Does your kid need a bit more inspiration to get in the mood for the first day of school? Instead of trying another pep talk, why not a book? Authors have long found inspiration in the beginning of a new school year. But a good book can do more than just entertain: It can remind our little readers that any of their own struggles, separation anxieties, and first-day-of-school fears are totally normal. Another reason authors find school to be such a compelling setting? It’s also a place where kids are doing way more than just learning. The books on our list go beyond just the jitters of the first day of school to look at the social issues kids confront every day.
For help finding a round-up of fun, diverse books that will appeal to all age levels, we did what any smart parent would do: Ask the librarians. Betsy Bird is a librarian and author of the forthcoming The Great Santa Stakeout. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center is part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s library school and releases an annual best-of list of books for kids and parents. Their recommendations come from past publications of CCBC Choices, as well as some of their early picks from this year.
From books that follow nervous kindergarteners all the way to high schoolers taking stands against systematic injustice, there are books for every grade level and reader in our roundup ahead.
Lena’s Shoes Are Nervous: A First-Day-of-School Dilemma
CCBC recommends this “fresh, playful” book for younger children. Lena is about to start kindergarten but her shoes are a bit nervous — and need some encouragement from her other clothes at the suggestion of her father. “Lena uses imagination and role-playing to work through first-day-of school nerves, while her supportive dad knows when to step in and when to get out of the way,” the CCBC writes.
Lena’s Shoes Are Nervous: A First-Day-of-School Dilemma, $12.96 at Amazon
We Don’t Eat Our Classmates
This “fish out of water” story involves a dinosaur, Penelope Rex, who finds her diverse class isn’t what she expected since they’re all kids. Penelope has to learn how to earn back their trust — and how to not slip up and still eat someone from time to time. The CCBC notes, “There’s no heavy-handed lesson in this hilarious picture book but that doesn’t mean there isn’t food—or at least a snack—for thought.”
We Don’t Eat Our Classmates, $10.57 at Amazon
School’s First Day of School
Shoes can be nervous for school — and so can schools. The newly-constructed Frederick Douglass Elementary likes things when its just school and the janitor, but isn’t so sure once kids start showing up. The school is also able to see that some kids are excited to be at school, while other are reluctant or scared. By the end of the day, however, school is beginning to feel better about things. The CCBC pick explores the various ways kids can feel about back-to-school time.
School’s First Day of School, $11.98 at Amazon
The King of Kindergarten
Betsy Bird recommends this “thoroughly enjoyable traipse into the true first day of school” for younger kids. By the same author as the acclaimed Crown, the king in the title is royalty and all his fears must bow down because the first day of school is so great. “This book covers what you’ll learn in school, but also acknowledges the fun you’ll have when you get there,” says Bird.
The King of Kindergarten, $14 at Amazon
Badir and the Beaver
Books for younger readers address fears about entering kindergarten, but what about starting as the new kid in later grades? In this book, Badir isn’t just a new student, he’s also new to Canada, having only recently moved from Tunisia with his family. That’s why he thinks his first beaver is actually a giant rat. The discovery leads to a petition to move the beaver but Badir, inspired by doing good deeds during Ramadan and knowing how hard it is to leave your home, decides to find a way for the animal to stay. “Badir learns a little something about standing up for the rights of the little guy,” says Bird, “Even when that little guy is a beaver. Not only a good back-to-school book, but a great tale of environmental activism as well.”
Badir and the Beaver, $6.95 at Amazon
A New School Year: Stories in Six Voices
Another book that weaves in a variety of perspectives on school, six students’ first-day-back experiences are shared through poems at different times of the day. The voices and experiences of the students are diverse: like Carlos, a fourth grader, who notices that there aren’t many other people of color, and another student who has to go to school early because her mom has a long bus ride to work. The CCBC recommends this title for its ability to give each child a unique point of view, but also because the poems “reflect the familiar emotions of so many children on such a momentous day.”
A New School Year: Stories in Six Voices, $11.73 at Amazon
Mr. Wolf’s Class
Mr. Wolf’s Class, a bright graphic novel for middle grades, explores different challenges facing Mr. Wolf’s classroom on the first day — including Mr. Wolf, who is nervous for his first day of teaching. The CCBC likes that the book captures the “sense of the complex organism that is a busy classroom, as well as glimpses into the lives of the students beyond school”
Mr. Wolf’s Class, $9.27 at Amazon
The Last Last-Day-of-Summer
Kids may recognize themselves in cousins Otto and Sheed wishing that summer could last just a little bit longer. But they might have gotten more than they asked for when a villanous figure called Mr. Flux freezes their whole town. Thankfully, the cousins, as it becomes apparent, have a history of saving the day. The CCBC calls this a “silly, fun adventure” that early chapter book readers will enjoy — and maybe make them think twice about wishing summer will last forever.
