Tech & Media

Librarians Recommend 10 Back-to-School Picture Books

Aug 23, 2016

For kids, September means a lot of excitement, but it can also mean stress and worry. Whether starting kindergarten for the first time or getting ready for Grade 1 or 2, your child might be feeling a little uncertain about the school year. Sharing picture books (or early chapter books) can be a great way to relate their concerns by showing the experiences of other kids. You can address fears, spark discussion, and make your little one feel more prepared while bonding over a good story.

We asked five librarian experts from across Canada to name some personal favourites to help kids get ready for school. Here are 10 recommendations for younger ones (and a bonus selection for older students).

Wemberly Worried (Kevin Henkes)

Recommended by John Mutford, public services librarian, Yellowknife Public Library

With Kevin Henkes’ typically soft and expressive art, reminiscent of the late, great Arnold Lobel, Wemberly Worried tackles the anxiety many children face as they head off to school for the first time — often not much helped by adults who are all too eager to dismiss such fears. Henkes strikes a wonderful balance, taking on what is a serious issue for many young children with respect and gentle humour. There’s a happy ending that some might find too convenient, but I see it as refocusing on positive possibilities.

Llama Llama Misses Mama (Anna Dewdney)

Recommended by Leah Pohlman, youth services librarian, Halifax Public Library

It’s time for Llama Llama to go to school and he’s excited to meet the teacher, make new friends, and play with toys… until Mama Llama leaves! Suddenly, Llama Llama isn’t so sure about school anymore. I love the way this series uses rhyme and colour in a way that is appealing to adults and children, and they help create a simple exploration of emotions easily understood by children. This is a wonderful book for children experiencing separation anxiety. It reassures them their loved ones will always come back for them, while also demonstrating the fun that can be had at school. Written for preschoolers, this book also reads well for children entering kindergarten or Grade 1 who may be experiencing similar fears.

Chu’s First Day of School (Neil Gaiman and Adam Rex)

Recommended by Francesca de Freitas, children’s librarian, Vancouver Public Library

Chu, a panda with an incredibly powerful sneeze, is worried about his first day of school. He is even more worried about whether the other kids will like him. When his kindergarten teacher asks each student to share something they love to do, Chu has a new worry—what will the class think of his special ability? This is a great first-time-to-school book because it simply addresses a basic fear about starting school—what if your favourite thing is the thing that nobody likes? Although, no matter what you might do on the first day of school, I’m pretty sure you won’t blow off the roof!

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Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? (Audrey Vernick and Daniel Jennewein)

Recommended by Niki Sutherland, Mayfair branch supervisor, Saskatoon Public Library

With playful, simple illustrations, this book describes the kinds of different skills the buffalo might be using at kindergarten, and talks about why some things might be tricky (like using scissors or playing on the swings), while others will come naturally (like painting a masterpiece). This book even provides information about buffalo, like how, at snack time, “He may be the only one who eats grass, then throws it up in his mouth, and eats it again.” Humor, lively images, AND information? That’s my bag! It’s perfect for young kids heading back to Grade 1 or 2, or to inspire discussions about starting kindergarten.

School’s First Day of School (Adam Rex and Christian Robinson)

Recommended by Scott Robins, children’s services specialist, Toronto Public Library

On the first day of the new school year, the children are not the only ones feeling a bit uneasy about their first day—the school itself has fears of not being liked by the students! Telling a story about first-day school anxiety from the building’s point of view is unique and charming. This book will help kids ages four to seven understand they’re not alone in feeling nervous about starting a new school year.

The Dot (Peter H. Reynolds)

Recommended by John Mutford, public services librarian, Yellowknife Public Library

Peter H. Reynolds’ The Dot depicts a patient teacher who manages to inspire confidence and a love of art in an angry, self-doubting child named Vashti who is convinced she just can’t draw. For ages five and up, the picture book is a celebration of creativity and of appreciating one’s unique gifts — it’s enough to make children optimistic as they return to school.

The Day My Mom Came to Kindergarten (Maureen Fergus and Mike Lowery)

Recommended by Niki Sutherland, Mayfair branch supervisor, Saskatoon Public Library

Appropriate for kids starting kindergarten or Grade 1, this book goes through a typical school day, with an atypical student: mom. Mom is enthusiastic about being at school, but she just can’t get the hang of the rules, like lining up at the back of the line, or taking off her shoes before coming into the classroom. Mom shouts the answers, drops crumbs everywhere, and doesn’t know about using an inside voice. (It is SO embarrassing!) This book is silly and charming with a classic role-reversal: the child is responsible, and the parent misbehaves. Parents and kids can giggle over it together.

School Days Around the World (Margriet Ruurs and Alice Feagan)

Recommended by Scott Robins, children’s services specialist, Toronto Public Library

For ages four to eight, this book provides an overview of a typical day at school for children from 13 different countries. It explores the journey to school, subjects studied, and more. Kids will identify with the similar school experiences with the kids featured in this book, but they will also understand the differences — the book can be a great starting point to talk about children’s rights to education.

Piper Green and the Fairy Tree (Ellen Potter and Qin Leng)

Recommended by Francesca de Freitas, children’s librarian, Vancouver Public Library

Piper is not having a good start to Grade 2. Her beloved older brother has gone off to school on the mainland and she is at odds with her new no-nonsense teacher, Miss Arabella. Things seem to go from bad to worse until she escapes from school, and discovers a magical tree that grants gifts — but only if something is given in return. I love this early chapter book because it shows that feelings around starting school don’t just involve a new classroom, but also changing relationships in your family and community. Piper, who says what she thinks even when she shouldn’t, is hilarious and fun to spend time with; her relationships with friends, family, and neighbours are delightful to read about.

Ramona the Pest (Beverley Cleary)

Recommended by Niki Sutherland, Mayfair branch supervisor, Saskatoon Public Library

Ramona Quimby finally gets to go to kindergarten, but once she’s there, she can’t quite seem to get it right. She has a crush on Davy, but he doesn’t return her feelings at all. She can’t sit still, or keep focused on a game the group is playing. Worst of all, she is simply compelled to ‘boing’ Susan’s wonderful curly hair. Ramona is a well-rounded character, with strengths and weaknesses. Her relatable experiences and distinctive personality are the draw of this classic book — I haven’t read it in years, but I can still recall my own sense of Ramona’s confusion and misunderstanding as she tries to navigate a new place with new rules. Big nostalgia factor here. It’s good for younger kids getting into shorter chapter books, as well as a read-aloud for Grades 1 to 3.

Wonder (RJ Palacio)

Recommended by Leah Pohlman, youth services librarian, Halifax Public Library

Fifth-grader Auggie Pullman is about to start public school for the first time. It’s hard enough being the new kid, but even harder when you were born with a severe facial deformity. Suitable for children in Grades 4 to 6, Wonder is a personal favourite — it’s is one of those books I wish everybody would read, child or adult! Beautifully written, it explores topics such as bullying, friendship, and self-identity in a realistic and straight-forward manner. The challenges Auggie faces could certainly resonate with children experiencing their own feelings of self-doubt as they enter school, but, more broadly, Wonder demonstrates the importance of kindness, empathy, and bravery — three qualities I think all children can benefit from as they enter school.

Article Author Erik Missio
Erik Missio

Read more from Erik here.

Erik Missio used to live in Toronto, have longish hair and write about rock ‘n’ roll. He now lives in the suburbs, has no-ish hair and edits technical articles. He and his wife are the proud parents of a six-year-old girl who is already pretty adept with a tablet, and a two-year-old boy who probably will be sooner than appropriate. He received his MA in Journalism from the University of Western Ontario.

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