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Back-to-school reading

The books recommended below were published within the last several years. Grade levels are only suggestions; the individual child is the real criterion.

Picture books

Suggested grade level listed with each entry

Bailey written and illus. by Harry Bliss (Scholastic)
Bailey loves school. Then again, he’s the only dog at Champlain Elementary. Straightforward sentences tell a day-in-the-life story while pithy speech and thought bubbles bring on the giggles. Grade level: K–3. 32 pages.

Miss Brooks Loves Books! (and I don’t) written by Barbara Bottner; illus. by Michael Emberley (Knopf)
A first grader finds her librarian’s passion for books “vexing” and her classmates’ reading selections lacking. But when her mother brings out Shrek! she finally meets a book she can love. Grade level: K–3. 32 pages.

Marco Goes to School written and illus. by Roz Chast (Atheneum)
Marco, a little red bird, is enthusiastic about school. But the day’s lesson lulls him into a daydream, and he decides to visit the moon. His plan, involving a block tower and the assistance of his new classmates, doesn’t quite work out, but Marco is unsquelched. Grade level: K–3. 32 pages.

A Gold Star for Zog written by Julia Donaldson; illus. by Axel Scheffler (Scholastic/Levine)
Just as Zog fears he’s about to fail his capture-a-princess test at dragon school, his human friend reveals that she’s a princess. The rhyming text shows how the friendship between Zog and Princess Pearl comes to benefit them both. Grade level: PS. 32 pages.

Kate and Nate Are Running Late! written by Kate Egan; illus. by Dan Yaccarino (Feiwel)
Single mom Kate is deep asleep. “‘It’s getting late,’ announces [son] Nate.” Retro art and singsongy rhyme heighten the urgency with every page turn. Kate and her two children scramble to get to work and school — then the book reveals its groaner punch line: it’s Saturday. Grade level: PS. 40 pages.

Hornbooks and Inkwells written by Verla Kay; illus. by S.D. Schindler (Putnam)
Brief quatrains and lively, detailed illustrations evoke a mid-eighteenth-century one-room school. The school year passes with a sampling of lessons (written on birchbark) and recess (playing marbles, ice skating). Grade level: K–3. 32 pages.

Follow the Line to School written and illus. by Laura Lungkvist (Viking)
Trace a continuous line as it meanders through classrooms, cafeteria, and playground. The text’s direct questions (i.e., “What colors are the jump ropes?”) are easily answered by looking closely at the art. Grade level: PS. 32 pages.

Eddie Gets Ready for School written and illus. by David Milgrim (Scholastic/Cartwheel)
Eddie has a “checklist for getting ready all by myself”: “wake up” (Eddie wakes his parents with a megaphone), “wash up” (scuba mask required), “get dressed” (cape and underwear-on-head helmet). Eddie’s proud determination is economically conveyed in simple cartoon drawings. Grade level: PS. 32 pages.

The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School by Laura Murray; illus. by Mike Lowery (Putnam)
The Gingerbread Man springs out of the oven to find himself in an empty classroom. He journeys across the school to be reunited with the kids. Cartoon-panel illustrations imbue the cookie with personality. Grade level: K–3. 32 pages.

Oh No! Not Again!: (Or How I Built a Time Machine to Save History) (Or at Least My History Grade) written by Mac Barnett; illus. by Dan Santat (Hyperion/Disney)
After missing a question on her history test, our heroine builds a time machine. While she is changing history by painting caves in Belgium, two cave dudes steal the machine and do a little history-changing of their own. Bright illustrations play up the considerable humor. Grade level: K–3. 40 pages.

The Little Red Pen written by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel (Harcourt)
With a stack of papers to grade, Little Red Pen calls for help from her friends the stapler, scissors, etc.; their excuses mount up. After Little Red falls into the trash, though, the lazy office supplies rescue her. Grade level: K–3. 56 pages.

Homework written by Arthur Yorinks; illus. by Richard Egielski (Walker)
While Tony snoozes, his school supplies tackle his writing assignment; the problem is the abundance of desk-top know-it-alls. Expressive cartoons and spirited dialogue give each a personality befitting its function. Grade level: K–3. 32 pages.

Mom, It’s My First Day of Kindergarten! written and illus. by Hyewon Yum (Farrar/Foster)
A boy entering kindergarten looms large, while his mom appears small and blue (as in “sad”). Turns out she’s worried. Youngsters will giggle when she asks, “Will you be okay…you’re still so little” — the illustration shows a big, robust boy pulling his tiny mom along. Grade level: K–3. 40 pages.


