Essential Back to School Books (About School, Friendship, Feelings, & Identity)

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As your children return back to school, read these essential picture school-themed books about the first day, separation anxiety, making friends, and being yourself.

What’s wonderful about books is that they can also help you know in what area your child might need extra support. For example, nervousness about school. Or how to make friends.

Classroom teachers, you’ll love reading these books with your students.

Reading aloud back-to-school books during that busy first week of school where everyone is adjusting and learning the ropes helps build community and introduce concepts.

Since I’ve read a bazillion back-to-school books in my years as a teacher and book reviewer, I have a lot of choices to recommend.

That being said, these are my current favorites from this list:

 

SHOP THIS LIST

Picture Books About the First Day


The King of Kindergarten
by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Don’t miss this delightful book of positive presuppositions about the first day of school because today you’re going to be the King of Kindergarten! Rich imagery filled with hyperbole and metaphor plus captivating illustrations create a festive atmosphere filled with exuberance and bravery. I love how this story shows a sequential day filled with the many happy possibilities at school including storytime, recess, playing with new friends, and a kind teacher.

School's First Day of School back to school books
School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex, illustrated by Christian Robinson
An essential story for back to school! The janitor tells the newly built school that soon teachers and children will be coming. Which makes the school nervous. Find out what happens on the first day (yikes– a fire drill!) and how the school loves its kids.


My First Day
by Phung Nguyen Quang and Huynh Kim Lien
Lyrical, metaphorical writing and evocative illustrations tell the story of a young Vietnamese boy who paddles his boat through waves and a dark mangrove forest toward his first day of school. It feels a little scary, but as he forges out of the forest, the fish-filled river and colorful sky begin to feel welcoming and friendly. Soon, he arrives at school and waves hello to his classmates who are also arriving in boats.

Essential Back-to-School Picture Books to Read Right Now
This is the Day You Begin
by Jaqueline Woodson, illustrations by Rafael López
The evocative, lyrical text with gorgeous, lush illustrations illuminates the awkwardness of a girl’s first days at school. She listens to other kids’ big stories of summer and feels like she doesn’t fit until…she finds out that maybe there she might have something in common with others after all.

Isabel and Her Colores Go to School by Alexandra Alessandri, illustrated by Courtney Dawson
Isabel doesn’t want to go to school. She experiences languages in COLORES –her native language of Spanish feels like pink, yellow, and purple while the INGLES she’s learning seems like stormy blues and blizzard whites. And at school, the colors swirl all around her as she tries to follow along even when she doesn’t understand. Ultimately, Isabel uses her COLORES to bridge the language barrier and make a new friend. 


So Big!
by Mike Wohnoutka
Illustrations primarily narrate the story in this meaningful picture book story with minimal text. Bear feels so big now that he’s starting school. But once he gets to school, he doesn’t feel big anymore–the school feels so big. Just when he’s very overwhelmed, a new friend takes his hand and they walk to the classroom together. Now he feels just right.

 
Lena’s Shoes Are Nervous (A First-Day-of-School Dilemma)
by Keith Calabrese, illustrated by Juana Medina
Lena’s feeling BOTH nervous AND outgoing. (Her shoes are nervous but her dress is outgoing.) Her dad asks questions and listens. When Lena figures out that her headband can talk to her shoes, her dad gives them space to work things out. The headband reminds the shoes of other times that they were scared and also brave and that things eventually worked out. The clothes decide to be brave and go to school with Lena. It’s a brilliant personification story that emotionally resonates with children who are fearful of attending school.


Truman
by Jean Reidy, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins
In a tender story about the first day of school from a pet tortoise’s perspective, readers get a strong sense of place and emotion as Truman worries and waits for a thousand hours for his Sarah. Just as he’s about to leave the apartment to find her, Sarah arrives home. Back in his habitat, he feels proud as Sarah reads him a story about her day at school.

back to school books
I Will Be Fierce!
by Bea Birdsong, illustrated by Nidhi Chanani
A little girl uses her imagination to set a positive intention for her school day. She puts on her armor and sets off to explore new worlds, taking on dragons (dogs) and walking with giants (big kids at the school bus stop), climbing the Mountain of Knowledge (library), and standing up for her beliefs (sitting with a lonely girl in the cafeteria). Today she will be the hero of her own story. What an inspiration for young girls everywhere! This picture book shows all the opportunities we have every day to be bold and brave and fierce. 

back to school books
My New Teacher and Me by Al Yankovic
Mr. Booth does not like his student Billy’s crazy exaggerations until Billy shows his teacher that wild and crazy things might just exist in the world. Very funny.

