By Darcie Caswell
Whether your children go back to school this week or have already been at it since August, it is a time for settling into school routines. Books and stories are great ways to help children understand and become more comfortable with changes and challenges they might experience in school, can help open the door to conversations about difficult or uncomfortable topics, or can simply be a way to share a laugh.
We Don’t Eat Our Classmates! by Ryan T. Higgins
Penelope Rex is ready for school. She has a new backpack with ponies on it (because they are delicious), and her lunch is packed (with three hundred sandwiches). She is worried, though, about how many teeth her classmates will have because a little T. rex like her has to be prepared. She is shocked when she gets to school and finds her classmates are all human children. Penelope does not get off to a good start when the first thing she does is eat her classmates. Her teacher scolds her and tells Penelope to "spit them out at once." Penelope is determined to do better, but this proves difficult when she has to fight against her T. rex instincts to make a snack of anyone who gets close. Her classmates are afraid of her (for good reason), and Penelope is lonely. As a last resort, Penelope turns to the class fish, Walter, to make friends, but Walter promptly chomps on Penelope's finger when she tries to pet him. Now knowing what it feels like to be someone's snack, Penelope understands how her classmates feel. She stops seeing them as tasty treats, and they begin to trust her. A meaningful message wrapped in humor, children who love silly stories will be surprised and entertained by Penelope’s unique classroom situation.
Dear Substitute by Audrey Vernick and Liz Garton Scanlon
A disgruntled student writes notes to parts of the school day explaining and apologizing for everything that goes wrong when a substitute teacher leads the class. There is a note to Attendance apologizing for all the names the substitute mispronounced, to Homework explaining that it will not be collected, to Library that it will not be visited, and to the class Turtle expressing frustration that its tank will not be cleaned on the regularly scheduled day. Clearly, this student is very upset about the ways the school day differs when a substitute is leading the class. That changes when the substitute has storytime, even though it is not a storytime day, and reads poems rather than a story. The student's next note is to World about how funny poetry is. Finally, a note to the regular classroom teacher saying it's okay if she's still sick the next day and making it clear that the student is okay with the substitute and the changes she brings. Bold, child-like illustrations by Caldecott Award-winning illustrator Chris Raschka perfectly mirror the child's unfiltered understanding of how a substitute teacher changes the day.
The Big Umbrella by Amy June Bates
Though not a school story, The Big Umbrella, by Amy June Bates, captures many of the sentiments we hope our children will learn about how to treat others. A big red umbrella is taken out into the rain by a child. “It is a big, friendly umbrella” with a big smiley face to prove it. We are told, “It likes to spread its arms wide” as the child below the umbrella spreads their arms wide while splashing through puddles. The child comes across others walking on the sidewalk who take shelter under the friendly red umbrella. Soon there are several people under the umbrella: one wearing a tutu, one in athletic clothing, and one with a backpack. When the group under the umbrella encounter a dramatically tall bird with very long legs, it somehow also fits under the umbrella. Progressively, the umbrella stretches to cover everyone (both human and animal) walking on the sidewalk. With few words and soft, comforting illustrations, The Big Umbrella has a simple but powerful message about kindness.
This article first appeared in The Free Lance-Star newspaper.