School 101

From first-day-of-school jitters to conquering kindergarten, the talent show, and more, these picture books are as entertaining as they are reassuring to young readers just beginning their educational journey.

The Queen of Kindergarten
by Derrick Barnes; illus. by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Preschool, Primary    Paulsen/Penguin    32 pp.    g
5/22    978-0-593-11142-0    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-11143-7    $10.99

This companion to The King of Kindergarten (rev. 9/19) stars MJ Malone, all ready to go in her first-day-of-school outfit (polka dots, denim, and stripes), with rainbow-colored hair bands on freshly done braids, and her mom’s sparkly tiara: “I wore this on my first day of school…But today — you will become the Queen of Kindergarten.” According to MJ’s conversational first-person text, queenly behaviors include: kindness, caring, and helpfulness, all traits that she displays throughout the school day. More outgoing and self-confident than some of her classmates, MJ gives a new friend a comforting hand-squeeze, helps tidy up the classroom — shown in Brantley-Newton’s friendly, colorful, textured illustrations as a most appealing, child-centric place to be — and chooses a familiar storytime read-aloud about “a boy getting a royal haircut” (Barnes’s Crown, rev. 11/17). Back at home, MJ shares her “perfect” first day with her loving family members, eager to hear all about it, and then she gets ready for bed — still sporting the tiara. There’s no royal drama; from beginning to end, this matter-of-factly reassuring first-day-of-kindergarten story depicts a supportive family, a self-confident protagonist, an expert teacher, and new friends — all set to have a great school year. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

John’s Turn
by Mac Barnett; illus. by Kate Berube
Primary    Candlewick    32 pp.    g
3/22    978-1-5362-0395-0    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5362-2676-8    $17.99

Barnett and Berube offer a sensitive story about a boy grappling with stage fright and insecurity. The main character, John, walks into the narrative on the front endpaper carrying a duffle bag, his shoulders slumped and his eyes downcast. A page-turn welcomes readers into a busy school auditorium where breakfast is ending and children are beginning to sit in front of a stage. An unnamed narrator explains the school’s weekly Sharing Gifts assembly and notes John’s anxiety: “He was quiet at breakfast. We knew why.” Barnett’s use of “we” builds a sense of intimacy, reinforced by Berube’s warm ink and paint illustrations depicting students with many different skin tones, hair types and textures, and affects. The pace slows and suspense builds over a number of pages that show John suiting up in his ballet leotard and contemplating what he is about to face. A double-page spread puts readers onstage with the boy looking out at students who are distracted and whispering. Then Berube’s illustrations burst into motion in a series of wordless spreads as John begins dancing. He’s absorbed in his joy, and his classmates — and readers — become as enraptured as he is. Barnett and Berube bring mastery of craft as well as an understanding of human nature to offer a fresh take on a familiar theme. ADRIENNE L. PETTINELLI

Puppy Bus
by Drew Brockington; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Abrams    40 pp.    g
7/22    978-1-4197-5191-2    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-64700-701-0    $15.54

Heading to the first day at a new school, this story’s young narrator boards the bus looking glum and apprehensive. Typical concerns about different teachers and friends are quickly overshadowed by a more immediate problem: “I’m on the wrong bus! AUGHHH!!!” And that’s not the only issue: this bus is filled with puppies instead of children, and the oblivious (human) driver drops everyone off at puppy school. The ridiculous canine twist addresses familiar new-kid/first-day anxieties and insecurities with humor and understanding. The narrator’s remark that “everything about this school is strange and different” will resonate with anyone who’s been in a similarly disorienting situation. Brockington’s spirited cartoonlike art is in on the joke: there’s the all-dog cast’s speech bubbles (“Woof + Woof = ?”), dog food for lunch (“disgusting”), and a fire hydrant instead of a toilet in the bathroom stall. When things seem the most hopeless for our protagonist, a few friendly (furry) faces and recess help make puppy school more welcoming. “Maybe this school isn’t so bad after all.” And hopefully that’s what young readers embarking on new adventures will carry with them. Also, make sure you’re on the right bus. KITTY FLYNN

Field Trip to Volcano Island
by John Hare; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Ferguson/Holiday    40 pp.    g
2/22    978-0-8234-5042-8    $19.99
e-book ed.  978-0-8234-5280-4    $11.99

Hare’s (Field Trip to the Moon, rev. 9/19; Field Trip to the Ocean Deep, rev. 9/20) third wordless excursion brings us to a volcanically active island. Once the lava suit–clad kids and their teacher land, they waste no time getting right to exploring the tumultuous topography; however, one student seems more interested in collecting flowers than examining the terrain. When a breeze scatters the student’s floral collection down into the volcano’s crater, an ill-advised attempt at retrieval leaves the child stranded at the bottom — reinforced visually by a series of tall, narrow panels. A thrilling sequence follows, featuring a monstrous hand reaching toward the unsuspecting child…thankfully revealed (upon the page-turn) to belong to a charming lava monster with its family. In an action movie–level rescue, the teacher rappels from a helicopter to scoop up the missing student. The adventure stays in constant motion, propelled by brisk pacing and varied panel layouts. Hare’s acrylic illustrations are textural and dynamic yet maintain a cartoonlike quality, thanks to solid character outlines and expressive body language. Fans of this robust, whimsical world of student-adventurers can only wonder — where to next? PATRICK GALL