On the First Day of Kindergarten Essential Back-to-School Picture Books to Read Right Now
On the First Day of Kindergarten
by Tish Rabe, illustrated by Laura Hughes
Just like “On the First Day of Christmas“, follow along as one little girl tells us what’s cool about school including sliding down the slide, singing a song, running in a race, counting up to ten, making lots of friends, and riding the bus to my school.

back to school picture books
The Night Before First Grade 
by Natasha Wing
Natasha Wing writes all the Night Before books in the familiar rhyme of the Night Before Christmas. Look for The Night Before Preschool and The Night Before Kindergarten as well. These books are always funny and reassuring.


Mae’s First Day of School
by Kate Berube
This is a familiar back to school story about a child who doesn’t want to go to school. She meets another child and a teacher who don’t want to go to school either. The three climb a tree, talk, and share cookies. Knowing each other helps them feel brave enough to go to school. The story shows that other people also feel scared…even adults. And, they go to school anyway.


Fairy’s First Day of School
by Bridget Heos, illustrated by Sara Not
Fairy’s mom tells her what to expect on her first day of school. A nice teacher, other fairies, learning new things, centers like art and spells, clean up time, jobs, recess, lunchtime, and so on. Similar to a human’s first day of school, children will enjoy the fairy’s first magical day that ends with smiles and cuddles.


Scarlet’s Tale
by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Jarvis
Scarlet surprises her parents when she’s born with…a tail! But it’s no problem because her loving parents make sure she has a happy life and clothes that fit her tail. When Scarlet starts school, it’s a hard first day since she’s the only one with a tail but she makes friends, wagging her tail at her new friends, and wagging when she’s happy. Wagging catches on and soon everyone in her community, tail or not, is wagging. The story ends perfectly with a new baby brother who has a surprise of his own.

Back to School Books About Friendships

Essential Back-to-School Picture Books to Read Right Now
We Don’t Eat Our Classmates
by Ryan T. Higgins
Funny & profound! After a rough first day at school where this little dinosaur eats her classmates, gets scolded by the teacher, spits them out, and doesn’t make any friends, Penelope’s dad explains while children might taste good, it’s not a good idea to eat them. But the next day, Penelope eats her classmates again. It’s not until the class goldfish chomps on Penelope’s finger and it HURTS that she realizes it’s not fun to be someone else’s snack. It hurts. Which gives her EMPATHY!! Now, Penelope tries to remember this valuable lesson and resist eating the other kids so she can make friends and playmates at school.

Speak Up, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell, illustrated by David Catrow
Molly Lou Melon IS THE BEST! She’s responsible, loving, kind, tells the truth, and speaks up for what’s right, like stopping a classmate who teases a new student. The illustrations are absolutely perfect and filled with tons of nuanced details that add depth and humor to the story.

I Walk with Vanessa: A Story About a Simple Act of Kindness by Kerascoët
When a classmate is being bullied, what can you do? This wordless picture book shows that sometimes it’s about showing someone that they are not alone. You can do what this girl does: show kindness and walk home with a lonely, hurting person.


The Buddy Bench
by Patty Brozo, illustrated by Mike Deas
At recess, some students in Miss Mellon’s class don’t have anyone to play with. Soon, other kids notice and invite those lonely kids but after recess, they wonder if there’s a better way. Miss Bellon suggests a Buddy Bench where anyone can go to wait for a friend to meet. Read this with your class and see if they can come up with their own ideas for a Buddy Bench — then actually use it.

back to school books
Chopsticks
 by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Chopsticks are always together. But when one chopstick gets injured, he encourages his partner chopstick to go explore the world alone. Use this metaphorical book to help children learn about friendships. It shows that friends, even when apart, can still be friends – stronger, even. Plus, it’s a punny, funny story.

back to school books
Clark the Shark
 
by Bruce Hale, illustrated by Guy Francis
Clark the Shark is just too loud and too rough with his friends. And they don’t want to play with him. But he gets help from his teacher and learns how to modify his behavior so he can play, too.


Quiet Wyatt
by Tammi Sauer, illustrated by Arthur Howard
For all the quiet kids in the world, this book shows that YOU matter and that you can be friends with people who aren’t like you. Wyatt’s quiet life isn’t very quiet on a class field trip when he’s paired with Noreen — his exact opposite. In a hilarious contrast of personalities, Noreen talks non-stop and trailblazes right into trouble. Luckily, Wyatt is an excellent ninja so he can save Noreen from the rock slide. “Wyatt smiled. Quietly of course. / He still liked quiet. // He also liked having a friend.

friendship books
Carrot and Pea
by Morag Hood
This simple book of friendship shows that our uniquenesses add value to our friendships. Lee is a pea who has a lot of pea friends as well as a carrot friend named Colin. Even though Colin can’t roll or bounce like the peas, he makes an excellent tower, bridge, and slide, something his pea friends like.


