If the first day of school were a person, it might wear the t-shirt that says “I’m kind of a big deal.” This fall, especially, the first day of school (or first day back to school) is a big deal, after most schools moved to remote education in mid-March 2020, and some stayed largely remote until spring 2021.
This list on the topic of attending school for the first time, or attending a new school, includes books that focus on common fears and worries (and provide reassurance, and sometimes humor). Many books also have themes of inclusivity and kindness. A few books on the list are not specifically about the first day of school, but are thematically relevant.
Why am I posting this in July, with the start of school over a month away? Because kids are people, and people are different. Some kids do better with a lot of preparation; others would rather skip the anticipation/worry and dive right in when the time comes. Public libraries are likely to have back-to-school displays, which may get picked over quickly. Request a handful of titles that look good to you now, and you won’t be scrambling the last week of August. (Or if nothing on this list appeals, ask your local library or bookstore staff for more recommendations!)
Oliver and His Alligator by Paul Schmid
Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes
Owen by Kevin Henkes
Chu’s First Day of School by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Adam Rex
Goose Goes to School by Laura Wall
We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins
Geraldine by Elizabeth Lilly
School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex, illustrated by Christian Robinson
All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman
The Class by Boni Ashburn, illustrated by Kimberly Gee
So Big by Mike Wohnoutka
The King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
On the Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Rafael López
A Small Kindness by Stacy McAnulty, illustrated by Wendy Leach
First Day of School by Anne Rockwell, illustrated by Lizzy Rockwell
Time for School (Tinyville Town) by Brian Biggs
Scarlet’s Tale by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Peter Jarvis
Danbi Leads the School Parade by Anna Kim
The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
Yoko by Rosemary Wells
Ways to Welcome by Linda Ashman, illustrated by Joey Chou
I Feel Teal by Lauren Rille, illustrated by Aimee Sicuro
Don’t Hug Doug by Carrie Finison, illustrated by Daniel Wiseman
I have been eagerly awaiting the new exhibit at the Carle Museum, “Speechless: The Art of Wordless Picture Books” (July 17-December 5, 2021), and today I got to go and hear guest curator (and Caldecott-winning wordless picture book creator) David Wiesner give a tour of the exhibit, from the earliest wordless picture book published in the U.S. (What Whiskers Did by Ruth Carroll) to some of the amazing work contemporary creators (Jerry Pinkney, Marla Frazee, Chris Raschka, Suzy Lee, Christian Robinson!) are doing now.
Wordless picture books taught me how to read pictures. Before wordless picture books, my visual literacy simply wasn’t very sophisticated: when reading comics, graphic novels, picture books, or any other format or medium that mixed text and visual art, I focused on the text, only glancing at the images or searching the art for information if the text was confusing. Wordless picture books forced me to slow down and absorb the story another way – by reading the pictures. As it said on the wall next to Tana Hoban’s photographs, “The more we look, the more we see.”
One of the first wordless picture books I read as an adult – and still one of my favorites – was Journey by Aaron Becker. Journey is the first in a trilogy (Quest and Return are the others, and equally entrancing). Becker’s art isn’t included in this exhibit, except on the timeline (see photos below), but plenty of other wonderful artists’ work is: Molly Bang, Peter Spier, Barbara Lehman, Shaun Tan, Peter Sis, Molly Idle, Raul Colon, Matthew Cordell, and others.
Together, the group discussed how wordless picture books can be wonderful springboards for English learners, and generate far more language between adult readers and child listeners than picture books with text, because both readers are using their imaginations to co-create meaning. The art and stories in wordless picture books are “put out there for any reader to respond how they want,” says Wiesner; wordless books release readers’ imagination. For adult readers who may be new to wordless picture books and wonder when to turn the page, Jerry Pinkney (Lion & Mouse) advises, “When you’re ready!”
Below, I’ve included pictures of the “Timeline of Notable Wordless Picture Books” from 1932 to the present. There’s also a helpful document on “Tips for Reading Wordless Picture Books” that was included in the exhibit.
Tonight in my #kidlit class (“Collections and Materials for Children”), we discussed two middle grade novels that featured homeschooled characters. I started building a list of others (see below), but I’m sure there are more out there. What did I miss? And what do you think of these portrayals of homeschool education in fiction?
Libraries, museums, and parks are all valuable resources that support lifelong learning for all ages. As a public librarian, I was always happy to see homeschool groups come in to use the library resources.
The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue (sequel: The Lotterys More or Less)
All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson (graphic novel)
Schooled by Gordon Korman
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy (the main characters are not homeschooled, but they have some friends who are)
For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington
Because of the Rabbit by Cynthia Lord
The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty
Sunny by Jason Reynolds (part of the Track series, but works as a standalone)
The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle by Christina Uss
Just Breathe by Cammie McGovern (decidedly YA and not MG!)
Those of us who do storytimes for little kids know that we shouldn’t expect them to sit quietly, hands folded in laps, listening ears on – not at all! The best storytimes I’ve attended or led incorporate movement, singing, and plenty of wiggling. (Directed movement is better than chaotic movement: one of the best tips I got when I was new to leading storytimes was that if things got rowdy, to sing “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” – with motions – because it’s soothing and works as a good reset. You can also sing any short rhyme three times: first regular, then loud, and finally very softly.)
