Kids' Books Set in Schools

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Cover Art

Let's think about this place where kids spend so much time -- the school. There's no shortage of commentary about schools, but let's ignore the news media for a while and go to the literature. What do our kids' books say about school?

If we put up a bulletin board that is segmented in two sections: The Kids and The Staff, we've got a place to organize our information about the characters in these books as we meet them. Get the kids to talk about the characters and the way they look, what they should be doing, what items they should hold, and how they're going to create those images. Suggest that they use written descriptions as well as graphic images. Since some of the characters are animals who act like human beings and others are distinctly human, there's an opportunity for some classification activities and some discussion as well. Why do they use animals as characters in many picture books and a few novels?

The first book I always reach for when I'm talking about schools with parents, teachers and kids is Denys Cazet's Never Spit on Your Shoes (Orchard, 1990 ISBN 0531058476. Order Info). For me, it's one of those special books that lets me remember two separate selves -- myself as a first grader at Abner Gibbs School in Westfield, Massachusetts, worried about everything and awed by the kids who worried about nothing and myself as a teacher facing each new class with a determination to do it perfectly this time and a knowledge that the odds were against it. If you're not familiar with the book, it's about Arnie, who is telling his mother what happened on his first day of school. The illustrations fill in the hilarious details. So, on the bulletin board, put Arnie and, of course, Raymond. The teacher isn't named but we can put her picture there, perhaps beside the only rule she manages to get on the board. More Info.

Next, sentimental slob that I am, I want My Great-Aunt Arizona by Gloria Houston with illustrations by Susan Condie Lamb (HarperCollins, 1991 ISBN 0060226064. Order Info). This is a wonderful biography of the woman who never got to go to all those places she taught about. She saw them only in her mind but she inspired several generations of her students to see those faraway places. You'll have to decide whether to depict her as a young woman with her long dark braids or with long grey ones.

Mrs. Toggle belongs up there too. You'll need to show her wearing her heavy coat with the stuck zipper as she appears in Robin Pulver and R. W. Alley's Mrs. Toggle's Zipper (Four Winds, 1990 ISBN 0027754510. Order Info).

No staff bulletin board would be complete without Miss Nelson and Viola Swamp. Their appearance in the books by Harry Allard and James Marshall (Houghton) make such strong impressions that you'll have to be careful not to allow them to take over the board. Surely Viola will try.

The debate about Ms Frizzle will concern her dress, no doubt. The choice of design will depend on which of the Magic School Bus books the kids like best. My vote goes for The Magic School Bus at the Waterworks (Scholastic, 1986 ISBN 0590437399. Order Info). Do be sure to put her pupils up on the bulletin board, perhaps with some of their charts and exhibits.

Back to Denys Cazet again for Born in the Gravy (Orchard, 1993 ISBN 0531054888. Order Info). Here it's the first day of kindergarten and the accent is on the kids, not the teacher. The bilingual text and the nametags should make for some great pictures.

From Cazet to Henkes is a nice transition. Chrysanthemum (Mulberry, 1996 ISBN 0688147321. Order Info) is my first nomination for the school board (forgive the pun). She was so proud of her name until she got to school and the kids made fun of it. I'd probably have her looking lovingly at the teacher, (Delphinium) who saves the day but you'll also have to put the imperious Victoria on the student side looking down on Chrysanthemum.

Who could forget Mr. Slinger? Put him right up there, perhaps holding the confiscated items he took from Lilly: her sunglasses and, of course, the musical purse in Kevin Henkes' Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse (Greenwillow, 1996 ISBN 0688128971. Order Info). Is there a way to put Lilly on the student side of the board in such a way that she looks toward her sometime idol. Can we have her holding the picture she drew of him at her moment of greatest anger?

Tomie dePaola's autobiographical Art Lesson (Putnam, 1989 ISBN 039921688X. Order Info) gives us an art teacher, Miss Bowers. Which way will you show her: before or after Tommy makes her stop and change her rules for drawing?

There's nothing like a chicken to put things in perspective, especially if the chicken is the ever-confused Minerva Louise. Her visit to school in Minerva Louise at School by Janet Morgan Stoeke (Dutton, 1996 ISBN 0525454942. Order Info) is a lesson in perception. A chicken's eye view of the school could lead to a lot of good writing activities but, in the meantime, put Minerva, perhaps holding a pencil in her beak, on the bulletin board with the other students.

Kathryn Lasky focuses on one fearsome room in the school, at least for Clyde, in her Lunch Bunnies (Little, Brown, 1996 ISBN 0316515256. Order Info) illustrated by Marylin Hafner. Clyde has heard all the stories about the tyrannical lunch room staff and the inedible food and the myriad of traps waiting to humiliate him in the school cafeteria. You'll need to put lunch lady Gloria on the staff side of the bulletin board with her rabbit ears sticking out of her hairnet and, of course, Clyde and Rosemary on the student side. What you'll do with the "mystery goosh" is up to you.

Speaking of fears, Dolores Johnson's What Will Mommy Do When I'm at School? (Simon & Schuster, 1990 ISBN 0027478459. Order Info) is a delightful look at projection. A little girl, about to go off to school for the first time, tells us how concerned she is about her mother's feelings. Surely, her mother will be lonely, will miss her too much, and will be scared. Perhaps she'd better not go. Her father tries to help but it's the mother that gets it all straightened out as we knew she would.

We'll have to add a world map or a map of Africa to our exhibit if we're going to use Catherine Stock"s Where Are You Going, Manyoni? (Morrow, 1993 ISBN 0688103537. Order Info). For this little girl in Zimbabwe, it's the trip to school rather than the school itself that takes precedence but the learning we do on the way is just great. (Author's Website)

Mark Haiti on that map as well after the kids look at Running the Road to ABC by Denize Lauture and Reynold Ruffins (Simon & Schuster, 1996 ISBN 0689805071. Order Info). These kids don't walk to school, they run through the pre-dawn dark but they and we see a lot.

Go back to the map of Africa for Ndito Runs by Laurie Halse Anderson (Henry Holt, 1996 ISBN 0805032657. Order Info). As the title tells us, she too runs to school through the Kenyan highlands and she apes the animals she sees on the way.

Stay with the international set and the world map for Guatemala in The Most Beautiful Place in the World by Ann Cameron and Thomas B. Allen (Knopf, 1988 ISBN 0394994639. Order Info). Here's a kid's eye view of school that should have all of us who take education for granted hanging our heads in shame. Juan lives with his grandmother and longs to go to school but fears his grandmother will not allow it. He teaches himself to read before he dares to broach the subject.

Another youngster eager for school is the youngest mouse in Emily McCully's School (HarperCollins, 1987 ISBN 0060241330. Order Info). We've seen this intrepid mouse before in other books in the series so we shouldn't be surprised when it follows the school-age members of the family to school on the first day and enjoys itself greatly.

Those are my nominations but, don't stop there. Even after you've read all the school picture books you can think of and put the characters up on the bulletin board, you've only just begun. How about giving kids a folded paper with "I used to think . . ." on the top of one column and "But now I know . . ." on the other. Suggest that kids try to remember their before school fears and don't restrict them to their earliest days at school. Everybody, including the staff, had lots of misconceptions before they started this school year too.

It's also a chance to work with ideal schools. What would an ideal school be like? What qualities would an ideal librarian have? Keep going, the school year's just started. See you next month.

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