School is just around the corner, and what better way to wade into a new year (and start a new blog!) than with an armful of great read-alouds. Here are some old and new to launch those important conversations about school, rules, community, respect, and inspiration. And some craft and writing suggestions to kick-start those bulletin boards. The books are numbered, but don’t let that fool you, they’re in no particular order. You might find your favorite at the bottom.
Books Designed for Back to School.
Let’s start with the obvious category.
Panda Kindergarten by Joanne Ryder. A charming photo essay on the baby pandas at the Wolong Nature Preserve in China. And it does actually detail all the things pandas learn in “kindergarten.” Can be tied into a unit on animals as well.
Why it’s great: Baby pandas. Baby pandas. Baby pandas. Plus it’s the only nonfiction on this list, which makes it a good candidate to balance out your Common Core fiction/nonfiction ratio.
Craft extension: If you google “panda crafts for kindergarten,” a ton of stuff comes up, most of it involving paper plates. Nice and easy. Tie it in with the letter P, or circles, and/or have kids write what their panda is going to learn at school (using examples from the text of course – #commoncore).
Writing extension: Venn Diagram comparing and contrasting panda kindergarten to people kindergarten.
Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten by Joseph Slate. While all her students with the rhyming names get ready to go to school, Miss Bindergarten also prepares the room for the day.
Why it’s great: Honestly, I’ve always had a hard time getting excited about this one, but I know others love it. The rhyming, the illustrated tour of a kindergarten room, the cute animals, the ABCs.
Craft extension: More of a literacy extension, but a little crafty. Make a rhyming-name machine. It’s really just a flip book, but calling it a machine makes it more fun. Take a spiral book of index cards and cut them all an inch in from the left. On the short left-hand flaps, write all the capital letters of the alphabet, or at least all the consonants. On the right, write the names of the students in class, minus their first letters. They can flip through the book and make rhyming names for themselves. If you’re having trouble visualizing this, take a look under “Wednesday” (you have to scroll down just a little) at this link, and that should give you the gist.
Writing extension: What did you do to get ready for school this morning? (You can tie this in with a discussion of what it really means to be ready for school – are you ready if you forgot your pencil? Your homework? Etc.)
Monsters Love School! by Mike Austin. What is school for? Let the little monsters tell you, and why it’s just as great as summer. Also good for talking about making friends.
Why it’s great: Wonderful, whimsical illustrations, the text is buoyant, and the little monsters are very relatable.
Craft extension: Kids can make themselves masks, perhaps monster masks, to echo the scene in the book where the monsters also make masks.
Writing extension: Have kids write about their favorite part of school.
The Gingerbread Man Loose In The School by Laura Murray. The kids bake the Gingerbread Man on the first day of school, but then leave him behind. He sets off to find them. They are joyfully reunited at the end without any gruesome anthropomorphic cannibalism.
Why it’s great: Has maps of the different school corridors, introduces kids to the different kinds of rooms in a school (art room, gym, principal’s office). This would also be good for introducing general cooking lessons, because it (briefly) goes through the steps necessary for making a gingerbread man.
Craft extension: Students decorate a paper gingerbread man, who gets taped/glued into their homework folder. Whether they’re at home or school, they can’t leave him behind.
2nd craft extension: create a map of your school on a large piece of paper or poster board, cut out a few miniature gingerbread men pieces, and turn it into a board game where the students have to get their g-man back to the classroom. A simple set of dice could work, or to make it even more fun, add challenges to different spaces on the board, for example, you have to find a double “ff” somewhere in the room before you can go two spaces. Make it a center or an activity for students who finish early.
Writing extension: Mapping. Or a recipe for how to make a gingerbread man. Or instructions for how to make a gingerbread man board game. Or making the challenges for the board game. Or reflecting on what to do should you get lost.
First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg. Sarah Jane Hartwell doesn’t want to start over at her new school. It’ll be awful, she just knows it. But with the encouragement of Mr. Hartwell and a lot of feet-dragging, she makes it in. Surprise – she’s the new teacher!