Want to Play Trucks?
by Ann Stott, illustrated by Bob Graham
Jack likes big trucks. Alex likes dolls. When they meet at the sandbox to play, they’ll play dolls that drive trucks. When they get into a fight about dolls in tutus driving a crane, they work it out. Although they both like different things, these friends also have other things in common — playing together and eating ice cream.


When Charley Met Emma
by Amy Webb, illustrated by Merrilee Liddiard
When Charley feels different, his mom teaches him that “Different isn’t weird, sad, bad, or strange. Different is different. And different is OK!” After he hurts Emma’s feelings, he apologizes and asks Emma questions. Emma helps Charley know that even though she’s a little “differenter” than he is, she’s a lot the same, too. For example, Emma likes to play on the playground, swing, play tag, and just like Charley, she likes to draw! This compassionate story shows the importance of accepting (physical) disabilities with kindness and openheartedness.

How to Apologize by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka
Use this gentle, instructive guidebook to teach children about apologizing. It gives readers examples of what not to do (don’t make excuses) and what to do (be sincere). The examples show animals acting out apologies and because most of them aren’t good apologies, end up being quite funny. (One not-sincere example is, “Mom told me I had to apologize for putting your doll in the fishbowl or I can’t go outside and play baseball. So I’m sorry.“) Excellent.

Growing Friendships: A Fantastic Book to Help Your Kids With Friendships

Growing Friendships: A Kids’ Guide to Making and Keeping Friends by Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore and Christine McLaughlin
This isn’t a picture book but a guidebook that gives children ages 6 – 12 in elementary grades the tools and strategies to improve their friendships and relationships with other kids. The cartoon illustrations depict real-life examples of social skills in practice which are very relatable and realistic, sometimes even humorous.

 

Essential Back-to-School Picture Books to Read Right Now
Little Girls Can Be Mean
 
by Michelle Anthony, Ph.D. and Reyna Lindert, Ph.D.
Did you know that it’s a girl’s best friend who can be her worst enemy and bully? I learned so much to help my kids be empowered in their relationships. This book really helped us in my children’s elementary grades. ***Full review of Little Girls Can Be Mean on Imagination Soup here. 

Books About Big Feelings & Separation Anxiety

 
Lena’s Shoes Are Nervous (A First-Day-of-School Dilemma)
by Keith Calabrese, illustrated by Juana Medina
Lena’s feeling BOTH nervous AND outgoing. (Her shoes are nervous but her dress is outgoing.) Her dad asks questions and listens. When Lena figures out that her headband can talk to her shoes, her dad gives them space to work things out. The headband reminds the shoes of other times that they were scared and also brave and that things eventually worked out. The clothes decide to be brave and go to school with Lena. It’s a brilliant personification story that emotionally resonates with children who are fearful of attending school.


A New School Year: Stories in Six Voices
by Sally Derby, illustrated by Mika Song
Relatable and heart-warming with emotion, read the poems of six students all about the first day of the year. Use this to reassure your kids that it’s normal to feel both worried and excited about new things and that you never know what can happen on your first day.

Essential Back-to-School Picture Books to Read Right Now
The Kissing Hand
 by Audrey Penn
A heart-warming story that will start the tradition of exchanging kisses on your palms before you send your kids off to school. If you’re like me, you’ll try not to cry reading this book or when you send your child off to school with palm kisses because it’s so sweet.

Essential Back-to-School Picture Books to Read Right Now
First Day Jitters 
by Julie Danneberg
Sarah doesn’t want to go to kindergarten. But what a surprise when we discover that Sarah is the teacher, not the student. Perfect for kindergarten kids…or any early elementary age.

Essential Back-to-School Picture Books to Read Right Now
Pete the Cat Rocking in My School Shoes by Eric Litwin and James Dean
I love this picture book and the song that goes with it. Get excited about attending school and learn not to worry …because it’s all good.

Essential Back-to-School Picture Books
It’s Time for School, Stinky Face by Lisa McCourt
What if . . . a spaceship lands on the playground? Most kids can relate to all the what-ifs of a new situation and ultimately find this story reassuring for even the biggest worriers.

Love by Corrinne Averiss, illustrated by Kirsti Beautyman
Literal strings of love connect the little girl named Tess to her mom as she starts school…then she’s amazed to see the new strings that connect her to new friends. Tess learns that her strings may stretch or tangle but it will never truly break.

