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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

A Back-to-School Book List for the Ages

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There is a unique and palpable energy around back-to-school season. For some, it’s the beginning of something brand-new and unexplored; for others, it’s a time for reinvention and much anticipated milestones. No matter what the emotions surrounding a new school year, one thing is for sure: No kid is alone in how he or she is feeling.

This list of children’s books has been curated from both classic and contemporary literature to reflect a variety of school-related themes. Children’s book creators, who often make the books they wish they themselves had when they were kids, use a wealth of memories they’ve stored from their own school experiences to craft their stories. In doing so, they remind us of an essential life lesson: The most important part of school is discovering who you are, one grade at a time.

Woodson perfectly captures that feeling of walking into a room on the first day of school and realizing that “no one there is quite like you.” Whether it’s because of your hair or the packed lunch you brought or the summer vacations you didn’t go on, a new classroom can seem like the loneliest place on earth. Through vibrant illustrations and language that speaks to each child’s deep desire to connect and be accepted, this book shows how “the world opens itself up a little wider to make some space for you.”

(Nancy Paulsen Books. $18.99. Ages 5 to 8.)

This duo of picture books celebrates the wonder that is the first day of kindergarten. The protagonists of these books fix their hair and brush their teeth, demolish a big breakfast and get their heights recorded as their parents look on with unabashed pride. With colorful illustrations that emanate joyful energy, these books are sure to build excitement for the realization of that important milestone.

(Nancy Paulsen Books. $17.99 each. Ages 3 to 6.)

By the Mekong River, a young boy wakes up with the sunrise, waits for the tide to come in and gets into his little open boat. He has never made this trip by himself before. Along the way he encounters crashing waves and heavy rain, unfamiliar sounds and staring eyes. When he finally reaches the shore where the water buffalo roam, he spots boats filled with fellow classmates. It’s his first day of school, and he got there all on his own.

(Make Me a World. $17.99. Ages 4 to 8.)

What is a school? Is it the kids? The classrooms? The hallways? Is it the teacher calling out, “Welcome!”? The questions asked and lessons learned? This beautiful book points out the many elements that make up a school, but — most important — it shines a light on the value of a supportive community every day of the year.

(Candlewick. $17.99. Ages 4 to 8.)

Unhei leaves Korea with a priceless gift from her grandmother: a wooden stamp carved with her name in Korean characters. On the school bus to her first day of school, multiple children purposefully mispronounce her name and make fun of her. When she gets to her classroom, she tells her classmates that she wants to choose a new name. Classmates help out by writing down suggestions on slips of paper and putting them in a name jar, but a new friend helps her remember that the best name of all is the one that tells a story.

(Knopf. $17.99. Ages 5 to 8.)


When Jenny Linsky, the shy black cat from New York City, is packed into a basket and put on a train heading to a boarding school in the country, she does not expect to meet Pickles, a rough-and-tumble fire cat with his own hook-and-ladder truck. When Pickles climbs into the fire engine and barrels toward Jenny, she decides school is no place for her and runs away. But when new friends teach her to stand up for herself, Jenny discovers she’s stronger than she thinks.

(The New York Review Children’s Collection. $14.95. Ages 3 to 7.)

In the third book in this delightful series, Dory is 6 years old and facing the biggest challenge of her life: learning to read. When she’s paired with George as her reading partner instead of Rosabelle (who, according to George, reads “big, thick boring old books”), Dory is determined that she is going to read as well as her best friend. Funny and silly illustrations on every page add to the hilarity of Dory’s epic adventures.

(Puffin. Paper, $7.99. Ages 6 to 8.)

Life is complicated for Gavin, who’s about to enter third grade. His family has just moved to a different neighborhood, and when he tries to impress a new friend things go terribly wrong. His punishment? Walking his great-aunt’s annoying, pink-clad Pomeranian, which attracts the attention of the school bully. When the dog goes missing, however, Gavin rises to the occasion and shows everyone what he’s made of.

(Clarion. $14.99. Ages 6 to 9.)

Stella Díaz can’t wait to meet the new student who will be joining her third-grade class. But when introductions go awry, she’s so mortified she avoids him as much as possible. She’s also teased for accidentally speaking in Spanish instead of English and for being so quiet. In order for Stella to communicate what she has to say, she needs to find the courage to use her voice.

(Roaring Brook. $17.99. Ages 6 to 9.)

Zayd Saleem wants to be a fourth-grade basketball star, but his parents would rather he play the violin. When it’s time for basketball tryouts, Zayd will do whatever it takes to get on the gold team.

(Salaam Reads. $16.99. Ages 7 to 10.)


Set in the dusty Mississippi farmland of the 1930s, this novel begins with Cassie Logan and her siblings wearing their Sunday outfits, having promised their Mama they will make a good impression on the first day of school. It’s not so easy to keep church clothes clean when they have to walk miles to Great Faith Elementary and Secondary School, especially when the bus driver of the white students purposefully speeds up as he passes them, shaking red dust all over their clothes. Generations of young people have fallen in love with the Logan family since the book was first published in 1976, and its enduring themes will continue to resonate with generations to come.

(Dial. $19.99. Ages 8 to 12.)

For 12-year-old Malú, middle school could not be off to a worse start. She’s attending a new school in a new city and living away from her dad for the first time. On the first day of school, Malú gets a dress code infraction, makes enemies of the popular girls and sits alone in the cafeteria during lunch. She tries to remember her dad’s cardinal rule of punk: “Always be yourself.” But being yourself isn’t easy, and Malú has to figure out if it’s worth standing out when everyone else wants her to blend in.

(Viking. $17.99. Ages 8 to 12.)

Training to be a squire is tough, but nowhere near as tough as starting middle school. Home-schooled her whole life while helping her parents work at the Renaissance Faire, Imogene heads to public school and gets absorbed into a friend group that seems nice … at first. Things quickly unravel as Imogene tries harder and harder to fit in. Funny, heartfelt and true to life, this graphic novel is about making mistakes, asking forgiveness and starting over again, important life lessons no matter what age you are.

(Dial. Paper, $12.99. Ages 8 to 12.)

In 1954, President Eisenhower signed Public Law 588, which terminated many tribes and bands of Indians in western Oregon. When 10-year-old Regina Petit and her family find themselves stripped of their tribe, they head to Los Angeles as part of the federal government’s Indian Relocation program. Having known only her two-room schoolhouse on the Grand Ronde tribes’ reservation, Regina must adjust to a new school, where she meets kids of other races for the first time while finding out what it means to be “Indian No More.”

(Tu Books. $18.95. Ages 9 to 12.)

Joseph Friedman’s main goals for seventh grade are to avoid the school bully, Charlie Kastner; hide out in the resource room as much as possible; and be invisible during phys ed. When he surprises himself by joining the school track team at the urging of a beloved teacher, his social standing initially plummets further. But as the season progresses, Joseph discovers that being on a team is more than just running in tiny, slippery uniforms. It’s about friendship and having one another’s backs.

(Abrams. $16.99. Ages 8 to 12.)

Karina Yan Glaser’s “The Vanderbeekers on the Road,” the sixth book in her Vanderbeekers series, will be published later this month.

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