Tomatoes in My Lunchbox
by Costantia Manoli; illus. by Magdalena Mora
Primary    Roaring Brook    32 pp.    g
6/22    978-1-250-76312-9    $18.99

“There is a whole world in my name. I carry it with me. It’s heavy carrying your whole world around with you all the time.” After the young narrator leaves home for life in a new country far away, her once-beautiful name morphs into something ugly when her teacher tries to pronounce it at school roll call. Her name — soft, comforting, and reminiscent of her beloved grandmother — becomes “strange,” “sharp,” or, worse, “like something breaking.” Adding to her feeling of foreignness: no one else’s school lunch contains a large tomato to be eaten whole. Eventually, the narrator and another girl bond over their shared love of the color yellow and become friends. Soon she has a circle of friends who have learned to pronounce her name so that it “sounds like home.” Double-page spreads in ink, pastel, and crayon highlight the initial contrasts between the narrator’s old home and her new one. Illustrations focus on food and family, the book’s visual metaphors for difference, while the color yellow becomes a visual through-line for the theme of connectedness. A comforting book for a child who may feel isolated due to an uncommon name, or for one feeling uprooted and adrift in a new place. An author’s note provides personal context. JULIE HAKIM AZZAM

Abdul’s Story
by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow; illus. by Tiffany Rose
Primary    Salaam/Simon    40 pp.    g
3/22    978-1-5344-6298-4    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-6299-1    $10.99

Gregarious Abdul loves to tell stories to his classmates — as long as he does not have to write them down. Letters are confusing, and figuring out how to spell words is frustrating. Not to mention that the books he reads at school do not feature people who look like him or the people in his neighborhood: “Some stories are for books, Abdul decided, but not his.” Then an author named Mr. Muhammad comes to visit his class. By encouraging the boy to focus on his ideas instead of on mechanics, Mr. Muhammad helps Abdul to unleash the writer inside of him. Abdul, who is Black and Muslim, is a relatable character not typically represented in similar narratives, and Mr. Muhammad, who is also Black, Muslim, and neurodivergent, offers encouragement as the caring adult who has learned to manage his own writing challenges. This is a story within a story, not just about the tales Abdul wants to write but also about his journey as a learner; exploring the topic of learning disabilities can be challenging, especially the social-emotional fallout for children who are struggling, but Thompkins-Bigelow accomplishes the task. Rose’s lively and colorful illustrations are eye-pleasing and showcase diversity. This is an engaging story that not only offers empowerment but also models understanding and acceptance of learning differences. MONIQUE HARRIS

by Young Vo; illus. by the author
Primary    Levine Querido    40 pp.    g
2/22    978-1-64614-110-4    $17.99

Dat, the young Asian protagonist of this involving picture book, has traveled far to reach his new country and is about to start his first day of school. His mother warns, “When people speak it will sound like gibberish,” and encourages him to listen and do the best he can. Dat eagerly dives in, but he is quickly overwhelmed by the constant barrage of incomprehensible babble “in his books and in the air.” In the schoolyard, he is surprised by one of his classmates, who is also taking a moment apart from the group. She grabs him by the hand and shows him how to seesaw and jump rope (the international language of child’s play!). Back in class, the interminable day drags on, but on the bus ride home, the girl ­reappears. She pulls out paper and markers, and they begin to draw together. Vo, who was himself a child refugee from Vietnam, does a brilliant job of conveying the disorientation and alienation that children face in these situations, and does so as much with his mixed-media and digital art as he does with his spare text. Dat is depicted as a vibrant, fully realized, full-color figure, who is thrust into a black-and-white world filled with exaggerated and sometimes surreal cartoon monsters. The “gibberish” appears as lengthy strings of emoji-like drawings, with each letter of the alphabet having a distinct icon. A creative and effective dramatization of the plight of new language learners. LUANN TOTH

Luli and the Language of Tea
by Andrea Wang; illus. by Hyewon Yum
Preschool    Porter/Holiday    40 pp.    g
5/22    978-0-8234-4614-8    $18.99

While adults attend an ESL class, their children go to a playroom next door. The room is full but quiet; no one speaks the same language, and all the kids play separately. On a recent visit, young Luli had drawn a picture about an idea she had, and today her backpack holds a ­thermos, a teapot, a tea canister, and some teacups. As Miss Hirokane watches, Luli puts some tea leaves in the pot and pours in the “steaming hot” water, her tongue sticking out in careful concentration. She calls “cha!” (Chinese for tea), and everyone responds with their own words for tea (each word is spelled out and printed phonetically). All gather at the table, where Luli pours tea into cups that get passed around. When there isn’t enough left for herself, the kids pass her empty cup around, each pouring in a little tea from their own. After tea it’s time for cookies, and with that, “the playroom was no longer quiet.” Tea drinking everywhere celebrates community and togetherness; Wang (Watercress, rev. 3/21) has cleverly re-created (and diversified) that ritual in a microcosm. Yum’s (Saturday Is Swimming Day, rev. 7/18) overhead view of the table shows smiling faces and varied skin tones, and her illustrations make clear that the Asian teacups with no handles are perfect for small hands — and safe (if it’s cool enough to hold, it’s cool enough to drink). An appended note describes tea drinking in the ten countries represented, including Iran, Kenya, and Chile, while teacups from each country decorate the endpapers. JENNIFER M. BRABANDER

From the July 2022 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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