As your children return back-to-school, read these essential picture school-themed books about the first day, separation anxiety, making friends, and being yourself.
Honestly, I love how picture books can help prepare our kids for what to expect in new situations. (Although, there isn’t anything to totally prepare students who will be learning online. But you might try books about GROWTH MINDSET and FACING FEARS & COURAGE.)
More than that, they also help you know where your child might need extra support. For example, nervousness about what school will be like. Or how to make friends.
Classroom teachers, you’ll love using books with your students. Isn’t it fun to read aloud back-to-school books during that busy first week of school where everyone is adjusting and learning the ropes?
Anyway, I’ve read a bazillion back-to-school books in my years as a teacher and book reviewer. At the moment, these are my current favorites from this list:
The King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Don’t miss this delightful book of positive presuppositions about the first day of school because today you’re going to be the King of Kindergarten! Rich imagery filled with hyperbole and metaphor plus captivating illustrations create a festive atmosphere filled with exuberance and bravery. I love how this story shows a sequential day filled with the many happy possibilities at school including storytime, recess, playing with new friends, and a kind teacher.
School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex, illustrated by Christian Robinson
An essential story for back to school! The janitor tells the newly built school that soon teachers and children will be coming. Which makes the school nervous. Find out what happens on the first day (yikes– a fire drill!) and how the school loves his kids.
My First Day by Phung Nguyen Quang and Huynh Kim Lien
Lyrical, metaphorical writing and evocative illustrations tell the story of a young Vietnamese boy who paddles his boat through waves and a dark mangrove forest toward his first day of school. It feels a little scary, but as he forges out of the forest, the fish-filled river and colorful sky begin to feel welcoming and friendly. “The sky is a crayon box full of colors for me to take flight–grow my own wings–a dance of storks and new worlds.” Soon, he arrives at school and waves hello to his classmates, also arriving in boats. Read this picture book to children so they can see that some kids all over the world go to school in different ways.
This is the Day You Begin by Jaqueline Woodson, illustrations by Rafael López
The evocative, lyrical text with gorgeous, lush illustrations illuminate the awkwardness of a girl’s first days at school. She listens to other kids’ big stories of summer and feels like she doesn’t fit until…she finds out that maybe there she might have something in common with others after all.
So Big! by Mike Wohnoutka
Illustrations primarily narrate the story in this meaningful picture book story with minimal text. Bear feels so big now that he’s starting school. But once he gets to school, he doesn’t feel big anymore–the school feels so big. Just when he’s very overwhelmed, a new friend takes his hand and they walk to the classroom together. Now he feels just right.
Truman by Jean Reidy, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins
One day Truman’s Sarah leaves on the number 11 bus in a tender story about the first day of school from a pet tortoise’s perspective. Readers get a strong sense of place and emotion as Truman worries and waits for a thousand hours until he decides to go after his Sarah. Just as he’s about to leave the apartment, Sarah arrives home. Back in his habitat, he feels proud as Sarah reads him a story about her day. Truman shines brightly as a magnificent, well-crafted gem of a picture book.
I Will Be Fierce! by Bea Birdsong, illustrated by Nidhi Chanani
A little girl uses her imagination to set a positive intention for her school day. She puts on her armor and sets off to explore new worlds, taking on dragons (dogs) and walking with giants (big kids at the school bus stop), climbing the Mountain of Knowledge (library), and standing up for her beliefs (sitting with a lonely girl in the cafeteria). Today she will be the hero of her own story. What an inspiration for young girls everywhere! This picture book shows all the opportunities we have every day to be bold and brave and fierce.
My New Teacher and Me by Al Yankovic
Mr. Booth does not like his student Billy’s crazy exaggerations until Billy shows his teacher that wild and crazy things might just exist in the world. Very funny.
On the First Day of Kindergarten by Tish Rabe, illustrated by Laura Hughes
Just like “On the First Day of Christmas“, follow along as one little girl tells us what’s cool about school including sliding down the slide, singing a song, running in a race, counting up to ten, making lots of friends, and riding the bus to my school.
The Night Before First Grade by Natasha Wing
Natasha Wing writes all the Night Before books in the familiar rhyme of the Night Before Christmas. Look for The Night Before Preschool and The Night Before Kindergarten as well. These books are always funny and reassuring.