Here are some picture books about music and dance that work for storytime or sharing one-on-one. Most are just right for the preschool set, with some fine for toddlers (PunkFarm, Pokko and the Drum) and others (The Piano Recital, Jingle Dancer) best for early elementary. They range from silly to poetic but all show an appreciation for music and the various ways of making it.
88 Instruments by Chris Barton, illus. Louis Thomas
Because by Mo Willems, illus. Amber Ren
We Will Rock Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins (sequel to the deservedly popular We Don’t Eat Our Classmates)
Pokko and the Drum by Matthew Forsythe
Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin! by Lloyd Moss, illus. Marjorie Priceman
The Orchestra Pit by Joanna Wright
Punk Farm by Jarrett J. Krosoczka (gives “Old MacDonald” a fresh treatment)
What A Wonderful World illustrated by Tim Hopgood (a picture book version of Bob Thiele and George Weiss’s song, popularized by Louis Armstrong; best for those confident in their singing voices, though of course you can read it without singing)
The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield
Music for Mister Moon by Philip and Erin Stead
The Piano Recital by Akiko Miyakoshi (translated from Japanese)
How Do You Dance? by Thyra Heder
Let’s Dance! By Valerie Bolling, illus. Maine Diaz
Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illus. Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (this one has more text and would likely sail over toddlers’ heads and test preschoolers’ patience, but it would be a great read-aloud for early elementary)
This isn’t an exhaustive list and I’m sure I’ve missed some great ones. What are your favorite picture books having to do with music or dance?
A few picture books we’ve read recently started me thinking about the theme of families. Once I started making a list, one book quickly led to another – and this is not an exhaustive list! Many of these books include grandparents and extended family; a couple include foster parents (Just Like A Mama and A Family Is A Family Is A Family); one explains “what makes a baby” in a way that includes all kinds of families; and many are multicultural and inter-generational.
I have a separate list of books about when new siblings are added to a family, which I’ll share in a future post.
How families get started…
What Makes A Baby by Corey Silverberg, illus. Fiona Smyth
Nine Months by Miranda Paul, illus. Jason Chin
Grandma’s Tiny House by JaNay Brown-Wood, illus. Priscilla Burris
Maud and Grand-Maud by Sara O’Leary, illus. Kenard Pak
Between Us and Abuela by Mitali Perkins, illus. Sara Palacios
I Dream of Popo by Livia Blackburne, illus. Julia Kuo
A Morning with Grandpa by Sylvia Liu, illus. Christina Forshay
Drawn Together by Minh Lȇ, illus. Dan Santat
Mango, Abuela, and Me by Meg Medina, illus. Angela Dominguez
Just in Case by Yuyi Morales
Yoko’s Paper Cranes by Rosemary Wells
The Button Box by Margarette S. Reid, illus. Sarah Chamberlain
Saturday by Oge Mora
Pecan Pie Baby by Jacqueline Woodson, illus. Sophie Blackall
City Moon by Rachael Cole, illus. Blanca Gomez
Me & Mama by Cozbi A. Cabrera
Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall
Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry, illus. Vashti Harrison
The Blue House by Phoebe Wahl
A Family Is A Family Is A Family by Sara O’Leary, illus. Qin Leng
Home Is In Between by Mitali Perkins, illus. Lavanya Naidu
When We Are Kind by Monique Gray Smith, illus. Nicole Neidhardt
Just Like A Mama by Alice Faye Duncan, illus. Charnelle Pinkney Barlow
All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah by Emily Jenkins, illus. Paul O. Zelinsky
Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang, illus. Charlene Chua
A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams (1983 Caldecott Honor)
Early readers/beginning chapter books
Meet Yasmin by Saadia Faruqi, illus. Hatem Ali
Charlie & Mouse & Grumpy by Laurel Snyder, illus. Emily Hughes
I hope you discover something new on this list that you come to love and share. And please, feel free to add your favorite family books in the comments!
Recently, a friend asked in a group text for books on helping kids identify and name feelings. We came up with several titles in our group, and I reached out to a couple of librarian friends for more suggestions of social-emotional learning (SEL) books. Kids experience all kinds of Big Feelings, and being able to identify and name them is an important skill. Books in the first category below cover a broad range of feelings; books in the second category focus particularly on feelings that can be overwhelming, like fear, anger, and sadness, and many offer strategies to manage these strong emotions. Finally, there are a couple of nonfiction titles. If there’s a book you think belongs on one of these lists, please add it in the comments!
A range of feelings
Happy Hippo, Angry Duck: A Book of Moods by Sandra Boynton: This simple board book is great for babies and up – really exaggerate your facial expressions and tone of voice as you read.
The Way I Feel by Janan Cain: This also comes in board book format; it identifies and describes a number of key feelings
The Feelings Book by Todd Parr: Feelings are always changing – share them with someone you love.
The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld: When a child’s magnificent tower of blocks collapses, they don’t want to talk about it, or ruin someone else’s, or rebuild it just the same – they just want to be listened to.
I Feel Teal by Lauren Rille and Aimée Sicuro: A girl’s moods are rendered in different colors over the course of the day; the text encourages readers to let all their feelings through – “they’re the palette that makes you YOU.” (A librarian friend recommends My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss and The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh by Supriya Kelkar, both of which likewise pair colors and feelings.)
