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Back-to-school books

Down South sometimes we do things a little differently… like starting back to school in early August. So while many a teacher is still enjoying their summer vacation until after Labor Day, my first day of school was a week ago.

To me, the first days of school are some of the richest times for the development of classroom culture. One easy way to help instill the character and traits you envision for your classroom community is by reading aloud picture books. Which led me to wonder, What are some of my favorite back-to-school books?

While every teacher has a few of these character-building books in their arsenal, these are some of my favorites for the first days of school:

ChrysanthemumChrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes
The story of a little mouse with a big name, this classic back-to-school tale reveals to students the power of words. As students arrive for their first day of Kindergarten, Henkes highlights through witty dialogue the influence of others on the main character, Chrysanthemum’s, confidence. When the other animals start to make fun of Chrysanthemum’s name, she crumples and wilts. It is only after a kind music teacher praises her name, that Chrysanthemum begins to feel reinvigorated and proud of who she is. This is a great story to help highlight the power of kind and unkind words in your classroom, as well as the importance of having confidence in yourself.

The Rainbow FishThe Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister; translated by J. Alison James
Rainbow Fish is not like the other fish. He has beautiful, sparkly fins that are highlighted through the addition of iridescent foil scales by Pfister. Rainbow Fish is also lonely and selfish. It is not until he begins to share his scales that he discovers the power of sharing and friendship. Students are typically immediately drawn in by the eye-catching sparkle of this book’s illustrations. When reading comes to a close, however, they are also able to discuss strategies for making friends and how to build relationships with their peers.

Green Eggs and HamGreen Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss
At first, this silly, easy reader might seem like an odd choice for culture building. I’ve found, however, that the easy plotline of this tale allows students to understand the benefit of trying something new. Dr. Seuss’ ability to draw students in through his funny rhyming scheme immediately captures students. As the readers witness I-am-Sam’s relentless attempts to get the main character to try green eggs and ham, they can also be introduced to the idea of bravery. In school students will be asked to take on challenging tasks that often they have never been exposed to, however, just like in Green Eggs and Ham, they might also find that sometimes they like new things.

Leo the Late BloomerLeo the Late Bloomer by Robert Kraus; illustrated by Jose Aruego
This simple story tells the tale of Leo, a small lion who struggles to complete the same tasks as his animal peers. While they can read, write and eat neatly. Leo cannot. His father becomes concerned, yet Leo’s mother remains confident that Leo will complete these tasks in his own time. By the end of story Leo has “bloomed!” and is able to keep up with his animal friends. The bright illustrations of this story engage students, as does the relatable story line. Ultimately students are able to walk away able to discuss ideas of persistence and grit.

Editor’s note: for more back-to-school books, check out Martha’s piece in our August Notes from the Horn Book, our free monthly newsletter for parents and teachers.


Whitney Raser About Whitney Raser

Whitney Raser is an ELA Curriculum Specialist at KIPP Academy Boston—a charter school in Mattapan, Massachusetts. She is particularly interested in the acquisition of language and literacy in early childhood settings, specifically those located in lower-income environments and special education settings.



  1. Lesley Colabucci says:

    I know these books are popular and I certainly consider three of them classic (Leo, Chrysanthemum, and Green Eggs). I’m also always surprised by how long they are. I gave up reading Chysanthemum on the first day of school a while back now. I love it but Henkes has so many other books to pull from. I think I’m starting the year with “More than Anything Else” by Marie Bradby. It has a great focus on literacy and shares some of the same romanticism of these “beloved” type books while being multicultural and posing great questions regarding genre and quality. This is also not the newest book but it’s a step in the right direction in presenting readers with the best and newest books – and ones that have the potential to broaden reader’s perspectives. . Another newer book that come to mind are “Each Kindness,” by Jacqueline Woodson, which won so many awards last year.

  2. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Is Miss Bindergarten still big in Kindergarten classes? There’s also that great Rosemary Wells book about starting Kindergarten from about 10 years ago. I’d love to know whether kids retain interest in these first-day-of-school books once the year is underway? Lesley, thanks for keeping us up to date — and be sure to check out Martha’s list of brand-new books that are good for starting school. (link above here, at the bottom of Whitney’s post)

  3. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Oooh — almost forgot Hyewon Yum’s 2012 book: Mom, It’s My First Day of Kindergarten.

  4. Jane Dorfman says:

    Nice first day books, with exception of Rainbow Fish. It always seems more about buying friendship that real friendship.–J.D.

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