REPORT CARDS REFLECT how children perform academically, but transcripts sum up only part of a child's education. They don't reflect the struggles to figure out where they fit in, how to cooperate, which rules to obey, which to bend, which to break.
Stories do. Children's books allow kids to take a step back from day-to-day classroom chaos to see the real work that goes on in school every day: the forging of friendships, the testing of ideals, the molding of conscience.
Kids may never encounter exactly the same situations that they find in books, but every time they work through someone else's problems, they gain the confidence they need to solve their own.
First Day, Hooray!
Holiday House, 1999, $15.95 v Ages 4 to 8
Kindergartner Ivy Green is about to begin her life as a student and she's nervous about all the things that might go wrong on the first day of school. She's not the only one! Her bus driver, custodian, principal, and teacher are all worried about possible glitches, too.
Upbeat paintings capture the eve of the most anticipated day of the year for Ivy and four adults whose lives revolve around school. Though they have different jobs and responsibilities, everyone needs the same thing: the waiting to be over! For kids rattled by first-day jitters, this reassuring hug of a book is the soothing deep breath they need.
Houghton Mifflin, 1998, $15
Ages 5 to 8
Show and Tell presents a unique challenge for tiny Melissa Hermann. She's positive there's nothing in her life that anyone would find interesting...until a visit to her father's dental lab gets her creative juices flowing. Even though her flustered teacher said the souvenirs she had scrupulously cleaned for her classmates were inappropriate and her father was waiting for her after school, Melissa considered her presentation a rousing success. Her life was a lot more interesting than she'd ever imagined!
Exaggerated cartoon-style drawings reveal that Melissa's home life is hard to believe. I mean really: Do extraterrestrials get toothaches? Kids will have a ball with the sight gags and over-the-top irony in this story's understated text.
David Goes to School
Scholastic, 1999, $14.95
Ages 3 to 8
David's the kind of the kid who would give the devil ulcers. Now imagine him in class--needless to say, he's giving his teacher a run for her money. His antics drive her to distraction: "That's it, Mister! You're staying after school!" Uh-oh. Is the perpetrator of all things loud, messy, and out-of-line a lost cause? Not by a long shot!
In a reflection of David's high-energy chutzpah, vibrant, rambunctious drawings accompany text printed on scraps of paper designed to accommodate a first grader's scrawl. Any child who has ever misbehaved (yep, that's just about all of them) wonders about forgiveness. This book leaves no doubt. If there's hope for the quintessential bad boy, there's hope for us all.
Carol Diggory Shields
Puffin, 1999, $5.99
Ages 4 to 8
Here's a rollicking collection of school poems that chronicles everything that happens to a typical bunch of elementary school students. From the dash to catch the bus in the morning, through math, lunch, recess, and a pesky fifty-word book report, the rhythm of the day doesn't miss a beat.
The cadences are catchy and the truths espoused are universal: "Pizza with cheese...School lunch please!...Tuna-cabbage crunch?...I think I'll bring my lunch!" Lots of humor and cartoon-style illustrations rate an A+.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
J. K. Rowling
Scholastic, 1999, $5.99
Ages 7 and up
In the eleven years he's lived with his mean aunt and uncle and their abominable son, Harry has never even had a birthday party. He sadly assumes this to be his destiny, until a mysterious message arrives, inviting him to attend an exclusive boarding school.
Harry has a lot to learn about his family heritage at the Hogwarts School for Witches and Wizards. He's got to adapt to a world where alchemy is a school subject, mail is delivered by owl, and flying broomsticks are considered sporting equipment. He's made great friends and mortal enemies. If he survives, it's going to be a great year!
This book sparkling with such humor and innovative magical invention, it's no wonder kids (and adults!) love Harry. It's the perfect read-aloud. Keep the magic going with the sequel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and the third book in the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
The Landry News
Simon & Schuster, 1999, $15
Ages 8 to 12
Fifth grader Cara Landry is the sole writer/editor/publisher of The Landry News. Her editorial accusing her teacher, Mr. Larson, of not doing his job catches the eye of the principal who has long wanted to get rid of him. It also wakes up Mr. Larson, a burned-out teacher whose hands-off style becomes decidedly more involved as he develops a journalism unit and encourages his students to work as a team to turn Cara's personal endeavor into a classroom newspaper.
When the principal tries to oust Mr. Larson by accusing him of allowing the students to publish inappropriate material (a personal story about divorce) Cara and her classmates come to their teacher's and their paper's defense.
There's more than a First Amendment lesson in this book's feisty pages. There's humor, a teacher who truly understands what teaching should be, and a story that emphasizes the connection between truth and mercy.
Pa Lia's Day
Harcourt Brace, 1999, $14
Ages 6 to 9
Pa Lia Vang is anxious about starting second grade at a new school. She's delighted to discover that making friends is not as hard as she'd thought it would be and dismayed that getting into trouble is a whole lot easier than she'd anticipated.
Students of many races attend Jackson Magnet school. Pa Lia is Hmong, but her ethnicity doesn't define her. She is the new kid with all the attendant worries that implies. Kids will nod knowingly at her predicaments and applaud enthusiastically her successful efforts in making and keeping friends. Pa Lia is a winner!
Newly independent readers ready to forsake easy-to-read books will love the Jackson Friends series' spunky characters. Wide margins and lots of pen-and-ink drawings make the transition to chapter books a snap.
Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998, $16
Ages 10 and up
"My spring was wound so tight that I was more like a rat in a maze, without words, or any feelings, or any ideas about myself and what I should be doing other than go, go, go!"
Meet Joey Pigza, hyperactivity incarnate. Prescription meds, constant cajoling, time-outs, Special Ed. Joey's trying his best to behave, it's just that--he can't. He knows he's a disappointment to everyone he cares about, and his mom has been warned that if he screws up one more time he'll be transferred to a center for problem kids. Guess where he is right now?
Joey is smart, good-hearted, funny--and totally out of control. In this frenetic, poignant, first-person narrative, readers see what it's like to be an "at-risk" kid defined by the worst of his qualities instead of his dreams. It's an eye-opening experience.
Clarion, 1998, $15
Ages 10 to 14
When the substitute teacher fails to show up for Mr. Fabiano's sixth-grade class, his students take matters into their own hands. Can they get through the entire day alone? Voting to accept the dare fate has offered, the students carefully assess what they'll need to make it to dismissal. Everyone's cooperation is essential, and that'll be tough. Because unbeknownst to their fellow classmates, some students have a lot more to worry about than what's going on in class.
Written from the perspectives of various students, here in minute detail is the chronicle of the day when Mr. Fabiano's class decides to prove that "kids rule!" They want to make a point, and they end up becoming a team.
Lynne Burke's book reviews appear in parenting publications across the country. She lives in Minneapolis.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.