Back to School Picture Books About School

Essential Back-to-School Picture Books to Read Right Now
It’s Time for Preschool!
by Esme Roji Codell, illustrated by Sue Rama
Read about all the things that happen at preschool i
ncluding Time for Preschool, Circle Time, Sharing Time, Manners, Fire Drill, Thinking-about-Home Time, Time for Friends, Nap Time, Field Trip Time, Time to Make Stuff, Clean-up Time, Time to Go Home.

Wombat Goes to School by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley
This wombat narrates all about his first day of school in simple text paired with illuminating illustrations. His experience is so funny plus you’ll love the wombat’s charming personality.

Sounds Like School Spirit by Meg Fleming, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins
Of all the books on this list, this rhythmic picture book BEGS to be read out loud so that students can chant along with the call and responses! It’s time for school and every part of the day is exciting. For example, “We say NAME, you say TAG,…NAME! TAG! NAME! TAG!” Travel through the school day with desks, chairs, carpets, squares, gym, friends, lunch, and so much more. An exuberant celebration of school!

Just Be Yourself Dragon by Bianca Shultze, illustrated by Samara Hardy
Another interactive story about our favorite Dragon! It’s time for Dragon’s first day of school. Readers can help Dragon to feel brave and remind her to “just be herself”. Readers might relate to the experience of feeling nervous and what better activity for that than to help a friend with their nerves too? There are lots of new things and even some mistakes but Dragon makes friends at lunchtime by helping kids make grilled cheese sandwiches! It’s a great first day!

Essential Back-to-School Picture Books to Read Right Now
Second Grade Holdout
by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Matthew Cordell
First grade was great but second grade is going to be horrible. Especially after this boy’s sister and friend tell him exactly how awful it will be. So why not just stay in first grade? But don’t worry, the boy’s sister and her friend invented all the bad stuff and eventually reveal that second grade is really great. Another funny back to school story from Audrey Vernick that 2nd graders will enjoy. (Also read: First Grade Dropout.)


Dog Days of School
by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Brian Biggs
Charlie doesn’t like school. Surprisingly, after wishing he were a dog, he becomes a dog and his dog becomes a person. Charlie’s dog goes to school, builds with blocks, and plays kickball while Charlie watches the leaves fall, drinks from the toilet, and goes to the groomer. It’s super funny — and kids will enjoy (and possibly predict) the ending.


The Teacher’s Pet
by Anica Mrose Rissi, illustrated by Zachariah Ohora
Mr. Stricter’s class is dismayed when their tadpole turns into a hippopotamus who is NOT a good classroom pet, despite what clueless Mr. Stricter thinks. The students must figure out some way to convince Mr. Stricter that all the destruction and chaos are not okay. Then to make matters worse, the hippo EATS Mr. Stricter. Now, what will the kids do? Kids will love this hilarious school story.


All Are Welcome
by Alexandra Penfold, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman
Rhyming text shows a welcoming, safe, diverse classroom where children learn, play, and are creative.All are welcome here,” repeats the refrain. I love the illustrations that convey so much diversity — for cultures and skin colors — as well as an engaged community of learners. This is an essential back-to-school picture book read aloud for preschool and early elementary.


Here Comes Teacher Cat
by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Claudia Rueda
Cat is a reluctant substitute teacher. The narrator writes his conversation to Cat and Cat communicates back to the narrator through picture signs. Because Cat would rather sleep than be a sub. However, no one else can help out so Cat must teach kitty school. And surprisingly, Cat does a great job! This is a wonderful read aloud the day before a substitute teacher will be teaching.


Seven Rules You Absolutely Must Not Break If You Want to Survive the Cafeteria
by John Grandits, illustrated by Michael Allen Austin
Kyle’s friend Ginny warns him about both eating the cafeteria food and the RULES. She gives him seven must-follow rules for surviving the cafeteria. Of course, Kyle accidentally breaks every single one of them and it’s hilarious. But, don’t worry. It all works out for Kyle and he learns a very valuable lesson at the end of this giggle-worthy back-to-school book, perfect for upper elementary ages.


Dear Substitute
by Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Chris Raschka
Everything is wonky at school today because there’s a substitute who doesn’t know what to do. Letters throughout the day show the student struggling with the unexpected changes but eventually enjoying the read-aloud book and poetry writing. The message of giving things a chance is a good reminder. Raschka’s bold, colorful illustrations add texture to these lyrical letters.

