Backpack? Check. Crayons? Check. Positive attitude? Check. Having the right mentality when you set out for the first day of school is just as important as remembering to bring all your supplies. These books will ensure that students approach school with confidence and kindness and enter their new classrooms fully prepared for success.
First days don’t always go smoothly, as one girl discovers in Becoming Vanessa, a vibrant story about first-day jitters and feeling confident in new situations.
Vanessa carefully curates her own first-day outfit—a tutu, yellow feather boa, polka-dot leggings, shiny red shoes and a jaunty green beret—in the hopes that her new classmates will “tell right away that she [is] someone they should know.”
But Vanessa’s initial delight in her ensemble turns to dismay when her boa keeps shedding feathers, her shoes hurt and the student seated behind her complains that he can’t see past her hat. When she realizes that even her name makes her stand out, Vanessa wants to change that, too. “My name is Megan now,” she tells her teacher.
The next morning, Vanessa picks out a more Megan-ish outfit, until her mom tells her that Vanessa means metamorphosis. “I gave you a name that would help you become whoever you want to be,” she explains. Vanessa heads to school with newfound assurance in her outfit and her identity.
Author-illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s collage artwork is a visual feast that sizzles with color, pattern and movement. Vanessa’s school is full of lively and diverse characters with big, engaging facial expressions. Careful observers will enjoy noticing clever details in the illustrations, such as ledger paper used for the classroom rug and newsprint and dictionary pages for the desks.
Brantley-Newton also wonderfully incorporates the theme of metamorphosis throughout the book. One especially beautiful and touching full-page spread depicts Vanessa, who has gone to bed in tears, wrapped up in a patchwork quilt that strongly suggests a chrysalis, floating on a deep blue, star-filled background. Inspired by Brantley-Newton’s personal experiences, Becoming Vanessa is paced just right and squarely addresses real fears and emotions in a compelling, empowering way.
Norman’s First Day at Dino Day Care
It’s OK to feel shy, a young dinosaur named Norman learns in Norman’s First Day at Dino Day Care, a sweet saga with a delightful prehistoric setting guaranteed to appeal to the pre-K crowd.
Author-illustrator Sean Julian’s dinosaurs come in all shapes, sizes and colors, but Norman is among the smallest. The adorable yellowy orange fellow is so good at hiding that when he’s introduced, one of his classmates asks, “Is Norman an invisible dinosaur?” Norman’s kindly teacher, a purple pterodactyl named Miss Beak, reassures him that his shyness “is a special part of who you are” and adds that the afternoon’s group activity will allow everyone to “discover what other amazing qualities you have hidden inside.” Norman’s partner, a large pink dinosaur named Jake, feels just as shy as Norman, but together they devise a creative way to overcome their fears.
The day care setting will show young children what a warm and welcoming place school can be. Readers will delight in finding Norman’s many hiding spots. (Hint: Norman’s tiny tail often gives away his location.) Julian’s dinosaurs are cute and friendly, and Miss Beak is exactly the sort of teacher every parent and new student would hope for.
Norman’s First Day at Dino Day Care is a much-needed rejoinder to the well-intentioned advice “don’t be shy.” This gentle tale suggests an alternative approach: learning to recognize and accept who you are, while also discovering how to use those qualities to be part of a team.
I Can Help
Author Reem Faruqi’s exceptional I Can Help commands attention from its very first sentence: “Just when the leaves are thinking of changing colors to look like the spices Nana cooks with, school starts.”
Narrator Zahra explains that she enjoys helping Kyle, a classmate who excels at drawing and drumming but needs help reading and writing. Faruqi establishes their strong bond in a series of scenes brought to life by illustrator Mikela Prevost, who depicts them sharing cookies at recess and wonderfully mimicking each other’s facial expressions in the classroom. The vignettes exude youthful fun as well as Zahra’s pride in helping her friend.
But poison lurks in the background, in the form of classmates Tess and Ashley. Prevost introduces them in an expertly composed spread in which Zahra swings blissfully high into the treetops while Tess and Ashley denigrate Kyle below, calling him a “baby” and “weird.” Zahra overhears their words, which awaken her own “mean voice” and ultimately destroy her friendship with Kyle—even as she yearns to do the right thing.
One of this story’s many strengths is its authenticity. Zahra’s narration captures how easily we can be filled with unkind thoughts and conflicting emotions. Notably, the situation between Zahra and Kyle is never resolved, because Zahra’s family moves away, though she chooses a different path when a similar situation arises at her new school.
An author’s note reveals that I Can Help is based on an experience from Faruqi’s own childhood. “I regret my actions to this day,” she writes in a striking disclosure. In her own note, Prevost adds that her diagnosis of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis caused her peers to see her differently and that she is thankful to those who “risked looking ‘weird’” to help her. I Can Help is a memorable story about the rippling and lingering effects of cruelty and the redeeming power of kindness.
Henry at Home
Going to school can be tricky not just for the new student but also for the sibling left behind. In Henry at Home, a boy is completely gobsmacked to discover that his big sister and best buddy, Liza, is abandoning him to go to kindergarten. Henry is so angry that he stomps on Liza’s new crayons and roars after she hops on the school bus.
A wonderful sequence shows all the experiences the siblings have had together, including scaling the furniture, capturing imaginary leopards and getting haircuts and even flu shots together. Most of all, they enjoyed swinging and relaxing at their gnarly Twisty Tree, bathed in sunlight and shades of green, gold and brown.
Author Megan Maynor uses crisp, precise prose to capture the passions of these young siblings. Readers will readily identify with the book’s cascade of emotions. Alea Marley’s luminous illustrations convey the creative play and the bond that Henry and Liza have shared, as well as Henry’s anger and Liza’s excitement. Her warm tones provide a sense of security and help readers understand how lonely and abandoned Henry feels when things change. The illustrations completely focus on the siblings and their world, pointedly depicting only the legs and feet of a few adults.
Henry gradually learns to have fun on his own, and soon he and Liza are back at their Twisty Tree, happily reunited. Henry at Home is an excellent reminder that precious relationships can survive great change and that independence can strengthen, not threaten, a special bond.