The Color Monster by Anna Llenas: A little girl takes a monster by the hand and helps it identify its feelings, leading to a feeling of contentment.
In My Heart: A Book of Feelings by Jo Witek: Readers enter a little girl’s heart through these heart-shaped die-cut pages, where each page turn reveals a different emotion inside.
Wild Feelings by David Milgrim: “Do you ever feel _____? …Of course you do. Everyone does.” Both kids and grown-ups experience the whole spectrum of feelings.
When We Are Kind by Monique Gray Smith: On each page spread, the author shows a different act, and how it makes the people involved feel. The text includes questions, encouraging discussion.
Random House Book of Poetry for Children, edited by Jack Prelutsky: Sometimes poems use fewer words to say more. This collection has plenty of funny, goofy, nonsense poems, but covers most feelings too.
Grumpy Pants by Claire Messer: A grumpy penguin figures out how to wash away a persistent case of the grumps. (For a slightly longer picture book on the same topic, try Sophy Henn’s Pom Pom Panda Gets the Grumps.)
The Bad Mood and the Stick by Lemony Snicket: Illustrates how a bad mood can move from one person to another through the way that people treat each other.
Swarm of Bees by Lemony Snicket: The swarm of bees represent anger; a beekeeper calms them down.
Ruby Finds A Worry by Tom Percival: The worry starts out as a little scribble, but as Ruby ignores it, it grows. It’s only when she sees another kid with their own worry and they talk about them that their worries shrink.
The Worrysaurus by Rachel Bright: A little worrysaurus goes into a worry spiral until he remembers his mom’s good advice and uses good coping tools to restore his equilibrium.
When Sadness Is At Your Door by Eva Eland: When a child opens the door to a large, amorphous, seafoam-green creature, it begins to follow them around. “Try not to be afraid of sadness. Give it a name. Listen to it. Ask where it comes from and what it needs.”
Dear Substitute by Audrey Vernick and Liz Garton Scanlon: A student is taken aback by the unexpected presence of a substitute teacher; throughout the day, she slowly adjusts to the change.
When Sophie Gets Angry – Really, Really Angry by Molly Bangs: Sophie does get really angry, her anger rendered in intense bright colors – but she takes herself out of the situation and calms down by herself, without help, before returning, demonstrating that it’s possible to feel Big Feelings and recover.
The Big Angry Roar by Jonny Lambert: A lion cub needs to let his anger out, but none of the other animals’ suggestions work at first. Finally, the strategy of taking deep breaths, counting to ten, and making funny faces puts the lion cub in a calmer frame of mind.
The Angry Little Puffin by Timothy Young: In this comical story, a puffin stuck in the penguin exhibit at the zoo is deeply annoyed – until a little girl spots him and tells her dad all about puffins, and how they are different from penguins. Just being seen and understood changes his mood completely.
Llama Llama Mad at Mama by Anna Dewdney: Mama Llama displays calm and patience in the face of Llama Llama’s drama. Her most powerful tool? Empathy. (She doesn’t want to do the grocery shopping, either!)
How Do Dinosaurs Say I’m Mad? by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague: The comically oversize dinosaurs offer young readers a chance to critique and learn from their behavior.
Tiger vs. Nightmare by Emily Tetri: This is a graphic novel for young readers about facing fears, with support and on their own.
How Do You Feel? by Lizzy Rockwell: After an initial spread showing several kids on a playground, the subsequent pages zoom in on each child’s expression and identify their emotion; the final endpaper shows expressions labeled with their emotion.
What Are Feelings? by Katie Daynes: This short, lift-the-flap book from Usborne lets readers explore happiness, sadness, fear, anger, and worry
All About Feelings by Felicity Brooks: This Usborne title goes a bit more in depth, explaining how to recognize, manage, and talk about feelings; it also includes a note for grown-ups.
It’s been a little while since I wrote about middle grade novels, which I continue to inhale because they are so good. Middle grade characters are at an age where they’ve got a little bit of independence, they’re figuring out their identities and their friendships and their feelings. They’re making mistakes, they’re learning, they’re having ideas, they’re testing boundaries. In short, middle grade is absolutely fascinating, and although publishing is still overwhelmingly white, it’s getting more diverse (and therefore more interesting) by the year. Reading fiction has always been one of my favorite ways to learn about history and about other cultures; I read nonfiction too, but it tends to be the stories in novels that stay with me. Here are a few recent (2019-2021) middle grade novels I’d love for more people to read:
Wash your hands and grab your aprons…
A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan: Pakistani-American Sara’s mom runs a cooking club at school, and that’s where Sara meets Elizabeth, who’s Jewish, and whose mother is also studying for the U.S. citizenship exam. The girls orchestrate a study group of two for their mothers, and become friends in the process.
Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte and Ann Xu: In this graphic novel, twelve-year-old Cici, who has just moved from Taiwan to Seattle, enters a cooking competition, but is unsure if she can win by cooking Taiwanese food.
From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks: After receiving a letter on her birthday from her father in prison, Zoe strikes up a secret correspondence with him, enabled by her grandmother, and decides she must clear his name – all while winning a baking competition, and (maybe) making up with her best friend next door.
