Must-Read Picture Books for the First Day of School
The beginning of a new school year is fast approaching. It’s time to shift out of summer mode, ready or not. It’s certainly a big transition for everyone, and that’s not always easy for kids. They might be feeling a little hesitation about all the unknowns. But there are certainly ways that parents and teachers can help them feel more prepared for whatever school can throw at them.
I’ve always said that books are a great way to gain life experience from the safety of your home. There’s a lot of wisdom to be found in the pages of a good book, and that wisdom can come in quite handy during major life transitions like these.
The books on this list encompass all of the major life lessons I wanted to share with my son before he started school. Some of the books are newer discoveries for us, but if I could go back to his very first day of preschool, I would read every single one of them right before he left. And that’s just what I’ll do with our 3-year-old daughter next year!
Our son is 6-years-old now, and he’s heard all of the books on this list many times. I owe a debt of gratitude to all of these stories, because they’ve helped me teach our children the importance of things like empathy and self-confidence. And they’ve also helped me pass down bits and pieces of the meaning of life to our kids.
Whether you’re a parent or a teacher, and whether your child is starting kindergarten or the 6th grade - the books on this list are perfect kickstarts to the school year. Use them to remind your kids to believe in themselves, and use them to stress the importance of kindness and standing up to bullies. And, most importantly of all, before you send your kids off to school, use these books to remind them what’s really important in life.
Disclosure: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. These links will lead you to view the books’ listings on Amazon.com and other affiliate partners.
7. The Dot
Written and Illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds
One of the biggest fears in kids these days is the fear of failure. It’s a terrible, unfortunate byproduct of the high-stakes testing environment kids are raised in. For these kids, everything fits into a black and white world of correct and incorrect. And the most depressing thing of all is that this attitude can even bleed over into the world of creativity and imagination - a place that should never be touched by such terrible constraints.
For fear of failure - and reprimand from parents or teachers - many kids develop the depressing coping skill of “not trying”. I’m not technically failing if I don’t do it at all, right? This sad attitude is tied up with the concept of a “fixed mindset”. Too many kids believe that some kids are smart and some kids are not. Some kids are good at math, and some kids are not. This belief is a complete copout, and absolutely nothing will set a child up for failure more. Let this belief fester for too long, and all of the sudden they aren’t trying (or enjoying) anything.
The Dot tells the all-too-familiar tale of that student who’s scared of failing. In this case, a little girl named Vashti is absolutely convinced she can’t be an artist. She simply can’t draw. Luckily for her, that’s simply not how art and creativity work. Her amazing teacher leads her down a path of discovery that will most certainly change her life and attitude forever.
The Dot is an important celebration of self-confidence, creativity, and individuality. Kids will really benefit from seeing Vashti’s negative attitude about herself completely turned on its head - and teachers will get a welcomed reminder of the powerful impact they can have. Lots of kids will find a mirror of themselves in this book, and those kids need to know that education and life itself is simply not so black and white.
You can read more about The Dot on our list of the best picture books with life lessons.
Written by Jacqueline Woodson and Illustrated by E. B. Lewis
I am a huge fan of explicitly teaching empathy to our kids. And school honestly makes a natural setting for that lesson. There are many picture books about empathy that feature a school setting. It’s perfect for teaching kids how they should treat one another - probably because of all the bullying that takes place.
It’s a sad state of affairs that we’re in, but it’s undeniable that kids can be depressingly mean to each other. That’s why I consider it one of my most important dad duties to raise kind children. And what better way to do that than to scare them to death. I swear, Each Kindness is enough to give me nightmares from regret.
I kid you not, if there’s a single nice bone in your body, Each Kindness is enough to keep you up at night. It’s about a girl’s painfully slow realization about her terrible bullying behavior. Unfortunately, the teasing and the exclusion she participates in is still all too common in schools today.
And I very much want my children to read about those kinds of actions before going to school. I want them to be prepared to call this kind of behavior what it is - bullying. Unfortunately, it’s too late by the time the little girl in this book realizes what she has done. This is a powerful story, and it’s enough to convince anyone to think twice about their treatment of others.
5. Be Kind
Written by Pat Zietlow Miller and Illustrated by Jen Hill
As you can see, kindness is going to be playing a major role on this list. I wouldn’t dare send my kids to school before they internalized the importance of treating others with kindness. School is where they’re going to be learning about building relationships with their peers, and somewhere in those relationships that tie us together lies the meaning of life. I honestly don’t think it can be stressed enough how important it is to be kind.
