The other night my son chose one of my all-time favorite children’s books to read, “I Am Too Absolutely Small for School” by Lauren Child. The story follows a quirky little girl named Lola who, when informed by her brother Charlie that she will be starting school in the fall, comes up with many creative reasons why she needn’t go (among them that she does not need to learn to count to 100 because “I never eat more than ten cookies at one time”). Luckily, Charlie's counterarguments win over Lola in the end, and she finds that school is much more fun than she expected.
We’ve been reading the book quite a lot lately, and since both my boys are starting new schools this fall (Doodle heads to preschool, and Noodle to kindergarten) it’s no big surprise. Reading along as Lola successfully overcomes her fears is just one way for my kids to work through their own emotions about this big transition.
On my quest to find more good books about starting school, I had the pleasure of speaking to librarian Betsy Bird, Youth Materials Specialist for BookOps, the shared technical services organization of New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library. Here are some of her top choices. Check out your local library to see if you can find them on the shelves.
“The Best Thing About Kindergarten” (Simply Read Books, 2013) Written by Jennifer Lloyd, illustrated by Qin Leng
Instead of focusing on fears, this charming book written by a kindergarten teacher highlights the best things about kindergarten and invites readers to come up with their own ideas. “This is a great way to switch from nerves to the positive aspects of the experience,” says Bird. When Mrs. Appleby asks her graduating kindergarten class to tell her the best thing about school, every child has a different answer—the playhouse, the block corner, recess. But Mrs. Appleby surprises them all with hers: the students. The delicate, scribbly illustrations and simple, rhythmic text lend the story a comforting feel.
“Oliver and His Alligator” (Disney-Hyperion, 2013) Written and illustrated by Paul Schmid
Not feeling quite brave enough to face his first day of school alone, Oliver decides to bring an alligator with him who happily gobbles up anything or anyone that makes the little boy uncomfortable. Once everyone is in the alligator, however, Oliver realizes school is a bit lonely and he must set things right. “Natural worries are extended to their extreme,” says Bird, “with surprisingly gentle illustrations.”
“Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten?” (Balzer & Bray, 2010) Written by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Daniel Jennewein
Readers will delight in the sheer silliness of the story, written as a manual for kids who may not be sure if their buffalo is quite ready for kindergarten. Vivid cartoon illustrations depict a little girl in pigtails helping her buffalo navigate familiar classroom terrain like art and lunchtime with more than a little difficulty. The idea that all kids (and buffalos) are unique and special in their own way alleviates the pressure of being perfect for school. “After reading this book,” says Bird, “I guarantee you’ll want a buffalo of your own.”
“Jake Starts School” (Square Fish, 2010) Written and illustrated by Michael Wright
Jake is so nervous to start school that he literally won’t let go of his parents. Mom and dad are forced to go through the school day with Jake, including sharing snacks, finger painting and fitting into child-size chairs. “Soon it becomes clear that things would be a lot more fun without them around,” says Bird. The computer-generated cartoon illustrations and the rhyming text make for an entertaining, light-hearted read that Bird says “will make you laugh out loud.”
“Mom, It’s My First Day of Kindergarten!” (Frances Foster Books, 2012) Written and illustrated by Hyewon Yum
In this “empowering and funny” book a very brave kindergartner sets off for his first day of school while his mother cringes like a frightened child. As mom worries that school is too big, the child assures her it’s just right. “Sometimes all it takes is a little role reversal to put a kid at ease,” says Bird. By alternating the color and size of the characters (small and blue-tinged for fearful; big and rosy for confident) Yum explores the emotional seesaw of the first day of school in which both parents and kids take turns comforting one another and working through their own fears.