Now put on your dancing shoes (or not)…
Lupe Wong Won’t Dance by Donna Barba Higuera: If “Chinacan/Mexinese” Lupe gets all As, she’ll get to meet her hero, pitcher Fu Li; but her A in P.E. is threatened when Coach announces that the next unit is…square dancing. Lupe goes on a campaign against it, roping her friends into helping her. Readers will see that it’s possible for kids like them to be activists and make change that’s meaningful to them. I did not get hooked immediately, but I kept going, and toward the end there was a part that made me laugh so hard I couldn’t talk for several minutes.
Merci Suárez Can’t Dance by Meg Medina: Anything new by Meg Medina is cause for celebration in my book, and Merci doesn’t disappoint. Adolescence keeps tossing Merci curveballs (“If I’m too young for it all, why is it happening anyway?”): her beloved grandfather Lolo has Alzheimer’s, her older brother is away at college, she’s stuck working in the school store with Wilson, and Edna Santos won’t shut up about the Heart Ball. Merci makes some big mistakes, but she still has the support of her family and friends.
On the road and Underground:
Clean Getaway by Nic Stone: Scoob’s dad cancels their vacation when Scoob gets in trouble at school, so when Scoob’s grandma swings by in a new RV, he hops in – and leaves his phone behind. But the road trip turns strange, with G’ma, who’s white, telling Scoob, who’s Black, about using the Green Book when traveling with his Black grandfather decades ago. Scoob learns some family truths before he returns home.
Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet by Zanib Mian: Middle child Omar introduces his British Muslim family in a funny, relatable way. Sketches accompany the story, which includes getting lost in the Underground on a field trip with only the school bully for company.
New York and New Jersey:
Katie the Catsitter by Colleen AF Venable: Katie’s two best friends go off to camp, leaving her stuck in sticky New York, so Katie tries to earn the money to join them for the last week of camp. She gets a sweet cat-sitting gig for an upstairs neighbor, but begins to wonder…is Madeleine actually the supervillain known as the Mousetress? Super fun; I read it in one sitting.
Like Vanessa by Tami Charles: Vanessa is elated when a Black woman is crowned Miss America for the first time, and a white teacher encourages her to participate in the first-ever Miss King Middle pageant, even though her skin is much darker than Miss America’s. Vanessa is skeptical, but Mrs. Walton isn’t the typical white savior, and she understands Vanessa better than Vanessa expects. Throughout, Vanessa writes in her diary, and works to solve the mystery of her mother’s absence.
The Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold: Ten-year-old Gabrielle’s parents send her from their home in Haiti to live with relatives in New York, where she promptly makes an ill-advised deal with a witch called Lady Lydia. Gabrielle’s new friends – a talking rat called Rocky and a Latina classmate called Carmen – help Gabrielle regain what she’s lost. Readers willing to go with the flow will love this magical book about identity, language, culture, and what it means to be American.
Historical fiction (1930s, 1970s):
Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk: When the Great Depression hit, Ellie and her family move from a town to a mountain in Maine; Ellie and her father take to it, but Ellie’s mother and older sister haven’t adapted as well, and when Ellie’s father is injured and lies in a coma, the burden falls on all of them. Ellie takes the initiative to explore and meet others on the mountain – some of whom are already connected to her family in surprising ways. This immersive book reminded me a bit of A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly.
Dawn Raid by Pauline Vaeluaga Smith: Thirteen-year-old Sofia’s diary entries show a dawning awareness of anti-Polynesian racism in Wellington, New Zealand. She writes about McDonalds and go-go boots, the Polynesian Panthers and dawn raids (police raiding Pacific Islanders they suspect are “overstayers,” though the 60% of overstayers who are white are never targeted), and eventually makes a speech at her school recounting her first-hand experience. A time and place rarely written about for the middle grade audience in the U.S.
Poetry/Novel in verse:
The One Thing You’d Save by Linda Sue Park: A teacher asks the class to think about the one thing they’d save in a fire (assuming people and pets are safe). The class muses, then shares; grayscale illustrations of their rooms and possessions accompany the modern Korean sijo poetic style.
Starfish by Lisa Fipps: Ellie doesn’t mind that she’s fat – she minds that almost everyone, including her own mother, bullies her for being fat. Luckily for Ellie, she has two good friends – one old, one new – and a skilled, kind therapist to help her realize a way forward in the world.
Pacific Northwest, Native American #OwnVoices:
The Sea in Winter by Christine Day: During a week of spring vacation in the Pacific Northwest, Maisie goes on a hiking trip with her family, but struggles with a healing ACL injury and with the idea that her dream future as a ballet dancer might not come to pass. Maisie’s family – mom, younger brother, and stepdad – are all Native American; both Maisie’s parents support her, gently explaining that “dreams change.”
Fantasy, Newbery Honor:
A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat: Is life fair, or unfair? Characters’ beliefs change in this dreamy yet fast-paced Les Miserables-inspired Thai fantasy novel. Pong, born in prison, and Nok, daughter of the warden, start out on opposite sides but move toward similar conclusions. Absolutely original, hard to put down once you’ve started.