Younger fiction

Suggested grade level listed with each entry

Violet Mackerel’s Natural Habitat written by Anna Branfod; illus. by Elanna Allen (Atheneum)
Violet, the baby of her family, has always felt a kinship with small things. She feels especially insignificant as her family focuses on her grumpy older sister’s science project. When Violet befriends a ladybug but accidentally kills it, the sisters come together in a surprising and authentic way. Grade level: 1–3. 110 pages.

Call Me Oklahoma! written and illus. by Miriam Glassman (Holiday)
Paige, determined to put a humiliating third-grade experience behind her for the new school year, decides that renaming herself Oklahoma — “a name with guts” — will help make her the bold person she wants to be. Her home and school life ring true in this funny, heartfelt book. Grade level: 1–3. 123 pages.

Princess Posey and the First Grade Parade written by Stephanie Greene; illus. by Stephanie Roth Sisson (Putnam)
First-grade teacher Miss Lee compliments Posey on her tutu, which Posey’s mom won’t let her wear to school. The next day Miss Lee invites students to wear their favorite clothes to express their individuality. Also recommended: sequel Princess Posey and the Perfect Present. Grade level: 1–3. 83 pages.

The Year of Billy Miller written and illus. by Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow)
Second grader Billy is having a tough year, getting off on the wrong foot with his new teacher and worrying he’s not smart enough for school. The novel’s four parts, peppered with early-elementary details, capture Billy’s nuanced relationships with his teacher, sister, and parents. Grade level: 1–3. 229 pages.

Invisible Inkling written by Emily Jenkins; illus. by Harry Bliss (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray)
Fourth grader Hank has an imaginary friend: an invisible, cranky “bandapat” named Inkling, whose attempts to help Hank with a bully go spectacularly wrong. A perfect choice for an early school year read-aloud: straightforward, zippy plot, likable characters, and believable family. Also recommended: sequels Dangerous Pumpkins and The Whoopie Pie War. Grade level: 1–3. 156 pages.

Fractions = Trouble! written by Claudia Mills; illus. by G. Brian Karas (Farrar)
A new tutor manages to make learning fractions painless for apprehensive third-grader Wilson. Helpful math explanations are integrated into the readable narrative, enhanced by warmly humorous pencil sketches. Grade level: 1–3. 116 pages.

Joe and Sparky Go to School written by Jamie Michalak; illus. by Frank Remkiewicz (Candlewick)
Giraffe Joe and Sparky the turtle, who live at Safari Land, take an unexpected field trip when they accidentally board a departing school bus. Limited but lively vocabulary, a large font, and carefully placed illustrations — all in a humorous, high-interest package — will make this a hit. Grade level: K–3. 42 pages.

Pearl and Wagner: Five Days Till Summer written by Kate McMullan; illus. by R. W. Alley (Penguin)
Pearl gets a glimpse of her future teacher and imagines the worst. (Fortunately, her fears turn out to be unfounded.) Engaging illustrations capture the myriad expressions on all the characters’ faces, and the text begins to bridge that territory between easy readers and chapter books. Grade level: K–3. 48 pages.

Kelsey Green, Reading Queen written by Claudia Mills; illus. by Rob Shepperson (Farrar/Ferguson)
Kelsey might be the reading queen of her third-grade class, but her throne is threatened when the principal announces a school-wide reading challenge. Kelsey discovers the difference between loving to read and loving to win in this first chapter book in a new series. Grade level: 1–3. 122 pages.

Clementine and the Spring Trip by Sara Pennypacker; illus. by Marla Frazee (Disney-Hyperion)
In her sixth humorous outing, Clementine faces big changes: her mother is pregnant, her class is going on a field trip, and new girl Olive is stealing some of her thunder. As Clementine solves the mystery of the class’s smelly bus, she also realizes a new student could be a new friend. Grade level: 1–3. 151 pages.


Intermediate fiction

Suggested grade level for each entry: 4–6

How Tia Lola Learned to Teach written and illus. by Julia Alvarez (Knopf)
Miguel and Juanita are adjusting to life in small-town Vermont without their father. Meanwhile, the principal asks Tía Lola to teach Spanish at school. Easy-to-understand Spanish phrases are sprinkled throughout. 135 pages.

Pickle: The (Formerly) Anonymous Prank Club of Fountain Point Middle School written by Kim Baker; illus. by Tim Probert (Roaring Brook)
Ben handpicks a crew for the P.T.A. (Prank and Trick Association). The elation everyone feels after a successful trick is balanced by the stress of keeping a secret, especially when pranks go awry. Lively text depicts an urban setting peopled with engaging characters of various ethnicities. 236 pages.

