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Books with Overlooked Potential for Launching the School Year (and Ideas for Using Them with Students)

Jan Miller Burkins

Editor's Note: Teachers often have cherished favorite books for launching the school year, and it's no wonder. We know how students will respond based on our experiences in previous years, and there is comfort in using what is familiar as we face a new crop of children. Here are some picture books which have the potential to become new favorites for launching the year, suggested by the editorial team at Literacyhead, an acclaimed website for teachers that integrates art and literacy. This is the first in a two-part series.

A Sick Day for Amos McGee
by Philip C. Stead
illustrated by Erin Stead

In a few words: Amos McGee, a zookeeper has a well-established routine when it comes to caring for the animals entrusted to him. From wiping the rhinoceros's nose, to playing chess with the elephant, to reading stories to the owl at nightfall, Amos's routines establish a rhythm for all of their days. When Amos gets sick, the animals miss their daily order of events so much that they venture to his house and perform the routine for him, from wiping his nose to reading to him in bed. 

Start school in sync. Use this endearing text, which was the 2010 Caldecott Medal winner, to teach students the importance of routines and how they can support daily work within a community. Talk with students about how they will practice routines and procedures for working together. Let them know that they will become so comfortable with these routines, that if you have a sick day, they won't need to get on a bus to find you!

I Know Here
by Laurel Croza
illustrated by Matt James

In a few words: This lovely story captures the power of becoming close as classmates and living in community. The students in this book have lived together and learned together, as their parents worked to build a dam in Saskatchewan. Now the dam is finished, and they must all part ways. In anticipation of their move, their teacher asks them to draw and share something they know. Much of the story involves the main character walking from place to place, describing the locations and things she loves. The culminating illustration shows her sharing her work.

Start school with a sense of place. At the beginning of the school year students encounter situations which can cause uncertainty and a bit of anxiety; transitions to new classrooms, meeting new teachers and classmates, and exploring new content. Help to ease the stress by asking students to create a picture and/or piece of writing, just as the little girl did in the story, of all the things that are familiar to them. These "I Know Here" maps can serve as tools for introducing themselves to the class. You can also connect to I Know Here by exploring the physical locations in the school as you tour various places students will visit during the school year, such as the art room, the music room, and the gymnasium.

This Is the Tree
by Miriam Moss
illustrated by Adrienne Kennaway

In a few words: This book is filled with poetic language and lush illustrations. Each page rhythmically details a different species of animal that relies on the tree. The final message addresses the ways that all the animals are connected.

Start school with rhythm. While This Is the Tree provides interesting facts about the African Baobab tree and engenders further curiosity about the African Savannah, its poetic structures lend themselves to frames for student writing. Use this informational text as a blueprint for students to create a factual book about the class, with each student writing an autobiographical page. Invite students to generate prose poems following the book's format, and arrange their pieces into a class book.

For example: 
This is the classroom where Constance sits
with long brown hair
and black-rimmed glasses framing hazel eyes.

The Three Questions
written and illustrated by Jon J. Muth

In a few words: The Three Questions is a timeless Leo Tolstoy short story as retold by Jon J. Muth. The central character Nikolai has three friends: Sonya the heron, Gogol the monkey and Pushkin the dog. Each is symbolic of a particular aspect of human philosophical endeavor. This book promises to give students of all ages a lot to think, talk, and write about. The three questions challenge readers to be mindful of the ways every minute is valuable for its own sake.

Start school with mindfulness. Muth's profound text can be used to help students think about the moments they share in the classroom. Use it to entice thought-provoking conversations that can lead to writing. As questions such as, What is important now? What is important about this first day/week of school? What is most important for you in this upcoming school year?

Giant Steps to Change the World
by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee
illustrated by Sean Qualls

In a few words: How often do we ask our children, "How are you, dear one, going to change the world?" This beautiful book challenges young readers to anticipate their glorious futures by using examples from great Americans. Authors Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee have written an inspirational book that honors the bright possibilities of their young readers. Sean Qualls' paint, pencil, and collage illustrations are mesmerizing and do a stellar job of representing the vibrant lives of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jesse Owens, Mother Theresa, and others.

Start school with agency. Giant Steps to Change the World sets out to endow young readers with both the empowerment and the will to affect change. Start the school year using this read-aloud to help children envision their futures and the ways they can change the world. The change agents described in Giant Steps to Change the World were learned and/or articulate. You can connect the work of the upcoming year to the important, world-changing work in your students' futures.

Yesterday I Had the Blues 
by Jeron Ashford Frame
illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

In a few words: Follow one boy and his family as their emotions are described through colors: "Daddy says he got the grays...The don't ask for a new skateboard till tomorrow grays. Poor Daddy." Beautiful and energetic illustrations are paired with each colorful emotion to help children visualize the emotional ups and downs that we all experience.

Start school in full color. Use this book to discuss the range of emotions that students might be experiencing during the first few days and weeks of school. You can talk with students about how different colors represent feelings. Use the poetic structure developed by Jeron Ashford Frame and let children write about how they feel, then connect those feelings both to colors and to school. 

Today I have the yellows.
The bright yellows.
The sit by my new friend at lunch yellows.
The sharpen my number two pencil yellows.

This article was written by the editorial team at Literacyhead, a website that presents lessons using visual art to teach reading and writing. Jan Miller Burkins, Literacyhead's founder and Executive Editor, is a literacy consultant and an author of Preventing Misguided ReadingJamie D'Angelo, Literacyhead's Editor, has worked in both traditional and cyber education settings as an art teacher and as a classroom teacher. Rachel Watkins, Assistant Editor, is a retired classroom teacher, full-time writer and editor, and an advocate for arts education. Carrie Laird, Technical Editor, is a retired special educator. To learn more about how Literacyhead uses visual art to help children learn to read and write, watch their video.


Jan Miller Burkins

Jan Miller Burkins is a full-time consultant and writer. She is the author of two books about literacy coaching, and the creator of the website Literacyhead.