What better way to mark the start of the school year than by reading about school? Four new books for elementary-age kids (two picture books and two chapter books) all involve classroom adventures, whether the setting is a one-room schoolhouse, the protagonist is a baked good, or the lessons learned reach beyond report cards.
For young history buffs, here’s a picture-book portrait of a mid-eighteenth-century one-room school. In Hornbooks and Inkwells by Verla Kay, brief staccato quatrains set the scene and tell the story: “Sternly standing, Master greets, / Pairs of children, taking seats.” The school year passes with a sampling of lessons (written on birchbark) and recess (stilts, marbles, ice skating). S. D. Schindler’s lively illustrations evoke the period with such details as dress, the school’s minimal appurtenances, and students helping one another learn. (5–8 years)
Laura Murray transposes a classic folktale to a modern setting in a very funny and fun-to-read-aloud picture book, The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School. When this Gingerbread Man eagerly springs out of the oven, he finds himself in an empty classroom (the children are at recess). The cookie, thinking he’s been abandoned, embarks on a voyage through the school to be reunited with the kids. Mike Lowery’s cartoon-panel mixed-media illustrations imbue the highly sympathetic, wide-eyed confection with an abundance of personality. A pullout classroom poster with games, activities, and a recipe on one side and a full-color image of the protagonist on the other is included. (5–8 years)
In Clementine and the Family Meeting, the latest entry in Sara Pennypacker’s fine series of chapter books, our irrepressible narrator learns that there will be a new baby in the house. Clementine’s reaction is less than enthusiastic. “Our family is four. There are four sides to a puzzle so we can all work on it at once…Four is the perfect number for a family!” Through an unexpected outcome of a science project at school and with her father’s reassurance that it’s OK to be ambivalent about change, Clementine begins to come around. Marla Frazee’s amusing pencil sketches capture Clementine’s inimitable spirit as well as her growing maturity — she’s going to make a great big sister to the baby. (6–9 years)
Third-grader Wilson Williams struggled through his multiplication tables in Claudia Mills’s now-classic chapter book, 7 x 9 = Trouble!; here, well, Fractions = Trouble! Despite his apprehensions, a new tutor manages to make learning fractions painless (combining Wilson’s love of drawing and hamsters), and it turns out that he’s not the only kid in the world who needs help (his best friend Josh has trouble with spelling). Mills seamlessly incorporates helpful math explanations into her highly readable narrative, enhanced by G. Brian Karas’s warmly humorous pencil sketches. (6–9 years)
—Martha V. Parravano