Mae’s First Day of School by Kate Berube
This is a familiar back to school story about a child who doesn’t want to go to school. She meets another child and a teacher who don’t want to go to school either. The three climb a tree, talk, and share cookies. Knowing each other helps them feel brave enough to go to school. The story shows that other people also feel scared…even adults. And, they go to school anyway.
Fairy’s First Day of School by Bridget Heos, illustrated by Sara Not
Fairy’s mom tells her what to expect on her first day of school. A nice teacher, other fairies, learning new things, centers like art and spells, clean up time, jobs, recess, lunchtime, and so on. Similar to a human’s first day of school, children will enjoy the fairy’s first magical day that ends with smiles and cuddles.
Scarlet’s Tale by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Jarvis
Scarlet surprises her parents when she’s born with…a tail! But it’s no problem because her loving parents make sure she has a happy life and clothes that fit her tail. When Scarlet starts school, it’s a hard first day since she’s the only one with a tail but she makes friends, wagging her tail at her new friends, and wagging when she’s happy. Wagging catches on and soon everyone in her community, tail or not, is wagging. The story ends perfectly with a new baby brother who has a surprise of his own.
We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins
This picture book is so funny while being profound at the same time. After a rough first day at school where this little dinosaur eats her classmates, gets scolded by the teacher, spits them out, and doesn’t make any friends, Penelope’s dad explains while children might taste good, it’s not a good idea to eat them. But the next day, Penelope eats her classmates again. It’s not until the class goldfish chomps on Penelope’s finger and it HURTS that she realizes it’s not fun to be someone else’s snack. It hurts. Which gives her EMPATHY!! Now, Penelope tries to remember this valuable lesson and resist eating the other kids. Which means she has friends and playmates at school.
The Buddy Bench by Patty Brozo, illustrated by Mike Deas
At recess, some students in Miss Mellon’s class don’t have anyone to play with. Soon, other kids notice and invite those lonely kids but after recess, they wonder if there’s a better way. Miss Bellon suggests a Buddy Bench where anyone can go to wait for a friend to meet. Read this with your class and see if they can come up with their own ideas for a Buddy Bench — then actually use it. (My kids have told me that teachers often sat down at recess on the so-called Buddy Bench at their old school.)
Chopsticks by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Chopsticks are always together. But when one chopstick gets injured, he encourages his partner chopstick to go explore the world alone. Use this metaphorical book to help children learn about friendships. It shows that friends, even when apart, can still be friends – stronger, even. Plus, it’s a punny, funny story.
Clark the Shark by Bruce Hale, illustrated by Guy Francis
Clark the Shark is just too loud and too rough with his friends. And they don’t want to play with him. But he gets help from his teacher and learns how to modify his behavior so he can play, too.
Quiet Wyatt by Tammi Sauer, illustrated by Arthur Howard
For all the quiet kids in the world, this book shows that YOU matter and can be friends with people who aren’t like you. Wyatt’s quiet life isn’t very quiet on a class field trip when he’s paired with Noreen — his exact opposite. In a hilarious contrast of personalities, Noreen talks non-stop and trailblazes right into trouble. Luckily, Wyatt is an excellent ninja so he can save Noreen from the rock slide. “Wyatt smiled. Quietly of course. / He still liked quite. // He also liked having a friend.“
Carrot and Pea by Morag Hood
This simple book of friendship shows that our uniquenesses add value to our friendships. Lee is a pea who has a lot of pea friends as well as a carrot friend named Colin. Even though Colin can’t roll or bounce like the peas, he makes an excellent tower, bridge, and slide, something his pea friends like.
Want to Play Trucks? by Ann Stott, illustrated by Bob Graham
Jack likes big trucks. Alex likes dolls. When they meet at the sandbox to play, they’ll play dolls that drive trucks. When they get into a fight about dolls in tutus driving a crane, they work it out. Although they both like different things, these friends also have other things in common — playing together and eating ice cream.
