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Essential back-to school stories

What will the new school year bring? Here are four fresh, age-appropriate, and accessible school stories that will please early-elementary readers.

In twenty very short, generously illustrated chapters, Rose Lagercrantz’s My Happy Life takes the essential matter of the early-elementary school years — best friends, weird curriculum (potato week?!), playground accidents — and recasts it in a fresh, sweet light. Heroine Dani is an individual without being too quirky, and the humor is gentle. This Swedish import’s open layout, with its plentiful white space, welcomes the new reader, as does the prose style: “[Ella] and Dani stuck together through wet and dry, sun and rain, thick and thin.” Eva Eriksson’s beautifully composed line drawings are full of personality and emotion. (Gecko, 6–8 years)

Kevin Henkes’s The Year of Billy Miller follows Billy through a challenging second-grade year: he gets off on the wrong foot with Ms. Silver; his seat isn’t next to his best friend; and he worries he might not be smart enough for school. The goings-on are peppered with early-elementary details — little sister Sal “helps” Billy with his bat diorama, bedecking it with glitter — giving both problems and solutions familiar resonance. A large typeface and frequent spot illustrations add to the book’s accessibility. This quiet novel takes aim squarely at the everyday difficulties of a specific segment of growing up and finds its mark with tender precision. (Greenwillow, 6–8 years)

Claudia Mills introduces a new series, Franklin School Friends, with Kelsey Green, Reading Queen. Kelsey may be the reading queen of her third grade class, but her throne is threatened when the principal announces a school-wide challenge: two thousand books read by the end of April, and he’ll shave off his beard. Mills explores her favorite subject — everyday life with a side of ethical examination — to good effect as Kelsey discovers the difference between loving to read and loving to win. In a considerable plus, Mills name-checks a number of classic chapter books so that Kelsey’s enthusiasm can be passed right along. Rob Shepperson provides frequent and age-appropriately casual illustrations. (Ferguson/Farrar, 6–8 years)

In The Waffler by Gail Donovan, fourth grader Monty is paralyzed by indecision: he’s dubbed “the Waffler” by the principal, and he gets in trouble with his teacher after agreeing to be the reading buddy for multiple kindergartners instead of choosing just one. But his friendships with the little kids and his new pals at the no-peanut lunch table (where he’s assigned to sit after not being able to make up his mind) help boost Monty’s self-esteem, and in the end he’s able to stand up for himself and his relaxed approach to life. Monty’s good spirit shines through in this solid school story. (Dial, 7–10 years)

From the September 2013 issue of Notes from the Horn Book. For more school stories for all ages, see our recommended back-to-school reading list.

Martha V. Parravano About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.

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