Cultivating Genius and Joy: Culturally and Historically Responsive Education for Equity, Excellence and Joy, Dr. Gholdy Muhammad
Dr. Muhammad is the author of Cultivating Genius, and an amazing speaker with an inspiring message, a deep understanding of history, and the expert delivery of a slam poet (the live chat was full of librarians planning to buy her book or see if she was available to speak to their schools or other organizations). “STORIES MATTER,” she said (it sounded like it was in all caps), and she referenced the danger of a single story (see: “The Danger of a Single Story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk). In this case, the story she was referring to was one of “at-risk, confrontational, defiant, unmotivated, non-readers.” Instead, “We must not call readers struggling until we call systems struggling.”
Dr. Muhammad delivered a fast-paced history of Black educators in U.S. history, much of which has been forgotten or intentionally erased: “When you have an erasure of Black genius in education, we see it transfer over to our schools and our communities.” She referenced the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), which consistently produces data showing that children’s literature overwhelmingly is produced by white creators and features white characters. She asked, If our books are supposed to be windows to the world, how come only one kind of kid gets to see themselves as astronauts, superheroes, etc.? “It is a human agenda when some people’s stories matter more.”
Dr. Muhammad talked about multicultural education and social justice: “Our schools must have justice at the center….If the system does not help all, it helps no one.” And finally, she described and gave examples of the five lenses/pursuits she uses to examine a text or teach a lesson: Identity, Skills, Intellect, Criticality, and Joy. Most assessment – especially standardized testing – only focuses on skills, but that is only a piece of learning. Dr. Muhammad asked, “How will you make it impossible for students to fail?” (and, “Is it ethical to keep doing the same things we’ve been doing?”).
After the [Diversity] Audit, Liz Phipps-Soeiro
Phipps-Soeiro is an elementary school librarian in the Cambridge Public School system, as well as a consultant and a community organizer. She had an excellent, break-all-the-rules slide show that led with the statement, “I am learning and unlearning every day.” (The second piece of this is so important. Librarians often claim the identity of “lifelong learners,” but much of the new knowledge is really updating and improving on the old.)
Before beginning a diversity audit, a librarian should ask themselves the following questions:
What does “diverse” mean to me?
How am I using that word?
Am I still centering a dominant cultural narrative?
Am I only thinking about race?
How does my identity affect what I value and judge as “diverse”?
What might I consider? (race, region, power, urban/rural, gender, class, sexuality, religion, ability, chronic illness, neurodivergence, oppression/liberation, collectivism/individualism
A diversity audit is a good first step, but move beyond quantitative data. “Stories are our profession.” Look beyond the identity of the character and creator, while acknowledging that “no one book can do everything.” Books can uphold some stereotypes/tropes/myths and break others at the same time.
Engage in self-reflection, hone your critical lens, and beware of “tourist curriculum” (a superficial approach, often featuring holidays or food, then returning to the “regular” curriculum, which further centers a white identity). Be aware of which narratives are amplified or erased.
And involve your students! Give them the vocabulary they need, demonstrate that it is okay to ask questions. The librarian can engage and facilitate powerful book discussions with children (“Does this book support or challenge any stereotypes?”). Analyze books explicitly; kids bring that vocabulary and willingness to discuss out of the library and into classrooms and home.
During the Q&A, a high school librarian commented, “Audit for bias, not just diversity.”
Beyond Books: Supporting English Learners in Your School Library, Emily Houston, Kendall Boninti, and Paige Graves
Houston, Boninti, and Graves all work at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School (CRLS), and their presentation was about a concerted effort they’ve made to bring English Language Learners (ELL) into the library and make it a welcoming space for them. They’ve done that by focusing on the physical space, partnering with community-based nonprofit Enroot, and using a Project-Based Learning (PBL) approach.
Physical space: You want students to be able to “feel that joy” of navigating the space independently. Are there spaces to meet different needs (independent study vs collaboration vs socializing)? Are signs in multiple languages, are they color-coded, do they include images? CRLS has created an Inquiry Lab/Makerspace with lots of donated/upcycled materials for hands-on experimentation.
Student-centered space: Once you’ve identified an underserved group, how do you get them to come into the library? The CRLS Library partnered with Enroot to develop a monthly series: “Lunch & Learn: Building Community Through Playful Learning.”
Project-based learning: PBL is an equitable and authentic approach to teaching and learning; it connects students to issues that matter to them and gives them an opportunity to do something. Best practices for PBL: student-centered (voice and choice), authentic and complex problem/challenge (do not simplify, amplify), builds community (social aspect of language), tap into students’ fund of cultural knowledge, explicitly teach vocabulary, scaffolding, lots of visuals, hands-on, play and joy, reflection (include in every lesson with ELL), equitable assessment. All of this is good for ELL and good for every student! “To ignore important issues [in our country, the world] in school makes school irrelevant.”
Tips and Tools for Nonfiction Read-Alouds, Melissa Stewart
Melissa Stewart has written so many nonfiction books for kids. She is a rockstar! And her website has a ton of resources, including this whole section on nonfiction read-alouds. Stewart made the case that kids love read-alouds, and kids love nonfiction! The most recent data (1996) suggests that at least 40% of the books kids check out for pleasure reading are nonfiction; if that’s the case, shouldn’t read-alouds mirror that percentage? (She wants to do an updated study/survey of how much of kids’ pleasure reading is nonfiction; if you work in a library and want to help her out with that, get in touch!)
