Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Elementary, My Dear Reader: Children's Books About the School Experience

My kids and I usher in the school year with a variety of emotions: Excitement and some trepidation for them, a bittersweet blend of melancholy and relief with a pinch of denial for me. (I can’t possibly be the mother of a third grader and a kindergartener!) Bookstores and libraries observe back-to-school season as well, displaying titles that build excitement and soothe fears about starting or restarting school. Think The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, Will I Have a Friend? by Miriam Cohen, Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come! by Nancy Carlson, and similar books.

Beyond general back-to-school themes, school-related children’s books address an assortment of surprisingly specific subjects. For elementary school kids, check out the following titles about various aspects of the school experience:

Reluctant Readers
Miss Malarkey Leaves No Reader Behind by Judy Finchler and Kevin O’Malley
This story is based on the premise that there’s a book out there for everyone and that given the right book, anyone will enjoy reading. While I don’t completely buy that premise (I hate to admit that in a blog about children’s books and literacy), I do recommend Miss Malarkey for competent readers who resist reading outside of school. The book’s first-person narrator opts out of his school’s reading program. Even the principal’s pledge to dye his hair purple and sleep on the school roof doesn’t entice the narrator to contribute to the school’s collective reading goal. None of Miss Malarkey’s reading suggestions hold the narrator’s attention until she hits upon a title that combines all of the boy’s interests. Reluctant readers will recognize themselves in the narrator and his friends, and might be persuaded to keep searching for a captivating book—particularly if you discuss this book with your child as you read.

Standardized Testing
The Big Test by Julie Danneberg
While part of me finds it sad that standardized testing has made its way into children’s literature, I applaud Danneberg (a teacher) for addressing the apprehension that often accompanies test week. Mrs. Hartwell’s class has worked hard and enjoyed learning all year. But as the Big Test approaches, a sense of dread pervades the classroom. Mrs. Hartwell’s well-meaning attempts to prepare her students “to show what you know” only add to the tension, and a few students become physically ill with anxiety. Deciding to change her lesson plan on the final day of test prep, Mrs. Hartwell makes a surprise move that gives her students the necessary confidence to face the Big Test. This book helps put standardized testing in context for elementary-aged readers and offers them practical ways to prepare for test week.

Behavior Issues
David Goes to School by David Shannon
Some kids learn classroom rules by listening quietly as the teacher recites them at the beginning of the school year. Others, like David, learn the rules by breaking them. For kids like David, who first appeared in the award-winning No, David!, there is nothing natural about sitting still, waiting silently before speaking, standing in line, or walking slowly down a long expanse of hallway. David Goes to School is a deceptively simple book with cartoon-like illustrations and text that is accessible to very early readers. But it’s a profound experience to identify with a character who doesn’t fit the mold, to find your differences validated within the pages of a book. My son, a "David" through and through, adored David Shannon’s books for their humorous and reassuring portrayals of high-spirited kids.

Learning Difficulties
Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco
Trisha is excited to start school and learn to read. But school gradually becomes torture for Trisha as her classmates master reading while she struggles to decipher the symbols on the page. Trisha feels different and dumb, especially after her beloved grandparents die and her family moves across the country. Then in fifth grade, a new teacher named Mr. Falker advocates for Trisha when other kids tease her and becomes the first person to recognize her learning difference. With help from Mr. Falker and a reading teacher he enlists, Trisha soon learns to read. Mr. Falker, the reading teacher, and Trisha all shed happy tears by the end of the book. I’ve yet to read it without getting choked up myself—especially on the final page where Polacco reveals that this story (like so many of her wonderful books) is autobiographical. I dare you to read about Polacco’s encounter with the real Mr. Falker thirty years later without feeling a tug at your heartstrings.


  1. Thanks for the nice review Kim.
    You might like 'Testing Miss Malarkey' as well.
    Kevin O'Malley

  2. Thanks, Kevin! I've heard it's difficult to get issue-related children's books published nowadays (as opposed to character-oriented narratives), so thanks all the more for your work. I enjoyed visiting your website and am posting the link here for other readers: