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The Next Great Book: A Backpackful of Back to School Books

Posted by on August 28, 2014.

Even though the whole concept of “Back To School” is somewhat distasteful to me since our summer felt like it lasted about two weeks, I’ll admit that I have read some pretty wonderful new books this season.

Some address what it is like to be at school for the first time, or what it is like to go back to school with a little trepidation. And a couple about the power of education, and the power of kindness and compassion in our classrooms.

And even one about a monster, who is a teacher. Or a teacher who is a monster. I’ll let you decide which.

And wait! There’s also the NEW Captain Underpants book that just landed in stores this week (Captain Underpants and the Tyrannical Retaliation of the Turbo Toilet 2000), and Raina Telgemeier’s follow-up to the beloved graphic novel Smile, called Sisters.

And, oh! there’s Kate DiCamillo’s newest series for emerging readers–Leroy Ninker Saddles Up. All right, so maybe this back to school thing isn’t SO bad.

1. Any Penderwicks fans in the house? I stumbled upon a small gem of a book that will capture your heart like the Penderwick family does. The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, by Dana Alison Levy, opens as four brothers are having their First Day photo snapped by one of their dads. There is complaining and pushing and the usual jostling between siblings. We get to start the new school year with each Fletcher boy–Sam the eldest, who is a cool soccer player but intrigued by tryouts for the school play; Jax, who worries about being as cool as his older brother; Eli, the brainiac who is starting a new school; and Frog, the baby brother starting kindergarten.

What Levy does so well is make the family mayhem and disorder, as well as the unconditional love and support the realm of any average American family–even though the boys are all adopted, are of varying ethnic backgrounds, and have two dads. And what the Fletcher boys learn over the course of the year is that identities can expand, friendships can evolve, and making mistakes is okay. This would make a great family read aloud, but will be gobbled up by kids in third, fourth, or fifth grades. I highly suspect that we will be seeing more of the Fletcher family in the future. (p.s. the fourth Penderwicks book, The Penderwicks In Spring, will be published in March!)

2. Just when the news feels like it can’t get more upsetting, we get a story like Malala’s– the young Pakistani woman who was driven to speak out for girls’ access to education, and then was shot by the Taliban on her way home from school in 2012. Her survival and continued activism has been the source of great media attention and we finally have her story recently rewritten (with the help of author Patricia McCormick) for young readers.

Malala’s story is important to every young American, especially to our girls, most of whom have no idea what would drive such a young person to such intense idealism. Paired together with a more concrete study of geopolitics and social history, I Am Malala‘s directness and passion will deliver a good old wallop of perspective.

3. Ever since R.J. Palacio’s Wonder landed on Vermont’s Dorothy Canfield Fisher school reading list, word spread like wildfire about the humanity this story portrayed. It went on to win the DCF award, and subsequently became the Humanities Council’s Vermont Reads book for 2014. It has gained a wide audience of young and old alike.

Palacio has pulled together a collection of 365 precepts, called 365 Days of Wonder, inspired by the book’s memorable fifth grade teacher, Mr. Browne, who taught to a different precept each month in his class. The inspirational quotes are mostly by famous people, but there are also some by actual schoolchildren. Interspersed with the quotes are emails and letters from various characters in the book. This is not meant to be digested in one sitting–its gifts need time to unfold slowly. It would make a lovely graduation gift, or provide thoughtful prompts in a classroom.

4. Planet Kindergarten by Sue Ganz-Schmitt is a lively addition to the back to school picture book genre. On “lift-off day” we are rocketed into space (in the family hatchback) and dock on Planet Kindergarten for high adventure. Of course, getting used to zero gravity is not easy. “Gravity works differently here. We have to try hard to stay in our seats. And our hands go up a lot.”

The tongue-in-cheek metaphor never tires, but our hero does, and finally decides to abort his mission and return home. Shane Prigmore’s retro Jetsons-style illustrations add the perfect touch. The cheerful exuberance of this picture book is sure to assuage any astronauts bound for similar missions.

5. And we’ve finally come to the picture book about the teacher. Or the monster.

Author/illustrator Peter Brown has created yet another clever tale for young ones. My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not.) addresses the age-old notion of the teacher as a scary, obstinate creature when behaviorally challenged Bobby gets his recess taken away for flying paper airplanes in class. When he bumps into Ms. Kirby in the park one day, they exchange small talk and by and by the teacher ends up making an airplane for him that takes an epic flight. As their interchange takes on a deeper quality, Ms. Kirby tends to look less and less like a monster, and more like a real woman. Back in the classroom, Ms. Kirby retains her human likeness, even when she roars and stomps and continues to frown upon paper airplanes in class.

And so, intrepid readers, welcome back to another school year. As Robin Williams ably conveyed to us all through his teaching roles, inspiration is one of the most essential ingredients for any meaningful education. Books like these are evidence of its fruit.

Jane Knight is the children’s book buyer at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, VT.

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