What are some of the barriers to reading nonfiction aloud?
Locating appropriate nonfiction titles
Reading aloud in a way that engages students
Encouraging and facilitating student responses to nonfiction read-alouds
Spoiler alert, it turns out that these “barriers” are easily overcome! To start, Stewart offers guidance on choosing appropriate nonfiction titles. And, each year, she writes a nonfiction roundup, so you can search her blog for “best nonfiction of” and get annual lists. As for making your reading engaging, “There’s no reason you have to read an entire book,” and sometimes with nonfiction it works better not to. If there’s primary and secondary text, you could just read the main text (especially for younger students); you could also just share one part, or a little bit at a time, rather than reading cover to cover in one sitting. Students will get excited and respond, especially if you’re enthusiastic about it.
Some teachers and librarians just need the nudge that “nonfiction read-alouds can tie in to curriculum, but can also be ‘just for fun.'” When I was doing storytimes for two- and three-year-olds, I admit I didn’t use many nonfiction picture books at all (exception: Skulls! by Blair Thornburgh), but the next time I get in front of a read-aloud crowd, I’m definitely going to include more nonfiction picture books.
This was just so fun. I’ve read books by all of these authors (Feed, The Mother-Daughter Book Club, From the Desk of Zoe Washington, and Forward Me Back to You, respectively) and they all really seemed to enjoy talking about books and writing together. A few quotes:
You learn something from writing every book even if they don’t end up on shelves. (Marks)
You just never know what you’re going to discover. (Anderson, re: traveling and research)
“Stories written long ago are not all good or all bad but a mix of both.” The books you read early in your life are formative. Eras shaped people (and authors). (Perkins)
“So many of our books grow from our own lives.” (Frederick)
Whew! So, that was my first MSLA conference. And while I’m excited to meet all these librarians in person someday, the virtual conference experience was very smooth and enjoyable (and the coffee and meals were excellent. And I got to be in my sweatpants and slippers the whole time. There’s a silver lining to Zoom for sure). Thank you again to all of the presenters and conference committee, and thank you if you’re reading this!
This was my first year attending the Massachusetts School Library Association (MSLA) annual conference. It was entirely virtual this year, and it was great! Between an app (Whova) and various platforms (zoom, YouTube), everything worked smoothly. I noticed that most attendees were chatting when live chat was enabled, but not many were tweeting, even though several are on Twitter. As usual, I took compulsive notes, which I’ve tried to consolidate here into useful takeaways. Thank you to the MSLA Conference Committee, who did amazing work, and to all of the presenters, keynote speakers, and panelists, who delivered inspiring and thought-provoking ideas.
Saturday, March 20
Jarrett Krosoczka, Awards Night Keynote
Krosoczka is the Massachusetts-based author of the popular Lunch Lady series of early graphic novels, as well as the award-winning graphic memoir Hey, Kiddo. He talked about his long history of virtual author visits and book launches, and how his model has changed over the years as technology has changed. He asked himself, “I don’t want to be just a talking head, how can I make this more interesting?” When the pandemic arrived in March 2020, he began “Draw Every Day with JKK,” a popular series of drawing sessions. His home setup has improved with time; he noted that phone cameras are usually better quality than computer cameras, and if you mount one on a tripod, it doesn’t hurt to put googly eyes on it so you know where to look. Krosoczka closed with, “Students just want to be heard. They just want an adult to listen.”
Sunday, March 21
Books and Bytes Keynote: The School Librarian as Information Specialist, Jennisen Lucas (AASL president-elect)
When it comes to libraries – school or public – there is a huge equity issue. Generally, affluent towns and cities have library buildings staffed with qualified professionals who manage a collection of a variety of materials and offer a range of services. Poorer towns’ libraries aren’t as well-funded, may not have the same number of open hours (an access issue) or amount of materials or the same program offerings. In school libraries, the inequality is even starker, if possible, and it seems as though the barely-adequate staffing levels can be slashed at any time. School libraries might not have a budget at all, or they may have an insufficient budget; libraries might be staffed only by paraprofessionals or parent volunteers, or by a certified librarian serving several schools at once. This knife-edge existence is frustrating for a profession that knows its vital importance to student learning outcomes, yet constantly has to explain and defend itself. School librarians don’t just check books in and out; SLs nurture a love of reading, teach research skills, support the curriculum, and teach media and news literacy. “We are vital,” Lucas said. “We are trying to be everything to everybody.”
Lucas addressed the common misperception that “what we do is read to kids and check out books”; that now that there’s the Internet, librarians aren’t necessary anymore. Lucas argued that we have workout videos – and yet we still have gym teachers. We have calculators, and yet we still have math teachers. “We teach things that no other teachers teach.” Lucas said, “Our school library ensures learners become effective and ethical users and producers of ideas and information.” All learners deserve libraries with certified librarians.
A few more takeaways:
Recommended books: Start With Why by Simon Sinek; Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman; The Information by James Gleick; Our Enduring Values Revisited by Michael Gorman
“It is not the amount of knowledge that makes a brain. It is not even the distribution of knowledge. It is the interconnectedness.” -James Gleick, The Information
“Information” is one of those words like “research,” we use it all the time to mean a lot of things. Information is directly tied to communication.