Why it’s great: Perfectly captures the dread of the First Day, and the surprise ending is very well done.
Craft extension: On the last page, Sarah Jane is smiling even though she has the jitters. So someone can have the jitters and you might not know it if they don’t tell you. Have kids make an inside/outside self-portrait (a paper folded hamburger-style will do, or you can go fancier), with their “smiling face” on the front and their “jitter face” on the inside. Then they can write something that gives them the jitters.
Writing extension: I like the idea of using this book to launch a community-building conversation. In the book, Mr. Hartwell encourages Sarah Jane to face her fears and go to school in spite of her jitters. It would be nice to brainstorm with a class different ways that they could encourage a new friend who might have the jitters. Depending on age and maturity, they may need to warm up by identifying what gives them the jitters themselves, and how to identify when someone has the jitters.
Ally-Saurus and The First Day of School by Richard Torrey. Can’t say it better than the Amazon description: “When Ally roars off to her first day at school, she hopes she’ll meet lots of other dinosaur-mad kids in class. Instead, she’s the only one chomping her food with fierce dino teeth and drawing dinosaurs on her nameplate. Even worse, a group of would-be “princesses” snubs her! Will Ally ever make new friends? With its humorous art, appealing heroine, and surprise ending, this fun picture book celebrates children’s boundless imagination.”
Why it’s great: Ally-Saurus is a fabulous protagonist. The school friendships are also well-drawn, with some rejection and make-ups, and room for everyone’s quirks (even Walter’s).
Craft extension: Print photos of all your students (you need parental permission for this, but most parents are amenable if it’s just for classroom use), and have them crayon-in an alter-ego a la the book illustrations. Would they rather be a dinosaur? Pirate? Princess?Post on the door, or use for the birthday wall, etc.
Writing extension: The book has a strong Be Yourself And Let Others Be Themselves theme, so insert your favorite All-About-Me lesson here. What makes you special? What are your special likes and dislikes? Etc. This also makes a great character-study book, so consider using it to make lists of adjectives to describe people, and then having the kids describe themselves.
Amelia Bedelia’s First Day of School by Herman Parish. Amelia Bedelia the child is off to her first day of school, and, as expected, mixes everything up, from her name tag (We’re not playing tag!) to her craft. Great for talking about what is and is not appropriate in school, as well as idiomatic language.
Why it’s great: Childhood fans of Amelia Bedelia will love this book, one in a series imagining Amelia Bedelia’s childhood, written by the nephew of the original author. This updated tale preserves the spirit and joy of the original series, but the language and idioms chosen are much more accessible to today’s children.
Craft extension: Have students choose and illustrate a literal interpretation of a school phrase, like Amelia literally gluing herself to her chair.
Writing extension: Anything with idioms.
The Golden Oldies.
They’ve been around for a long time, but they haven’t lost their magic.
The Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn. Perfect for those little ones suffering from separation anxiety. Chester Raccoon is scared to go to school. His mom kisses his palm and tells him he can carry the kiss with him everywhere, and anytime he needs to, he can hold it to his cheek and think, “Mommy loves you.”
Why it’s great: Tender and compassionate, the kids relate. Use it to start a conversation about how school is different than home, but still great.
Craft extension: Have children trace their hands and cut them out (if this is in their ability). They can either draw a kiss or a heart on the palm, or they can actually go home and get their mom to kiss it, then they can carry it around or tape it to their desk.
Writing extension: Have you ever missed your mommy? What makes you feel better when you miss your mommy?
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. You can’t possibly not know this book. But in case you live under a rock: A boy and a tree and their beautiful and heartbreaking and redemptive friendship in one perfect parable.
Why it’s great: Really? You really haven’t read this yet? Go read it right now. Then come back and thank me.
Craft extension: Paint a tree on your bulletin board paper, or make some branches out of construction paper and tack them up. Cut out leaves (or have kids cut them out – little ovals are fine), and when someone does a kindness, the kids write it on the leaf and it goes up on the tree.