The Last Last-Day-of-Summer, $13.33 at Amazon
Because of the Rabbit
Emma is starting public school for the first time after being homeschooled for elementary school in this chapter book for middle readers. While she worries about making friends, she also worries about getting to keep a rabbit that she and her game warden father rescued before school starts. (She can only keep it until they find it’s owner.) But the rabbit becomes a reason she starts to bond with Jack, a classmate who has autism. Jack isn’t the kind of friend Emma pictured for herself, but slowly the two grow closer over their shared love of animals. “It’s a quieter book, and often our kids need quieter books,” says Bird “It’s not about abuse or bullying. Just a girl trying to get along in school. And there’s a cute rabbit. Who can’t relate to that?”
Because of the Rabbit, $13.84 at Amazon
On top of being the new kid, Jordan Banks is also one of the few students of color at his prestigious New York private school. The graphic novel explores the racism Jordan faces, but also looks at ways he grows to appreciate his school and find friends. CCBC writes that the book comes to life thanks to “genuine characters [that] propel this funny, warm, biting, fearless story. Entertaining and insightful, it will surely offer affirmation for some readers, revelation for others.”
New Kid, $7.79 at Amazon
The 47 People You’ll Meet in Middle School
Framed as notes from the protagonist, Gus, to her younger sister, The 47 People You’ll Meet In Middle School is another middle reader chapter book that tackles the complexities of middle school life in real and funny ways. Gus is having to deal with making new friends after her best friend attends a different school, and her parents have recently divorced. Gus also confronts sexism and getting in trouble (and not always for something she actually did). “I like how Gus’s world is expanded, and her understanding of things, including her family, also expands,” Merri Lindgren, a librarian at the CCBC, says.
The 47 People You’ll Meet in Middle School, $15.90 at Amazon
AJ is trying to impress the new girl by pretending to be a vampire (she loves them), but he might have gotten more than he bargained for when it turns out vampires might actually be real — and lurking around thier school. CCBC recommends this “witty, distinctive graphic novel” not only for its fun story but for how well the author depicts middle school behavior and social dynamics.
Fake Blood, $9.35 at Amazon
Here to Stay
Here to Stay starts with the main character, Bijan, discovering that a photoshopped picture of him as a jihadist is being emailed anonymously around the school. He has his suspicions about who might be responsible, but he also wants to fly under the radar. The novel unfolds as Bijan and his friends take steps to fight hate in their own commnity. The CCBC writes, “Bijan’s well-drawn character, believable experiences, and raw emotional responses as he navigates the Islamophobia directed at him and works to support others experiencing homophobia and other forms of harassment solidly ground this novel.”
Here to Stay, $9.95 at Amazon
“Racism and school politics, social relationships and romance converge in this lively, illuminating novel,” writes the CCBC. With a storyline that sounds all-too-familiar, Louise Wolfe’s school is in an uproar over a color-blind casting of The Wizard of Oz. Louise, who is Muscogee Creek, also recently broke up with her first boyfriend after he mocked Native people in front of her. As she covers the controversy around the school musical with her Lebanese-American classmate Joey, she feels a crush develop but is hesitant to admit her feelings after her experience with her ex.
Hearts Unbroken, $17.99 at Amazon
On The Come Up
From the best-selling author of The Hate U Give, On the Come Up follows aspiring rapper Bri. Her frustration at the racism she experiences at her mostly white school leads to her recording a song that channels all her frustration. The song goes viral, and gets the attention of a producer. But he’s only interested in the defiant anger Bri shows on the track, and isn’t interested in a more nuanced look at her or her music. The CCBC writes, “Bri, her family and friends are dealing with many challenges, from economic struggles and racism to the threat of gangs and drug violence, but they are also loving, lively, funny, poignant characters in this vivid, visceral, heartfelt, ultimately hopeful work. ”
On The Come Up, $9.99 at Amazon
Moxie: A Novel
If you’re a parent who misses the Riot Grrrl ‘zine days, you’ll especially want to get your teenager a copy of Moxie. Vivian, the main character, is inspired to create her own Riot Grrrl-style ‘zine in response to sexism at her school. She calls the zine Moxie and tells no one she is behind it, not even her best friend. As Moxie grows, Viv must rethink friendships and grow herself as Moxie expands to look at issues of race and class. “Mathieu’s narrative is fierce and inspiring, while her nuanced characters and the complexity of their relationships ground the story and add to the satisfaction,” writes the CCBC.
Moxie: A Novel, $6.98 at Amazon
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