Ask students: “What is research?” (Their answers will surprise you!) Research is answering questions: start with a question. Teach learners how to ask a question.
Many hats: School librarians are “a guide, instructor, facilitator, coach, administrator of programs.”
Fostering Diversity in the Library, Felicia Quesada Montville
Felicia Quesada Montville works as a middle school librarian in the Newton Public Schools. Her presentation focused on diversity, inclusion, equity, and antiracism. Librarians have many tools to move past “superficial” representation and build an antiracist library.
Collection development: Prioritize diverse voices. Seek multiple review sources. Weed, weed, weed! Know your community and assess their needs. Analyze your collection and identify gaps. Do a diversity audit. Identify priority areas (e.g. summer reading lists, books taught in classrooms). Examine the images in your space and on your website.
Displays, and a student-centered environment: “There’s a lot of power in the books that we choose to put on display.” Students and teachers and people coming into your space see the books that are there. Make the library a safe space for everyone by centering students. What professional practices can you improve to help your students?
Advocacy outside the library: Librarians have power – use it for good. Advocate for inclusive and diverse texts outside of the library. Use position in school as a leader to help move social justice forward. Advocate for equitable school policies. Lead by examples – lead by doing. Speak up.
Using Picture Books in High School, Susan Harari, Morgan Keohane, Blake Barich
Blake Barich, and English teacher at Boston Latin, developed an assignment for her 12th grade students to find and examine “existentialist themes” in picture books. School librarian Susan Harari helped find the picture books, using both her own library collection and the Boston Public Library to provide 150 texts for the students to choose from. She also taught a lesson on picture books, covering Rudine Sims Bishop’s concept of windows & mirrors, what is(n’t) a picture book, types of children’s books, the role of author/illustrator, audience, design elements, and interplay between text/illustrations. Thus equipped, students chose their picture books and began work on a 4-6 page essay.
But the unit didn’t end there. In a fantastic example of inter-school collaboration, the 12th grade students took a field trip to a BPS elementary school, where each was paired with a younger student (K-1) and read their book aloud. Elementary librarian Morgan Keohane got teacher buy-in by presenting the many arguments in favor of the collaboration: it’s a chance for students to get personalized, individual attention from an older peer (who is very familiar with the picture book – not a typical guest reader). It models the value of 1:1 reading time (child:adult). In their diverse community of learners, a lot of volunteers are white; this is a chance for students to see themselves in successful older roles.
“The value of this project is that it’s a learning experience for both sides.” High school students gained an appreciation for visual literacy, an understanding of windows and mirrors, and increased literary criticism skills. Younger students (who completed simple book reviews with a star rating and a sentence or drawing about their favorite part of the story) got one-on-one attention from enthusiastic older peers who were deeply engaged in the book they had brought to share.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog post on Monday’s sessions.
Toward the end of the picture book panel at the SBCWI winter conference, Sarah Baker said, “We all have special books in our lives that we keep coming back to over and over again.” She asked the panelists (Joanna Cárdenas, Elizabeth Bicknell, and Andrea Welch) to talk about “a classic book for you – what is it about that book that has that magic for you, what makes it exciting and important and lasting?”
They mentioned enduring classics (The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson and Beth Krommes) and more obscure titles (Sara & Hoppity by Roberta Leigh), as well as contemporary books (the upcoming Watercress by Andrea Wang and Jason Chin). Of course, it got me thinking: what childhood books did I bring with me into adulthood and parenthood? What new books have become “important and lasting” to me in the past five years?
Usually when I am putting together a book list, I have a hard time keeping it short, but this time, it wasn’t that hard to narrow it down.
From childhood, the picture books I remember best are Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell, Sunshine by Jan Ormerod, The Cat On the Mat by Brian Wildsmith, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag, and Alligator Cookies by James Young (I have yet to meet someone else who has even heard of that last one, but all the others are pretty well-known).
What makes these books memorable? For some, it’s the ubiquity: just try working as a children’s librarian and not encountering Dear Zoo, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, or Wild Things. As a librarian, I’ve gained a new appreciation for these three. Caterpillar is endlessly appealing: it’s a counting book, a days of the week book, an animal and food book, a book about transformation. Dear Zoo has the lift-the-flap element, animals, and a happy ending. And Where the Wild Things Are – people have probably written entire theses on Wild Things, but what I think of now – thanks to Megan Dowd Lambert – is the air frames around the illustrations on the initial pages, and how the illustrations become full-bleed as the story progresses. The pictures quite literally expand as Max’s imagination takes over the story, before he returns to his “very own room.”
Millions of Cats is perhaps not as universally well-known as those three, but it has that lovely repeated refrain (“hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats”), it has a landscape format perfectly suited to the old man’s journey, and it has unique black and white art. The slightly smaller-than-average trim size makes it feel intimate, as well. Likewise, Sunshine by Jan Ormerod, a wordless picture book, is suffused with warmth; it’s an intimate look at a family’s morning routine, which felt familiar (all families have routines) and different at once.
Cat on the Mat rhymes and has a great moment of drama, resulting in an ending that mirrors the beginning – a lovely symmetry that even very young children can appreciate. Alligator Cookies also rhymes, has a fun hide-and-seek element, and – for my money – is a far better rainy-day book than The Cat in the Hat. Plus, there’s a recipe! I remember making “alligator cookies” as a kid (peanut butter, corn flakes, and green food coloring: “you don’t have to bake them, you just have to eat them!”).
