Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Teacher Collection! Best Picture Book Read-Alouds for Back to School

Teacher budgets and bookshelf space are limited, so only the best of the best will do!  Here are my must-haves for September, perfect for treating your hard-working teaching self, or parents can start the year off right with a classroom or library donation of a favorite. Great children's books are also a bridge between home and school...we support a child's learning every time we read aloud!  So don't hesitate to add these winners to your circulation:

President Squid by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Sara Varon (Chronicle).  Of course, this fall is going to have lots of occasions to work an election theme into the classroom, and this is a number-one must-have. A bombastic, big-mouthed Day-Glo cephalopod has more bluster than charisma, but that doesn't stop him from seeking high office in the sea.  What does it take to be President?  Diplomacy Accountability? Responsibility?  Naaaahhhh.  Squid has a tie. That should do it!  The fact that he has a Titanic-sized house, fame, the gift of gab and the bones to boss are just bonuses.  But when a sardine is caught compromisingly in a clam, can President Squid step up and save him?  Maybe he'll learn what quality is most presidential of all...or will power corrupt?    The illustrator created one of my favorite books of all time, the thoughtful allegory of friendship that is Robot Dreams.  Here, Varon's wild palette and expressive style combined with Reynold's high-spirited humor make this any easy share and a perfect springboard for creating lists and conversations about qualities of leadership. By the way, I have it on good authority from the author that Trump wasn't running when he wrote this book.  But if the tentacles fit.

Little Red and the Very Hungry Lion by Alex T. Smith (Scholastic).  Oh my goodness, I love when this happens: a big, beautiful, funny, well-paced read-aloud with chance to do voices and an unlabored, authentic multicultural representation, plus an opportunity to talk about parodies and differentiated versions of fairy tales. Sold!!! In this play on Red Riding Hood, winsome Little Red has to deliver acne medicine, but a lion is impersonating her auntie.  The makeover Little Red delivers on the lion's mane will elicit screams of laughter and delight, and the vantage point from inside of the lion's toothy maw rates ooh's and ahh's.  A happy ending and a little nudge toward asking for things politely paired with lively, colorful illustrations in a dynamic layout make this a perfect picture book.

Bear's Winter Party by Deborah Hodge (Groundwood).  I confess that every fall I have a penchant for purchases of all things bears and hibernation to add to my book cave.  This year, a close runner up was A Brave Bear by Sean Taylor, handsomely illustrated by the mighty mighty Emily Hughes (Candlewick), but the winner was this loose and juicily-watercolored story in which Bear plans a party to win over his cautious woodland neighbors before his big sleep. I was so admiring of the bear-faced honey ginger cookies that Bear was serving, and what do you know, an easy recipe is in the back! Why every classroom doesn't have a stove and oven, I haven't a clue.  But every classroom can have an invitation to this reading fete, and the inclusive message of "don't judge a book (or bear!) by its cover" that seasons these pages like warm cinnamon.

School's First Day of School by Adam Rex, illustrated by Christian Robinson (Roaring Brook).
A new school has been built.  What should be expected on School's first day?  The janitor is there to encourage via some earnest banter with the building, and the edifice is educated on how even the most reticent can come around to loving School....eventually. I love how School manages to learn a thing or two in the course of the day!  Robinson's folksy, friendly style is sunny and straightforward and realistically depicts a wide swath of cultures in the classroom.  Reminiscent of Sally's romance with her own school in Charle' Shultz's Peanuts cartoons, this book has a comforting combination of anticipation, problem-solving and reflection, and also touches on the value of all staff in a school building.  I often start the school year with a conversation about how lucky we are to be together at school, and how it is an opportunity not taken for granted around the world.  This book and its sampling of students who don't always have the most positive outlook lends itself nicely to a conversation about gratitude for the educational experience. It is also a perfect pick for introducing point-of-view, or eking out the point-of-view of your students on their own exciting first day.