 
Hello, School
by Priscilla Burris
Get excited about school!  School is a friendly, welcoming place with a kind teacher, friends, a place for your things, and a place for you.

Books About Being True To Yourself

More Than Fluff by Madeline Valentine
This story reinforces that we shouldn’t let other people define who we are and that it’s okay to set boundaries with other people. Daisy is annoyed that people squeeze, pet, and kiss her. And she doesn’t like it. “I’m not just. fluff…I have substance!” She finally tells people how she feels (nicely). For example, sometimes she wants personal space and no hugs. Instead of hugs, she suggests that her friends can give her wing bumps, tail bumps, super-secret handshakes. And her friends learn to give her some space when she wants it. And she learns to do the same for them.


Sweety
by Andrea Zuill
Sweety is a unique naked mole-rat. Her classmates don’t really “get” her at all. But Sweety’s Aunt Ruth understands Sweety and her hobbies, encouraging Sweety to be true to herself. Sweety wonders if there is a secret handshake for any other people who might understand her. For now, she continues to be true to herself. Because being Sweety is awesome. And you never know when someone else who is awesome might come along, too!


Exclamation Mark
 by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
It’s not easy when you’re not like everyone else. Sometimes when this happens, we squish ourselves to fit in. We shrink. Twist. Bend. Until–! — a friend shows us a way of being with endless possibilities. In this bold and highly visual book, an emphatic but misplaced exclamation mark learns that being different can be very exciting! Period.

Your Name Is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, illustrated by Luisa Uribe
A beautiful, beautiful story that helps a little girl find the song in her own name. When her teacher can’t say her name, a boy looks scared when she says her name, or the kids at recess say her name sounds made up, Kora-Jalimuso’s momma helps her notice and feel the heart, the beat, the love, in all people’s names, including Kora-Jalimuso’s own name. Her wise momma encourages Kora-Jalimuso to see that names are the songs of dreamers; names like Lamika, Ta’jae, and Ahlam. Kora-Jalimuso returns to school with bravery and confidence…then she shows everyone, including her teacher, how to sing her name correctly…KO-raj DJAAAA-lee-MOOOO-so.

How to be a Lion by Ed Vere
Leonard is a gentle lion who loves to feel the sun warm his back, think, daydream, and write poetry. When the other lions mock Leonard’s behavior choices (he is not fierce and doesn’t eat duck!), Leonard shows them there is another way. He and his friend Marianne express their thoughts in a poem about the many ways to be a lion. Red and orange colored illustrations set a peaceful, compassionate tone.


Sarabella’s Thinking Cap
by Judy Schachner
Sarabella’s mind is filled with her wonderful imaginings. When her teacher assigns the class homework to draw their favorite daydream, Sarabella thinks of so many things. To show her class all the things, she makes her daydreams into a spectacular hat. This is a great example of the creativity in divergent brains, I’m specifically thinking of children with ADHD.

best back to school books
We’re All Wonders
by R.J. Palacio
Simple and heartfelt, Aggie shares that he’s just like everyone else even if he doesn’t look like other people. It hurts his feelings when people point and laugh so his strategy is to put on his helmet, blast off into space, and get a bigger perspective. He sees that the Earth is full of lots of different people, each of them = wonders. In fact, he is a wonder, too. “Look with kindness and you will always find wonder.

Your Name Is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, illustrated by Luisa Uribe
A beautiful, beautiful story that helps a little girl find the music in her own name. Kora-Jalimuso’s momma helps her feel the heart, the beat, the love, in all names, including her own. Even though it’s difficult for Kora-Jalimuso when her teacher can’t say her name, a boy looks scared when she says her name, or the kids at recess say her name sounds made up. Her wise momma encourages Kora-Jalimuso to see that names are the songs of dreamers. Names like Lamika, Ta’jae, and Ahlam. Kora-Jalimuso returns to school with bravery and understanding…then she shows everyone, including her teacher, how to sing her name…KO-raj DJAAAA-lee-MOOOO-so.

Antoinette by Kelly DiPucchio
Antoinette
by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Christian Robinson
Antoinette hasn’t found what she’s good at, not like her brothers. “Chin up,” her mom tells her. When her friend, Ooh-La-La, chases after a butterfly and disappears, no one else can find her. Except for Antoinette. Brave Antoinette follows her heart and her nose! What an encouraging message to kids who are still searching for their unique gifts.

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2 Responses

  1. What better way to get ready for school than with a picture book! Thanks for this round up. You’re missing one great new one, however:
    READY OR NOT, WOOLBUR GOES TO SCHOOL by Leslie Helakoski and Lee Harper. Here’s the link:

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