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz is a classic for a reason. There’s the distinctive art, with its detailed cross-hatching and Alexander’s grumpy expression, but even more, there’s the universal experience of having the kind of bad day where so many little things pile up on you that you think about moving to Australia. The final revelation (“Some days are like that. Even in Australia”) underscores the universality of bad days – and the hope that tomorrow will be different.
What picture books have burrowed into my heart since these? Naturally, a few of them are bedtime books: City Moon by Rachael Cole and Blanca Gomez, Sleep Tight Farm by Eugenie Doyle and Becca Stadtlander, Sleep Like A Tiger by Mary Logue and Pamela Zagarenski. Each of these takes a different angle on easing into rest: in City Moon, a mother and young son take a walk through a city, looking for the moon before bedtime. In Sleep Tight Farm, a whole family works together to “put the farm to bed” before winter. In Sleep Like A Tiger, a girl insists she’s not sleepy, and her parents say she doesn’t need to go to sleep, but she does need to put on her pajamas, brush her teeth, and get under the covers. Once there, the girl asks if all animals sleep, and comes up with her own example. (Zagarenski’s magical illustrations are what tip this book into “favorite” status for me; she wrote and illustrated Henry and Leo as well, another close-to-my-heart book.)
Nearly all of the other books have an element of fantasy, starting with Ben Hatke’s Julia’s House for Lost Creatures and Aaron Becker’s Journey trilogy (Journey, Quest, and Return). The art styles are completely different: Hatke also creates graphic novels, and that style carries over to his picture books, which mix comics frames and full-bleed art. Julia as a character is so expressive and independent; she’s welcoming and nurturing, but she has boundaries as well and isn’t afraid to enforce them. Her world is full of the fantastic, but she brings order to it (and tea and toast). Becker’s art…I would like to live inside Becker’s art. As in the best wordless picture books, I notice something new every time I read them, every journey the nameless protagonist takes (first alone, then with a friend, and finally with her father). The girl is lonely, loyal, brave, creative, and quick; she enters easily into a magical world through a door she draws herself (a la Harold and the Purple Crayon).
Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen fits under the fantasy umbrella as well: Annabelle finds a box full of yarn of every color, and no matter how much she knits, there is always extra yarn. “Things began to change in that little town,” but Annabelle’s yarn is stolen by a greedy archduke – who finds the box empty when he opens it. He throws it out the window, and it floats on an ice floe back to Annabelle. Extra Yarn has moral justice, humor, and Annabelle’s creativity and generosity, as well as a poetic, repeated turn of phrase: “But it turned out, [she/it/there] was.”
World Pizza by Cece Meng and Ellen Shi involves a wish come true, in a roundabout way: on a hilltop with her family, a mother makes a wish for world peace, but she sneezes in the middle of her wish, and gets world pizza instead. Pizza rains down all over the world, with all kinds of unique toppings; everyone eats until “their bellies were full and everyone was happy.” In a coda at the end, one of the children says he’s sorry Mama didn’t get her wish. “Next time,” she replies with a smile.
Lift by Minh Lê and Dan Santat nods to portal magic like Journey: older sister Iris takes an old elevator button out of the trash and sticks it on the wall next to her closet door. Ding! The button lights up, and Iris opens the door to a new somewhere else each time: jungle, international space station, snowy mountain summit. At first, Iris wants to escape her little brother, but it’s his cries that bring her back, and ultimately, she realizes that she wants him with her on her next adventure. Lift has a timeless feel, but, published in the summer of 2020, its core message (“After all, everyone can use a lift sometimes”) felt so needed. (There’s also the subtle wordplay of “lift” as both noun and verb, though we usually say “elevator” in the U.S.)
Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian and Mike Curato uses animal characters to illuminate the absurdity of fixed gender roles, and to show that we don’t need to do things a certain way just because “That’s how it’s always been done.” Curato’s absolutely charming Worms (not to mention Cricket, Beetle, the Bees, and Spider) are all the argument anyone needs that love is more important than traditions; love shines in this kind, gentle book, with touches of humor throughout.
Lastly, Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away by Meg Medina and Sonia Sanchez centers around the heartbreaking and very real experience of having a best friend move away. On the very first spread, narrator Daniela tells the reader that her “mejor amiga, my número uno best friend” has invited her over to play, “Just like today is any other day.” From that sentence, the reader knows it’s not like any other day – today is different. The girls play while the last boxes are packed and loaded, even “Evelyn’s mirror with the stickers around the edge” (that detail!). At last, all that’s left is to say goodbye: “Evelyn Del Rey is moving away. So she won’t be right here anymore.” (Just try to read this book without tearing up. I cannot do it.) However, the story ends on a note of hope: the final page shows a grown-up Daniela, reading a letter from Evelyn, because these “número uno amigas” stayed in touch.
There are, of course, many more picture books that I love, that make me laugh, that teach a lesson gently, that amaze me with their art and creativity, that I love to share aloud with kids, but these ones are especially special. As Liz Bicknell of Candlewick said about her own list, this group might seem eclectic, but I’ve tried to pinpoint exactly what it is I love about each one. What are your favorite picture books?