Writing extension: Besides the writing addressed in the craft idea, you can also use this as a springboard for talking about respect, community, and friendship. What makes a good friend? How can you tell if you’re being a good friend?
Miss Nelson is Missing by James Marshall and Harry Allard. Miss Nelson’s kids won’t behave. She mysteriously disappears, replaced by the wicked substitute, Miss Swamp.
Why it’s great: The language is so alive, this book is a blast to read aloud. Bonus that in the end, there’s still a secret that’s implied instead of made explicit, so you can practice those critical thinking skills. Use it to talk about rules and consequences. If you want to go deep, talk about how we all have some wicked inside us.
Craft extension – Kids can make an alter-ego mask with a paper plate and some crayons. This could be fun if they make their “regular” face on one side and their “naughty” face on the other.
Writing extension – Have the kids brainstorm words that describe themselves – maybe make two lists for each side of the mask. Have them reflect on what actions they can perform to be their naughty or mature selves. Alternatively, have the students write about the ideal teacher. 🙂
No, David! or David Goes to School by David Shannon. David just can’t seem to behave no matter what.
Why it’s great: The illustrations. And that one page where he goes streaking. Also, it provides opportunities for some call and response. Use it to start a general conversation about rules.
Craft extension: I’m drawing a blank. Fortunately, there’s a whole Pinterest board dedicated to this topic: https://www.pinterest.com/jodyclement1/no-david-activities/
Writing extension: I refer you again to the above Pinterest board.
Jamaica’s Find by Juanita Havill. The classic story of conscience.
Why it’s great: It’s rare for a children’s book to examine internal ethical conflicts with such truth and skill. Also, #WeNeedDiverseBooks.
Craft extension: After a discussion about honesty, community-mindedness, and responsibility, maybe make “good citizen” badges for all the students, as Jamaica was ultimately a good citizen at the playground.
Writing extension: Write about a time you lost something and it made you sad. Or found something that you wanted that didn’t belong to you. These could turn into an interesting empathy lesson, if I had more time to think about it.
Rules, Consequences, and Responsibilities.
Use these to launch those discussions about appropriate and inappropriate behavior, the reasons for rules, and all that jazz.
Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems. The pigeon wants to drive the bus. It’s up to you to stop him.
Why it’s great: The kids get to tell the pigeon “No!” many, many times. They love it. Use it to talk about why we have rules, why it’s important to follow rules, etc.
Craft extension: Make a big school bus out of bulletin board paper (or whatever) and have kids draw little self-portraits (or take selfies and print them – with parental permission), then cut them out and put all the kids on the bus. Talk about how important it is to have the right person driving the bus – the teacher. Print the classroom rules on the side of the bus.
Writing extension: Have the kids create a story/scenario, either individually or as a group, about what might happen if the pigeon DID drive the bus. Go wild.
If You Ever Want To Bring An Alligator to School – DON’T by Elise Parsley. All the many good reasons never to bring an alligator to school. Spoiler alert – he’ll make a mess and get you sent to the principal’s office.
Why it’s great: I can’t do justice here to the lively language and fabulous illustrations, but this book is a lot of fun. It’s one of my new favorites.
Craft extension: I would make a big alligator and write “Don’t-be-an-alligator” rules on the belly. As in, “An alligator tries to eat his classmates. Don’t be an alligator. Keep your hands to yourself.” Etc. An alligator might seem like an insurmountable animal to make for the un-crafty, but their head is basically a long triangle with the tip cut off. The body is a long oval, and the tail is another long triangle. Add a couple circles for eyes and nostrils, and some more small triangles for teeth and those scales on their back, and voila! You don’t even have to do the whole body, you could just do one giant head.