Douglas, You Need Glasses! by Ged Adamson (Schwartz & Wade). "Nancy and Douglas were chasing squirrels.  At least, Douglas thought he was chasing squirrels." Poor, nearsighted Douglas is missing important signs, making silly mistakes and even finds himself in danger, all because he can't see well.  Children will laugh and correct Douglas' errors at his hilarious trip to the eye doctor, where Douglas finally chooses a life-changing pair of specs. From the blurry lettering on the cover  to the charming double-paged photographic spread at the end ("REAL KIDS WHO WEAR GLASSES!"), this hilarious book is the perfect prescription for empathy, fostering a deeper understanding from kids who don't wear glasses and a renewed sense of confidence in those who do.

Steamboat School by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Ron Husband (Disney Hyperion).
"'Hurry,' urged Tassie.  "Reverend John doesn't hold with being late.'
At Third and Almond, we slipped into the church,
And headed down the basement steps, into the darkness,
to the Tallow Candle School.
'Why can't we have windows?' I whined, already missing the sun.
'Hush, you know why,' Tassie said.
And I did.
I felt a hand on my shoulder.
'Welcome to out school, James,' said Reverend John.
'We make our own light here.'"
Even the small, surreptitious school in the basement of the church is forced to close when Missouri institutes a new law forbidding African Americans to learn to read or write.  But where there is a will, there's a way, and Reverend John ingeniously refurbishes an old steamboat in order to teach the children on the Mississippi River, where the law of the land did not apply.   Inspired by the true story of Reverend John Berry Meachum (1789-1854), the teacher and student are heroes.  We need these kind of heroes.   Cross-hatch illustrations against a limited palette of brown and black evoke the etching style of the period, but with broad spreads, expressive figures and paired with a high-stakes narrative, this choice lends itself beautifully to sharing in a modern classroom.

Lacey Walker, Nonstop Talker by Christianne Jones, illustrated by Richard Watson (Capstone Little Boost).  When an (ahem) ebullient little owl loses her voice, it leaves room for a little more listening. It turns out her friend told really funny jokes, she was able to finish her classwork and earn a gold star, and she got more out of the movies and books. When Lacey's voice returns, she has a choice to make.  Simple, bright illustrations do the trick in accentuating the gentle message, and the busy endpapers of Lacey in full yammering mode are a jocular overture to the inexorable character readers will meet inside. I'm sure none of you teachers out there have a nonstop talker in your room, but on the off-chance that you do, this book may inspire them to strike more of a balance between talking and listening, like Lacey Walker.

Finding Wild by Megan Wagner Lloyd, illustrated by Abigail Halpin (Knopf).
What is wild?  And where can you find it?
Succinct, elegant musings and twisting ferns and flowers follow a boy and girl on a nature hike. They use each of their senses in turn to discover what is wild, even in the face of concrete. Graceful and colorful watercolor and pencil illustrations maintain interest through a varied layout.  While the prose may prove a bit opaque for some students, the reason this is a worthwhile pick is that it is so invitational.  The question of "what is wild?" is so especially relevant in the face of works like Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods:  Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and the outdoor education, Reggio-Emilia and "forest kindergarten" movements that have taken hold in Europe and increasingly in the United States.  Whatever your school's mission and wherever you are, it is easy to take an observational stroll around the block following a reading of this book and allow for children to discover "wild" for themselves.  In fact, the whole idea and many meanings and connotations of "wild" (both in nature and people) makes for a very interesting exploration in general, made even more interesting paired with books like Wild by Emily Hughes, Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson, Weslandia by Paul Fleischman, Jemmy Button by Jennifer Uman, Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown, and also by Peter Brown, the wonderful new serial read-aloud chapter book The Wild Robot.  A theme that will leave students wild about reading.

What are your favorite picks for the new school year?  Please share in the comments below.  Links are provided for information; please remember to support your local independent bookseller.

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