Different decades in our modern era — or all of them — are sometimes labeled as the Age of Anxiety. Still, for some children, there’s no debate: It’s August in every decade. School is about to begin with scary transitions and unknown expectations looming large.
Enter five picture books for the children going back to school.
The King of Kindergarten
By Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Ardent anti-monarchists might balk at “The King of Kindergarten.” No need. Not meant to be taken literally, the spirited make-believe succeeds as a confidence-booster, its joyful musicality showcasing a playful and purposeful family. Mom and Dad deploy the “royal” metaphor to instill in their son enough pride to enjoy new experiences with a “majestic, beaming smile.”
Merry artwork gives real-life meaning to his yellow carriage (school bus), grand fortress (school building), and kingdom (classroom). Emphasis then evolves to what really matters — the bravery to make new friends, share dessert with a lunch-mate, and partake in all the learning.
The upbeat verdict on starting kindergarten: “Piece. Of. Cake.”
For ages ages 3-6. 32 pages; Nancy Paulsen Books
By Susan Choi and illustrated by John Rocco
An annual family camping trip marks the end of summer, an uncertain time for one soon-to-be first grader. He’s reluctant to assume new chores at home and give up Choice Time and blocks at school. While tents are being set up, a talking tiger emerges from the woods and asks for one too. His cave is cold. Dad complies.
Gorgeous paintings fill the pages with a scenic landscape and splendid beast. Concurrently, lyrical prose develops the natural setting, empathic family, and special relationship between the boy and a much-needed imaginary friend. Everyone plays along as the tiger joins a hike, fishing expedition and campfire. But, after a magical midnight canoe trip, the tiger is gone. Of course! Mission accomplished: The boy is set for the future.
For ages 4-6. 40 pages; Putnam
How to Read a Book
By Kwame Alexander and illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Once school starts, reading and writing become major occupations. As entrée, teachers (and parents too) might turn to “How to Read a Book.”
Originally written in 2010, this evocative poem emerges from the drawer to extol “the joy and power of reading.” Emphasis is not on decoding but rather on delighting in sensory, literary adventure — the scent of morning, rustling of pages, and bursts of orange.
The poem gives clear direction: Find a tree or a stoop like Langston Hughes. Then “watch a novel world unfurl before your eyes.” Further, words like “magic” and “infinite” and “wander” suggest endless possibility.
The stylish, hand-lettered text is both grounded and elevated by highly inventive art — neon color, a nifty fold-out, and yellowed pages from “Bambi” for the collage. On bright and busy pages, every design decision is made for good reason. The result is an “exhilarating and electrifying” invitation to read.
For ages 4-8. 32 pages; Harper
“The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown”
By Mac Barnett and illustrated by Sarah Jacoby
The Oakland author carefully shapes a short biography about the unorthodox creator of “Good Night Moon,” “The Runaway Bunny,” and “The Important Book.” Over 100 books for kids in all.
Barnett starts with a disclaimer: “Margaret Wise Brown lived for 42 years. This book is 42 pages long. You can’t fit somebody’s life into 42 pages, so I am just going to tell you some important things.” And that’s what he does, describing Brown’s early love of nature and later “a woman called Michael and a man called Pebble,” her eccentricities (e.g., wearing her dead rabbit’s fur and swimming naked in the cold sea), and writing about strange things, once deemed unacceptable by an influential children’s librarian in New York. These recollections are amusing but also illustrative, offering tacit advice about writing: Focus on what’s important.
For ages 4-8. 42 pages; Balzer + Bray
The Book in the Book in the Book
By Julien Baer and Simon Bailly
Kids will discover the elasticity of a bare-bones text in “The Book in the Book in the Book.” In this quirky and clever French import, Thomas vacations at the beach with his parents, goes for a walk, gets lost, finds a worn book, and opens it. Voila! The exact same 100-word story is there, set in the Alps and again in outer space.
The repeated stories each appear in successively smaller trim-size, all bound together. Such fun! Meanwhile, flat, digital art changes up the settings and shows that unadorned writing can be detailed by illustrations to go in different directions. Such fun again!
There’s an implicit invitation in this droll novelty item: Make up yet another setting or, better yet, write your own story.
For ages 4-8. 56 pages; Holiday