Back-to-School Favourites from the Ottawa Public Library

By Rebekah McCallum, Children’s Librarian, Cumberland Branch September is here, and with it, the return to school. While you write your list of essentials - pencils, scribblers, lunch boxes, new gym shoes - you may also be looking for books to ease your child’s transition into school, or back to school. There is no shortage of options!

Your older child may prefer one of the many popular series set at school, such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Nate the Great, Harry Potter or Dear Dumb Diary. In this forum, however, I am going to focus on some of my favourite “back-to-school” picture books from the library children’s collection.

You can order all of these books online through OPL’s online catalogue ( and stop into your local branch to pick them up.

My first pick is Lauren Child’s delightful sibling duet I am TOO absolutely small for school. Big brother Charlie tries to convince his small(ish) sister Lola that school might not be such a bad idea, even though she is “too extremely busy doing important things at home.” One by one, he quells her doubts, and finally persuades her that she needs to go to school to keep company with her imaginary friend, Søren Lorensen (who may be “a little slightly nervous to be at school on his own”). Warm and funny, with a text and illustrations that follow the intricate imaginative pathways of the preschool mind, this  one is an absolute charmer.

When you put your best foot forward and head to school, are there butterflies in your stomach? Maybe you’re feeling a little blue, and not quite ready to come out of your shell. Don’t worry – even if you think school is not your cup of tea, we’re all in the same boat on the first day. Serge Bloch commandeers half the idioms in the English language to tackle first-day-of-school jitters in Butterflies in my Stomach and Other School Hazards. Each metaphor is cleverly illustrated – taking the image literally, of course – and bound to bring out the giggles in your first or second grader. Ideal for preschool to grade three.

Audrey Penn’s classic, The Kissing Hand, is a ‘must-read’ for young children (and their parents) facing the separation that comes with the first day of school or daycare. Little Chester raccoon is worried about his first day at Owl’s school for woodland creatures. To quiet his fears, his mother shares a family secret called the Kissing Hand. When the world feels a little scary, Chester can find his Kissing Hand and remember that his mother’s love is with him, wherever he goes. The book’s illustrations, by Ruth E. Harper and Nancy M. Leak, are particularly fine. A New York Times #1 Bestseller and Ed Press Winner, The Kissing Hand is unsurpassed for tenderness and beauty in a school-themed picture book.

In Knuffle Bunny Too, by Mo Willems, Trixie is sure her one-of-a-kind plush friend, Knuffle bunny, will be a hit on the first day of preschool. How to describe her chagrin when she sees the smirking Sonja holding an identical bunny? “The morning did not go well”, writes Willems. Trixie’s teacher confiscates the Knuffle bunnies, and only returns them at the end of the day. But it is not until 2:30 the next morning that Trixie realizes what is badly amiss – she has the wrong bunny! With her dad’s help, arrangements are made; a bunny-exchange takes place in the dead of night; and Trixie makes her first friend. Willems’ pithy text, together with his comic-style drawings superimposed on photographs of New York, make for a terrific picture-book adventure.  Willems fans will also enjoy hunting for his famous Pigeon in the pages of Trixie’s life.

In Valeri Gorbachev’s Christopher Counting, Christopher bunny learns to count at school and decides it is his favourite thing to do. At the end of the school day, he counts his way home; he counts the toys in his toy box, the dishes in his kitchen and the boots on his boot rack. He even tries to count all the flowers in the meadow. But his friends want to play after school. Basketball, Christopher? No thanks! But then Christopher finds the perfect game – hide and seek! He can count all his friends! Gorbachev is a master of plot, and his storytelling here is no exception. As your children enter their first days of school, they can consider, with Christopher, how the things they learn in class can become part of their lives at home and at play. If your children prefer images to words, Walter’s Wick’s I Spy School Days: A Book of Picture Riddles may be the book for you. Two-page spreads of school-related toys and drawings explore themes such the alphabet, botany class, arts and crafts, the schoolyard, the dinosaur age, and an old-fashioned schoolroom. Rhyming lists of things to “spy” accompany Wick’s collages. For lovers of non-fiction, Susan Hughes’s Off to Class: Incredible and Unusual Schools Around the World is a gem of a book. This magical read introduces children to the diversity of classrooms on our planet. Each two-page spread offers quick facts and amazing pictures of an unusual school somewhere in the world. Hughes shows how teachers and architects have overcome problems of poverty, climate change, physical isolation, and developmental impairment. Here we meet classrooms in boats, in tents, in slums, in refugee camps, on streets, in buses, on train platforms, and in trees. Schools act as bridegrooms; they move with nomadic cultures; and their halls guide the blind. Colourful and succinct, Off to Class is an inspiring read about the importance of education, the devotion of teachers, and the joys of flexibility.

So there you have them… my favourites for your little one this fall. Happy school days, and happy reading!

Do you have a favourite school themed book? Share in the comments!

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