New year, new possibilities

Starting a new school year—and especially starting school, period—can be nerve-wracking, but it also presents opportunities for new friendships and experiences. These lighthearted picture books validate first-day worries while also celebrating this significant moment.   

In The King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes, vignettes follow a boy through his first day of big-kid school. Dubbed the "King of Kindergarten" by his mother, the child rides the school bus (a "big yellow carriage") and has an awesome first day with his caring teacher and friendly classmates. Cheerful, reassuring text speaks directly to this child—and to all rising kindergartners. Vanessa Brantley-Newton's mixed-media illustrations burst with color, pattern, and texture, with the brown-skinned protagonist surrounded by warmth. (Penguin/Paulsen, 3–5 years)  

Mo Willems's pugnacious pigeon is unsurprisingly unexcited about starting school in The Pigeon HAS to Go to School! In direct-address text, the pigeon imagines worst-case scenarios, from the ridiculous ("What if I learn too much!?! My head might pop off") to the realistic ("What will the other birds think of me?"). Many children facing this milestone will relate to the pigeon's apprehension, though his histrionics are clearly demonstrated as such in both over-the-top text and restrained-until-they're-not illustrations. (Hyperion, 4–6 years)  

Pet tortoise Truman, the star of Truman by Jean Reidy, lives in the big city with "his Sarah." When Truman sees Sarah board the bus with a backpack (first telling him to be brave), he knows he will have to go after her. Thus begins his slow-moving journey…across the living room. The pair's affectionate relationship is the heart of this story paralleling a child's own first journey into the unknown that is school. Lucy Ruth Cummins's relaxed-line, mixed-media illustrations bring the family's cozy world to life. (Atheneum, 4–6 years)  

In John Hare's playful wordless book Field Trip to the Moon, a group of spacesuit-clad students arrives on the moon. One child finds a spot to draw behind a rock formation, then falls asleep and, in a comical series of images, wakes to discover that the class has departed. While awaiting rescue, the student is joined by moon creatures—with whom the child shares some crayons. This sly but easy-to-follow narrative is told through a well-paced mix of panels and spreads with effective pops of color. (Holiday/Ferguson, 4–6 years)     

From the September 2019 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Katie Bircher

Katie Bircher, formerly editor of The Horn Book Guide, is a freelance children’s and YA editor. She's also a former bookseller who holds an MA in children's literature from Simmons University. She served as chair of the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee. Follow Katie on Twitter @lyraelle.

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