When Charley Met Emma by Amy Webb, illustrated by Merrilee Liddiard
When Charley feels different, his mom teaches him that “Different isn’t weird, sad, bad, or strange. Different is different. And different is OK!” After he hurts Emma’s feelings, he apologizes and asks Emma questions. Emma helps Charley know that even though she’s a little “differenter” than he is, she’s a lot the same, too. For example, Emma likes to play on the playground, swing, play tag, and just like Charleym she likes to draw! This compassionate story models the importance of accepting (physical) differences with kindness and openheartedness.
Growing Friendships: A Kids’ Guide to Making and Keeping Friends by Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore and Christine McLaughlin
This isn’t a picture book but a guidebook that gives children ages 6 – 12 in elementary grades the tools and strategies to improve their friendships and relationships with other kids. The cartoon illustrations depict real-life examples of social skills in practice which are very relatable and realistic, sometimes even humorous.
Little Girls Can Be Mean by Michelle Anthony, Ph.D. and Reyna Lindert, Ph.D.
Did you know that it’s a girl’s best friend who can be her worst enemy and bully? I learned so much to help my kids be empowered in their relationships. This book really helped us in my children’s elementary grades. ***Full review of Little Girls Can Be Mean on Imagination Soup here.
Lena’s Shoes Are Nervous (A First-Day-of-School Dilemma) by Keith Calabrese, illustrated by Juana Medina
Lena’s feeling BOTH nervous AND outgoing. (Her shoes are nervous but her dress is outgoing.) Her dad, who is totally awesome, asks questions and doesn’t try to fix anything. When Lena figures out that her headband can talk to her shoes, her dad gives them space to work things out. The headband reminds the shoes of other times that they were scared and also brave and that things eventually worked out. The clothes decide to be brave and go to school with Lena. It’s a brilliant personification story that emotionally resonates with children.
A New School Year: Stories in Six Voices by Sally Derby, illustrated by Mika Song
Relatable and heart-warming with emotion, read the poems of six students all about the first day of the year. Use this to reassure your kids that it’s normal to feel both worried and excited about new things and that you never know what can happen on your first day.
The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn
A heart-warming story that will start the tradition of planting a kiss on your child’s hand before you send him to school. And you’ll get a kiss from your child in return. (If you’re like me, you’ll try not to cry but will tear up after you read this at home and especially after sending your child off palm kisses.)
First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg
Sarah doesn’t want to go to kindergarten. But what a surprise when we discover that Sarah is the teacher, not the student. Perfect for kindergarten kids…or any early elementary age.
Pete the Cat Rocking in My School Shoes by Eric Litwin and James Dean
I love this picture book and the song that goes with it. Get excited about attending school and learn not to worry …because it’s all good.
It’s Time for School, Stinky Face by Lisa McCourt
“What if . . . a spaceship lands on the playground?” Most kids can relate to all the what-ifs of a new situation and ultimately find this story reassuring for even the biggest worriers.
It’s Time for Preschool! by Esme Roji Codell, illustrated by Sue Rama
Read about all the things that happen at preschool including Time for Preschool, Circle Time, Sharing Time, Manners, Fire Drill, Thinking-about-Home Time, Time for Friends, Nap Time, Field Trip Time, Time to Make Stuff, Clean-up Time, Time to Go Home.
Second Grade Holdout by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Matthew Cordell
First grade was great but second grade is going to be horrible. Especially after this boy’s sister and friend tell him exactly how awful it will be. So why not just stay in first grade? But don’t worry, the boy’s sister and her friend invented all the bad stuff and eventually reveal that second grade is really great. Another funny back to school story from Audrey Vernick that 2nd graders will enjoy. (Also read: First Grade Dropout.)
Dog Days of School by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Brian Biggs
Charlie doesn’t like school. Surprisingly, after wishing he were a dog, he becomes a dog and his dog becomes a person. Charlie’s dog goes to school, builds with blocks, and plays kickball while Charlie watches the leaves fall, drinks from the toilet, and goes to the groomer. It’s super funny — and kids will enjoy (and possibly predict) the ending.