Troublemaker written by Andrew Clements; illus. by Mark Elliott (Atheneum)
In this fine school story, Clay can’t wait to tell his older brother Mitch — a troublemaker in his day — about his latest trip to the principal’s office. But Mitch has just gotten out of jail, and he doesn’t want Clay following in his footsteps. How does Clay go about reinventing himself? 143 pages.

We the Children by Andrew Clements; illus. by Adam Stower (Atheneum)
The school custodian presses a mysterious coin on sixth-grader Ben, then dies, leading Ben to investigate the plan to tear down his old school. This coastal New England–set mystery series opener is light, but there’s a lot of child appeal. 146 pages.

The Waffler by Gail Donovan (Dial)
Indecisive fourth grader Monty is dubbed “The Waffler” by his principal and gets in trouble after agreeing to be a reading buddy for multiple kindergartners at once. New friends and a pet rat help boost his self-esteem. A solidly realistic school and family story. 216 pages.

What’s Bugging Bailey Blecker? by Gail Donovan (Dutton)
Fifth-grader Bailey, a Maine islander, must not only cope with going to a new school on the mainland but also with the ferocious itchiness on her head: lice. A solidly realistic school story with lots of humor. 197 pages.

The Fabled Fifth Graders of Aesop Elementary School by Candace Fleming (Random/Schwartz & Wade)
Adventurer-turned-teacher Mr. Jupiter has agreed to stay on to teach the most dreaded students at Aesop Elementary. The escapade is told in connected short stories, each of which ends with a moral. 170 pages.

Remarkable by Lizzie K. Foley (Dial)
Everyone in the town of Remarkable is brilliant and talented, except for Jane. Ingeniously naughty twins get themselves kicked out of the School for the Remarkably Gifted and join Jane at the public school. 329 pages.

Planet Middle School by Nikki Grimes (Bloomsbury)
Twelve-year-old Joy is self-conscious about being considered a tomboy in middle school. Breezy prose poems explore changing relationships and individuality versus gender-role conformity. 155 pages.

Big Nate: In a Class by Himself written and illus. by Lincoln Peirce (HarperCollins/Harper)
Big Nate is convinced he’s destined for greatness — but he seems destined for trouble. Nate’s sarcastic-yet-optimistic voice and cartoons balance fast-paced hijinks and clever commentary on the monotony of school. 216 pages.

Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze written and illus. by Alan Silberberg (Simon/Aladdin)
Milo is starting seventh grade at a new school. He’s also beginning to deal with his mother’s death a few years earlier; slipped in among droll descriptions of everyday life and wry cartoons are poignant memories. 273 pages.

Drama written and illus. by Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic/Graphix)
Seventh-grader Callie loves musical theater, but she isn’t much of a singer, so she works as a set designer for the school drama club. Her second year on stage crew is fraught with drama, on and off the set. Telgemeier gets her middle-school characters just right. 238 pages.

Justin Case: School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters written by Rachel Vail; illus. by Matthew Cordell (Feiwel)
Justin shares his third-grade year in an illustrated diary of drop-dead funny observations. He reveals his endless worries but, predictably, third grade isn’t the disaster Justin imagines. 246 pages.

Rex Zero, the Great Pretender by Tim Wynne-Jones (Farrar)
Rex’s family moves (again) — just across town, but to a new school district. Rex pretends to go to his new school but shows up at his old one instead. This story of coping with growing up is told with intelligent humor. 215 pages.

B.U.G. (Big Ugly Guy) written by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple (Dutton)
School bullies make twelve-year-old Sammy’s days miserable; things begin to look up when he befriends a new student named Skink. When Skink is beaten by the same bullies, Sammy creates a golem to protect them. A likable tale with a clear and laudable message about friendship. 344 pages.

The Detention Club by David Yoo (HarperCollins/Baltzer + Bray)
Peter finds his elementary-school antics won’t cut it in middle school. His schemes to regain his social standing (e.g., getting popular kids in trouble, then befriending them in detention) take a toll on his academics. 300 pages.


Older fiction

Suggested grade level for each entry: 7 and up

Etiquette & Espionage [Finishing School] by Gail Carriger (Little, Brown)
In a parallel Victorian England, Sophronia is recruited by Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. Students aboard the academy dirigible learn the fine arts of espionage from a faculty boasting a werewolf and a vampire. 307 pages.

Ten Miles Past Normal by Frances O’Roark Dowell (Atheneum)
When Janie was little, she convinced her parents to start a goat farm. Now a ninth-grader, Janie narrates her first year in high school — including joining a jam band and interviewing aging civil rights activists — in her sure, smart, and sarcastic voice. 211 pages.