Be Kind tells the tale of a girl who spills grape juice on herself - and the girl who deeply wants to make her feel better. What I really love about this book is just how pure-hearted and sincere the girl who wants to help is. I can only hope my own children would respond in the same way when they see someone sad and embarrassed.
What this sweet book ultimately provides us with is a list of different ways to show kindness - even some that are humorously specific. Clearly this girl has put a lot of thought into the ways she can make others happy - and I think that makes her a pretty amazing role model for children. Every little nudge towards compassion we can give our kids before we send them off by themselves makes a huge difference in this egocentric world of ours.
You can read more about Be Kind in our list of the best picture books about empathy.
Written and Illustrated by Kerascoët
This is certainly not the first time you’ve seen us sing the praises of Kerascoët’s beautiful, wordless picture book - and for good reason. I Walk With Vanessa is a masterpiece of a lesson on kindness and standing up to bullies.
It’s not always easy to do the right thing when we witness bullying. For some sad reason it’s much easier to be a bystander and do nothing at all. And so it’s vitally important that we empower our kids to know that something can and should be done every single time they see bullying taking place. And I’m telling you that this book is an inspiration.
The little girl in this story is deeply affected by what she sees at school. I love watching her deep in thought at home - staring out her window late into the night. The fact that these powerful images are accompanied by no words actually leads to fantastic conversations. I love the fact that our 3-year-old can read this book completely alone, and tell us about all of the characters’ emotions all the way through.
You can read more about I Walk With Vanessa on our list of the best picture books that teach empathy.
Written and Illustrated by Ryan T. Higgins
Every kid could use this reminder, right? Maybe you might think the message in this title is obvious, but is that a risk you’re willing to take?
This book is truly hilarious. I’m not exaggerating - this book really makes me laugh out loud. Higgins has remarkable timing with his humor. This is very sharp deadpan comedy in this book, and the whole family gets a really big kick out of it.
The running gag in this story is that the new student in class is a dinosaur that likes to eat humans. But, even though her classmates look tasty, more than anything she is just nervous about making friends and fitting in - a feeling many kids can relate to.
So underneath the high-quality comedy is a story about being nervous about school, making friends, and trying something new. It’s absolute genius to tackle these topics in this lighthearted way. And that makes this a perfect pick for calming those first day jitters.
You can read more about We Don’t Eat Our Classmates in our article of the best picture books of 2018.
Written by Trudy Ludwig and Illustrated by Patrice Barton
If you’re looking to teach your children about the importance of empathy before sending them off to school - make sure to start with The Invisible Boy. My son and I have read this one many times, and it has sparked many meaningful conversations about our interactions with other children at school.
Because of this book we have talked about kids at school who are playing alone, and what to do if other kids ask to join his games with his friends. And, most importantly, we’ve talked about what he can do to make a difference. It’s the kind of concept that even the kindest children might be completely oblivious to. And this book deserves a lot of credit for sparking these important conversations.
The Invisible Boy is a student you can find in every single school. This is a book that every teacher would be wise to share with their class to build a culture of empathy. Everyone should know that we need to find those invisible kids and make them feel seen. As a parent, reading this book to your children before sending them off to school will ensure that they’re ready to fight the good fight as warriors for kindness.
If you want to read more about The Invisible Boy, make sure to check out our featured article.
Written by Davina Bell and Illustrated by Allison Colpoys
All the Ways to Be Smart is the ultimate rallying cry for those of us who are frustrated with an antiquated school system that is obsessed with test scores. Too many kids spend their entire childhood believing that some people are smart and some people are not. It’s a tragedy and it’s depressing and it’s time for it to end.
Every child has value, and every child deserves the opportunity to have their own talents and interests celebrated. Most of all, every child deserves a childhood. High-stakes testing and the deterioration of time spent outdoors for recess is slowly robbing them of that right. This is true meaning of life stuff.
This beautiful picture book is immensely important. It’s a perfect reminder for children and adults everywhere that creativity, imagination, and empathy deserve every bit of the attention that math and English receive. If I had my way, every school day in every school on earth would begin by reciting this book out loud. And I certainly wouldn’t send my kids to school before they’ve read this book so many times they knew it by heart. The message inside is just too important to risk it.
For a closer look at why we love All the Ways to Be Smart so much, make sure to read our featured article.
What’s your favorite book to read on the first day of school? Have you read any of the books on our list? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!