The Teacher’s Pet by Anica Mrose Rissi, illustrated by Zachariah Ohora
Mr. Stricter’s class is dismayed when their tadpole turns into a hippopotamus who is NOT a good classroom pet, despite what clueless Mr. Stricter thinks. The students must figure out some way to convince Mr. Stricter that all the destruction and chaos are not okay. Then to make matters worse, the hippo EATS Mr. Stricter. Now, what will the kids do? Kids will love this hilarious school story.
All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman
Rhyming text shows a welcoming, safe, diverse classroom where children learn, play, and are creative. “All are welcome here,” repeats the refrain. I love the illustrations that convey so much diversity — for cultures and skin colors — as well as an engaged community of learners. This is an essential back-to-school picture book read aloud for preschool and early elementary.
Here Comes Teacher Cat by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Claudia Rueda
Cat is a reluctant substitute teacher. The narrator writes his conversation to Cat and Cat communicates back to the narrator through picture signs. Because Cat would rather sleep than be a sub. However, no one else can help out so Cat must teach kitty school. And surprisingly, Cat does a great job! This is a wonderful read aloud the day before a substitute teacher will be teaching.
Seven Rules You Absolutely Must Not Break If You Want to Survive the Cafeteria by John Grandits, illustrated by Michael Allen Austin
Kyle’s friend Ginny warns him about both eating the cafeteria food and the RULES. She gives him seven must-follow rules for surviving the cafeteria. Of course, Kyle accidentally breaks every single one of them and it’s hilarious. But, don’t worry. It all works out for Kyle and he learns a very valuable lesson at the end of this giggle-worthy back-to-school book, perfect for upper elementary ages.
Dear Substitute by Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Chris Raschka
Everything is wonky at school today because there’s a substitute who doesn’t know what to do. Letters throughout the day show the student struggling with the unexpected changes but eventually enjoying the read-aloud book and poetry writing. The message of giving things a chance is a good reminder. Raschka’s bold, colorful illustrations add texture to these lyrical letters.
Hello, School by Priscilla Burris
Get excited about school! School is a friendly, welcoming place with a kind teacher, friends, a place for your things, and a place for you.
Sweety by Andrea Zuill
Sweety is a unique naked mole-rat. Her classmates don’t really “get” her at all. But Sweety’s Aunt Ruth understands Sweety and her hobbies, encouraging Sweety to be true to herself. Sweety wonders if there is a secret handshake for any other people who might understand her. For now, she continues to be true to herself. Because being Sweety is awesome. And you never know when someone else who is awesome might come along, too!
Exclamation Mark by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
It’s not easy when you’re not like everyone else. Sometimes when this happens, we squish ourselves to fit in. We shrink. Twist. Bend. Until–! — a friend shows us a way of being with endless possibilities. In this bold and highly visual book, an emphatic but misplaced exclamation mark learns that being different can be very exciting! Period.
How to be a Lion by Ed Vere
Leonard is a gentle lion who loves to feel the sun warm his back, think, daydream, and write poetry. When the other lions mock Leonard’s behavior choices (he is not fierce and doesn’t eat duck!), Leonard shows them there is another way. He and his friend Marianne express their thoughts in a poem about the many ways to be a lion. Red and orange colored illustrations set a peaceful, compassionate tone.
Sarabella’s Thinking Cap by Judy Schachner
Sarabella’s mind is filled with her wonderful imaginings. When her teacher assigns the class homework to draw their favorite daydream, Sarabella thinks of so many things. To show her class all the things, she makes her daydreams into a spectacular hat. This is a great example of the creativity in divergent brains, I’m specifically thinking of children with ADHD.
We’re All Wonders by R.J. Palacio
Simple and heartfelt, Aggie shares that he’s just like everyone else even if he doesn’t look like other people. It hurts his feelings when people point and laugh so his strategy is to put on his helmet, blast off into space, and get a bigger perspective. He sees that the Earth is full of lots of different people, each of them = wonders. In fact, he is a wonder, too. “Look with kindness and you will always find wonder.“
Antoinette by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Christian Robinson
Antoinette hasn’t found what she’s good at, not like her brothers. “Chin up,” her mom tells her. When her friend, Ooh-La-La, chases after a butterfly and disappears, no one else can find her. Except for Antoinette. Brave Antoinette follows her heart and her nose! What an encouraging message to kids who are still searching for their unique gifts.
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