Learners and teachers: a few picture books for back-to-school reading

Back-to-school books might not be on school supply lists, but they can be very helpful for easing the dread and/or butterflies that come with the first day…and I’m not just talking about the kids.

First Day Jitters cover and catalog link

Take First Day Jitters. Sarah does NOT want to leave the safety of her bed for the first day at her new school. As her cat glares protectively, Sarah protests: I don’t know anybody! What if the kids don’t like me? But Mr. Hartwell isn’t having it and drives her to school… where the kind principal introduces her as “your new teacher, Mrs. Sarah Jane Hartwell.” Teachers (especially new ones) will commiserate, and many kids will find the punchline hilarious. Especially at that age when they still believe teachers live at school and a teacher-sighting at the grocery store is akin to spotting a Martian who eats chips and pop same as they do.

First Year Letters cover and catalog linkIf teachers have the intestinal fortitude, they can follow up with First Year Letters, in which we get dispatches from Mrs. Hartwell’s chaotic—er, busy—classroom via her students’ writing assignments. (“Dear Mrs. Hartwell, I’m sorry about throwing up all over your shoes. I hope you didn’t take it personally. I think I would have barfed over any teacher…well, except Mr. Murphy. He scares the barf right out of me.”) Some of the letters are deceptively innocuous—only the crowded illustrations reveal what really happened. (A local firefighter is a celebrated guest at birthday parties and science classes…guess why.) But Mrs. Hartwell’s headachy evenings ultimately pay off—according to her students and the principal, she’s passed her first year with flying colors. Danneberg is a teacher, and it shows.

Wemberly Worried cover and catalog linkStudents, too, have similar worries. Especially if they’re already prone to worrying whether the radiator has a snake inside it or a tree will fall on the house, like Wemberly, school breeds more—no matter what her rollerblading grandma says. But ultimately, her worries are unfounded once she gets there—the teacher points out another girl wearing stripes and carrying a worry-stuffed-animal, which is a good omen.

Chrysanthemum cover and catalog linkWemberly isn’t the only rodent with worries. Chrysanthemum has a long one: her name. Victoria always has something derisive to say, and the other girls threaten to pick and smell her. The teacher’s refrain is simply, “Thank you for sharing that, Victoria. Now put your head down.” Her erudite parents tell her not to worry—the other girls are just “discontented and jaundiced”—but macaroni and Parcheesi can only do so much as her father furtively peruses The Inner Mouse: Childhood Anxiety. The girls’ snickering so upsets Chrysanthemum that finally, she drags to school with every good luck charm she owns in her pockets. Only when their charming music teacher introduces herself—as Mrs. Delphinium Twinkle—does Chrysanthemum realize her name might be beautiful.

Chrysanthemum also, very subtly, shows teachers the importance of being an authority figure, especially when it comes to bullying. The students respect Mrs. Twinkle and would never make fun of her, so when she tells them her own floral name, Chrysanthemum’s becomes beautiful by association.

As the sign in Mrs. Hartwell’s classroom says, we’re all learners and teachers. Whichever you are, back-to-school books can be instructive. Even if your teacher is an alien, or you’ve been sent to teach unruly Earth kids while your interplanetary colleagues decide whether to flunk the planet. Good luck with the new school year, and I hope aliens don’t eat your homework.

About Amy

Children's librarian, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
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