2nd Craft extension: I JUST thought of this and decided to include it. Have the kids make an envelope alligator who eats – well, whatever you want. Letters, vocabulary words, spelling words, addition facts, anything you can write on half an index card. They have to keep feeding their hungry alligator new information to keep him well behaved. Or you can make it a feelings alligator, and whenever a child feels like acting out, they can feed their feelings to the alligator. Or whatever. I got the idea from this page, but you don’t have to go even that fancy. I literally just made this out of a standard envelope, a scrap of construction paper, and a black marker. You could jazz it up with googly eyes or something, but this is the simplest form I think. Unless you just want to color the flap of the envelope green, that might truly be the simplest, but then his snout isn’t very long. For this version, I would cut the construction paper beforehand, but they can glue-stick it on themselves, just remind them to put the glue on the envelope, not the green paper, otherwise they’ll end up accidentally gluing the envelope shut.
Writing extension: I would totally do a Venn diagram comparing and contrasting Alligator behavior with proper school behavior. Or maybe a Venn diagram wouldn’t work, since hopefully there is very little overlap between the two.
2nd writing extension: For slightly older kids, have them write a news article about the alligator who came to school. Or have them interview the main character and ask her what she would have done differently (and then use that to launch a discussion about different choices one can make about one’s behavior at school). You can go so many different ways with this.
This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen. Little fish has taken a hat, but no one will notice, right?
Why it’s great: Pages alternate with little fish justifying his theft, and the big fish he took the hat from slowly catching up with him. The drama will be exciting, good for teaching prediction, and the illustrations are clean and beautiful, reminiscent of Eric Carle and Leo Lionni.
Craft and writing extension: I would make little popsicle puppets of the 3 characters and have them do the playacting suggested over at teachingideas. Expand it by having the kids role-play different scenarios that might play out at school. For example, you might ask politely to borrow something that someone else has, instead of just taking it. I also like their idea of having the kids add speech bubbles to the illustrations, especially because the big fish and the crab don’t actually talk in the book. Could make a gorgeous bulletin board, especially if you do something of an author study and have the kids mimic Klassen’s simple but striking collage style.
Making Friends and Building Community.
Set that friendly, supportive, welcoming tone you’re hoping for.
Peanut Butter and Cupcake by Terry Border. Little Peanut Butter just moved to town and wants to find a friend, but his first few attempts don’t quite match up. This little rhyming book is cute. Ideally served with snack time. 🙂
Why it’s great: Shows that it can take time to find the friend that’s right for you, without it being anybody’s fault. The repeating rhyme (which repeatedly fails until Peanut Butter finds his match – Jelly, of course) will be fun for the young ones and good for phonemic awareness.
Craft extension: Because it’s me, and I love cooking with kids (“cooking”), and also because I loved piling weird stuff into my peanut butter sandwiches as a kid, I would probably try to extend this into a taste-testing vocab-building exercise, where kids get a slice of bread with peanut butter, cut it in fourths, and then add different foods to it (bananas, pretzels, apples, grapes, m&ms, potato chips, carrot chips, cucumber chips, pickles, marshmallows, and yes cupcakes all come to mind), chart descriptive words to describe the flavors, and rate the combinations (and graph the votes during math). And because different kids will have different favorites (well, if you include m&m’s, they might all have the same favorite), you can tie it back into friend-making by pointing out that there’s not just one perfect match for peanut butter, just like there’s not only one perfect friend match to be made in school. You can learn to appreciate all different kinds of people.
*MAKE SURE YOU HAVE NO PEANUT ALLERGIES before attempting this. Peanut allergies can be airborne and fatal. If you do have peanut allergies in the classroom, alternatives are soy butter, almond butter, and cream cheese, but PLEASE NOTE that soy, almonds (a tree nut), and dairy are also common serious allergens. So just know the allergies in your class.
Writing extension: Students can write a short recipe for their favorite peanut butter snack combination, or write about what they think their favorite combination would taste like.
The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat. Beekle is born in the land of imaginary friends, but his real-world friend doesn’t come for him, so he’s forced to set out into the world to find his special friend.
