementary aged readers in a read-aloud setting.–Mary Lanni, formerly of Denver Public Library

WHEELER, Lisa. Even Monsters Go to School. illus. by Chris Van Dusen. 32p. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. Jun. 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062366429.
PreS-Gr 1 –On the first day of school, the little blue, furry monster child from Even Monsters Go to Sleep, trudges downstairs to breakfast. Dad regales his reluctant pupil with exuberant descriptions of how other monsters are enjoying their big day: Bigfoot hops onto a yellow bus and gives a thumbs up from the back window; Frankenstein’s brand-new jacket and cool, platform, metal-studded sneakers garner admiring glances from his classmates; and tousled-haired Troll has a ball at recess, playing tag with billy goats. Each fun-filled scene is relayed in jaunty, rhyming verse with a repeated concluding line that names the individual monster showcased and delivers the message that “Even [“Yeti”, “Nessie”, “giants” etc.] go to school.” Van Dusen’s colorful, gouache illustrations are packed with comical details, like three-eyed aliens who “go gaga over school supplies” and chow down on crayons and massage glue onto their noggins. By the time breakfast is eaten and fangs are brushed, the formerly hesitant child eagerly embraces “the rule … All little monsters go to school.” VERDICT A witty and encouraging pep talk to ease back-to-school jitters.–Linda Ludke, London Public Library, Ont.

WILLEMS, Mo. The Pigeon HAS to Go to School! illus. by Mo Willems. 40p. Disney/Hyperion. Jul. 2019. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781368046459.
PreS-Gr 2 –Willems’s famed feathered protagonist faces the inevitable with a winning mix of chuckle-inducing bravado, honest emotion, and a child-grabbing point of view. The pigeon is not happy about the prospect of launching his educational career, flapping his wings in desperation as the book begins (“WAIT! Don’t read that title!”) and spouting a series of fervent objections that range from the familiar to the delightfully absurd: “Why do I have to go to school?” “I already know EVERYTHING!” “Does ‘school’ start in the morning? Because you know what I’m like in the morning! It is NOT pretty.” “What if the teacher doesn’t like pigeons?” “WHAT IF I LEARN TOO MUCH!?! My head might pop off.” Utilizing muted monochromatic backdrops, the pages are dominated by the vividly drawn character, and his dramatic body language and ever-expressive single eye accentuate each and every comic beat. When the pigeon finally gets to the heart of the matter and reveals his true feelings (“I’m…scared”), he is drawn much smaller, with thinner lines and tighter body posture. Never fear, this lovable character works his way through his emotions (raising questions that parents can discuss with their own soon-to-be-students) and finishes on an upbeat note—total jubilation at his means of transportation: a school bus! ­VERDICT Deftly balancing genuine concerns with humor and buoyant reassurance, this irresistible offering starring a fan favorite is sure to become a first-day-of-school classic. –Joy Fleishhacker, Pikes Peak Library District, Colorado Springs

WOHNOUTKA, Mike. So Big! illus. by Mike Wohnoutka. 32p. Bloomsbury. Jul. 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781547600793.
PreS-K –Parents delight in asking their little ones, “How big is baby?” followed by “Sooooo big” as babies and toddlers throw their hands in the air in glorious response. This simple yet thought-provoking picture book takes the famous “So Big” and brings it to a new level. Bear is happy to be “so big,” as he wakes up one morning and his calendar reminds him that it is the first day of school. He is so happy as he gets ready and makes it to the bus stop on his own. It isn’t until the bus shows up that “so big” begins to take on a new meaning to bear. Everything seems “so big,” and that’s just too big for him to handle. It isn’t until he meets his new friend Squirrel and they conquer their fears together that “so big” becomes just right. This book has very few words and much of it is just repeating “so big” in different contexts. The illustrations take readers on the adventure and allow for extrapolation of details and conversations between parent and child. A soft color palette of lifelike illustrations allows for the emotions of the characters to be felt by readers. VERDICT Even “big boys and girls” are allowed to feel nervous sometimes; most children can relate to the first day of school jitters. Recommended for general purchase for a public library’s picture book collection as this would be a perfect read for a new kindergartner. –Kristen Todd-Wurm, Middle Country Public Library, NY

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