Pinned by Sharon Flake (Scholastic)
Ninth-grader Autumn is great at wrestling and cooking, but not reading.  Her classmate, Adonis, who was born without legs, manages the school wrestling team, and Autumn loves him despite his prickly superiority. Their distinctive alternating voices enhance the story’s complexity. 231 pages.

If I Ever Get Out of Here written and illus. by Eric Gansworth (Scholastic/Levine)
Lewis, a brainiac from the Tuscarora Indian Reservation, begins his second year in a mostly white  junior high. The arrival of newcomer George — who shares Lewis’s love of the Beatles — allows Lewis to make a friend and cope with the extreme bullying he faces. 360 pages.

My Big Mouth: 10 Songs I Wrote That Almost Got Me Killed written and illus. by Peter Hannan (Scholastic)
After his mother’s death, Davis Delaware’s new rock band, the Amazing Dweebs, gets him through his ninth-grade year. Davis’s lively first-person narrative is driven by dialogue, cartoons and doodles, and song lyrics. 235 pages.

Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard (Delacorte)
Alex tells of his classmate’s drowning and his own guilt. The characters’ relationships become increasingly complex as their identities — e.g., Alex’s as a “Good, Solid Kid” — get murkier. The buttoned-up boarding school setting makes the perfect backdrop to this tense story of secrets, lies, and manipulation. 185 pages.

Friends with Boys written and illus. by Faith Erin Hicks (Roaring Brook/First Second)
Maggie starts high school after having been homeschooled her entire life. Her mother — her only teacher and the only other female in her home — left the family the year before. Strong characters and excellent art give teens a (still rare in comics) girl’s slice of life. 222 pages.

Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg (Scholastic/Levine)
Rafe, sick of being the poster child for all things gay at his uber-liberal high school, reinvents himself as “openly straight” when he transfers to boarding school. Konigsberg slyly demonstrates how thoroughly assumptions of straightness are embedded in everyday interactions. 328 pages.

Griff Carver, Hallway Patrol by Jim Krieg (Penguin/Razorbill)
Griffin Carver, new boy at Rampart Middle School, joins the hallway patrol and exposes a fake-hall-pass production ring in this hilarious parody of the hard-boiled detective genre. 226 pages.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina (Candlewick)
At her new Queens high school, Piddy (short for Piedad) Sanchez gets word that someone she doesn’t even know has it in for her. As the bullying intensifies, so do Piddy’s fear and lack of self-worth. Is it easier to give up, or should she fight back? 261 pages.

Colin Fischer by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz (Razorbill/Penguin)
After a gun goes off in the cafeteria, Colin is convinced the cops suspect the wrong guy. He’s determined to find out who really brought the gun to school; having Asperger’s proves both help and hindrance to the young detective. 226 pages.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin’s Griffin)
Eleanor is the new girl in town, an ostracized, bullied “big girl”; Park is a skinny half-Korean townie who tries to stay out of the spotlight. After meeting on the school bus, the two slowly develop an intense relationship — authentic in its awkwardness and life-changing for them both. 328 pages.

Winger by Andrew Smith; illus. by Sam Bosma (Simon)
Ryan Dean plays rugby at Pine Mountain, a school for “the rich deviants of tomorrow.” At first Ryan Dean seems like a nice kid, but as he takes readers on a tour of circles of hellish boarding-school life, he becomes more and more like the “jerks” around him. 439 pages.

OCD, the Dude, and Me by Lauren Roedy Vaughn (Dial)
Journal entries, emails, and school essays document Danielle’s senior year. A protagonist with a wicked sense of humor and a barrel of insecurities, Danielle drops hints about a traumatic event in her past she is no longer able to ignore, but ultimately reaches a feel-good conclusion. 236 pages.

Absent by Katie Williams (Chronicle)
Paige dies during physics class and is stuck haunting her high school. When popular Kelsey speculates that Paige’s death was suicide, Paige possesses other students in order to dispute the rumor. A compelling blend of ghost story, mystery, and unconventional romance. 180 pages.



Suggested grade level listed with each entry

It’s Our Garden: From Seeds to Harvest in a School Garden written by George Ancona; photos by the author (Candlewick)
Full-color photographs and no-nonsense prose (perfect for new readers) chronicle a year in the life of an elementary school garden; students compost soil, water plants, raise butterflies, and sample edible delights. Grade level: K–3. 48 pages.

Katie Bircher About Katie Bircher

Katie Bircher, associate editor at The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MA in children's literature from Simmons College. She served as chair of the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee. Follow Katie on Twitter @lyraelle.

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