Why it’s great: Dan Santat is a fantastic illustrator and story teller. I’ve used other books of his with great success. This whimsical tale is another that does a great job modeling patience and persistence in finding a special friend.
Craft extension: There are many visual examples of imaginary friends offered in the book. Photograph your students (with parental permission of course), having them pose to the side of the frame. Have kids draw their own imaginary friend, then cut it out and paste it onto the negative space in the photo. Sizing the paper appropriately to the photograph will be key to getting imaginary friends that are a workable size.
Writing extension: Have students write a personal ad searching for their ideal imaginary friend. They must include character traits as well as descriptions of what they would do and where they would go with this friend. (“Adventurous 2nd grader seeking imaginary friend who is active and athletic. Must enjoy baseball and video games”).
Eugene’s Unsuspecting Journey, by Heather Choi. A really beautiful book about discovering that you can make a difference in someone’s day. I wish it had a wider distribution, I couldn’t even find it on Amazon. The author is local to Queens, where I live, and I stumbled on it in my neighborhood library. But you can order it straight from the publisher (click through on the picture or the title).
Why it’s great: First, the illustrations are gorgeous and really painterly. Second, while maintaining magic and whimsy, it offers real examples of how a child might go about brightening someone’s day with thoughtfulness and kindness. Would be a great replacement or companion to The Giving Tree. Plus, #WeNeedDiverseBooks.
Craft extension: See The Giving Tree. Maybe instead of recording kindnesses on leaves to go on a tree, students could write them on flowers to make a bouquet.
Writing extension: Have students brainstorm ways to brighten another’s day. Maybe create a bit of a class project out of it – deliver flowers to another class, for example. Then they can journalistically report on the experience.
Inspiration and Imagination.
Get those kiddos excited for some learnin‘.
Meet the Dullards by Sara Pennypacker. The Dullards never read or play or use their imaginations. That would be dangerous and foolhardy.
Why it’s great: They literally watch paint dry, I love it. Use it to talk about how your class is NOT going to be about watching paint dry. It will be stimulating and engaging and will require engagement from them.
Craft extension: Have the kids trace and cut out a hand print (or other desired shape) and decorate it, then put them on your classroom door to make it less dull.
Writing extension: Have students write about things they like to do, things that make their days less dull.
What To Do with an Idea by Kobi Yamada. This is a real gem. A little boy gets an idea. It’s inconvenient and troublesome, but it won’t go away.
Why it’s great: Like The Giving Tree, this is one I want in my personal, grown-up library. A lovely parable with fantastic illustrations, kids can engage with it at multiple levels. Use it to start a conversation about nurturing ideas in school.
Craft extension: As with The Giving Tree, I would make this an ongoing one. Make a large paper gumball machine and cut out a bunch of construction paper circles (add crowns to them if you’re feeling ambitious). Or, if you have no space on your wall (a common problem in my schools), decorate a shoebox as an Idea Box. As the year went on, every time a kid had a random idea (“Why can’t we have jet packs?”), have them write it on a circle and add it to the machine. Take them down at the end of the year and read them.
Writing extension: Have kids write down and illustrate at least one great idea they’ve had. To help them think, offer the following categories: Something they thought to make or invent. Something they thought to do for someone else. Somewhere they thought to go (whether they went or not). Something they’d like to eat (especially if it’s adventurous).
The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires. A little girl who makes things has the most magnificent idea for a thing she can make! But it’s much harder than she expected. A wonderful semi-parable about failure, perseverance, quitting, and getting up again. And it’s light-hearted and cute to boot.
Why it’s great: This is one of my new favorites. It really breaks down the process of try, try again, and shows both the difficulty of continuing to try in the face of failure, and the final payoff. Very inspiring, but not in a facile way.
Craft idea and writing extension: I can’t do any better than Kriscia Cabral over at Scholastic. This is a great mini-unit.
That exhausts my personal store of back-to-school-picture-book ideas, although there are certainly many more out there. I’d love to hear what you did in the comments!