Posted in Thematic Spotlights

The Best Books for Back to School

The first weeks of school are tough.   We’re tired.  The kids are tired.  We’re trying to get 20, 25, 30 (or more!) small people to move in a common direction, both physically and mentally.  The expression “herding cats” floats through our brains with frightening frequency.  We’re trying to set up routines and procedures that will keep our kids safe  and productive all year, and at the same time, we are trying to establish warm, engaging classroom culture where every student feels known and loved.


This is why, for me, Read Aloud is so important in the first weeks of school.  It’s the time when kids can relax a bit, not having to worry about the right way to head a paper, get into a line, or ask for a new pencil.  They know what to do during a read aloud.

It’s also so important because we use stories to create a vision of what we want our classroom communities to be.  A place where Lilly can make mistakes and fix them with an apology and an interpretive dance.  A place where Swimmy learns that teamwork can you get out of a tough spot.  A place where EVERYONE can learn to ride a bicycle (or cement their growth mindsets, at least).

So, with that, here is the non-exhaustive list of the best books for back to school!

Growth Mindset

Chris Raschka’s Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle feels like it was written for the exact purpose of introducing the idea of growth mindset and persistence to children.  It chronicles the journey of an unnamed character learning to ride a bicycle.  There are small successes and many bumps in the road, but in the end with continued practice and hard work, it happens!

You’ll undoubtedly ask your students to do many things that won’t come easily this year.  Make this little cyclist your mascot, and you’ll remind students that even when things get bumpy, persistence will lead to success.  (Bonus Book: If you want to teach students how their brains develop and learn new things, I suggest Your Fantastic Elastic Brain by JoAnn Deak, PhD.)


We dream of classrooms where our students not only notice each other’s feelings, but also take great care with them.  We know, though, that this is not always their first instinct.  Leonardo can relate.

In Mo Willems’ Leonard0 the Terrible MonsterLeonardo dreams of being a truly terrible, terrifying monster.  He is not.  He develops the ingenious plan of finding the biggest scaredy-cat of a kid and scaring the “tuna salad out of him.”   It turns out that this is not quiet as satisfying as Leonardo would have hoped.  He makes the decision to be not a terrible monster, but instead, a really good friend.  Let’s all be like Leonardo.

Learning to Read (and more Growth Mindset!)

Much like Leonardo, the titular character in Becky Bloom’s Wolf!  wants to scare the other characters in the book.  Unfortunately for him, the farm animals who are his targets are too busy reading to pay his scary howls any mind.   Wolf decides he will also learn to read.

It is a slow process in which Wolf returns to the farm several times before he truly proves himself a reader. Wolf struggles to read complex words, read at an appropriate rate, and read with the expression of a storyteller.   With practice in school, at the library, and with his very own storybook, he gets it.    Students will be able to relate!

Making Mistakes

 Lilly.  Oh, how I love Lilly.  In Kevin Henke’s classic, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, Lilly struggles to delay the gratification of showing off her new purple plastic purse (it plays music for cryin’ out loud!).    When her teacher Mr. Slinger holds onto to it for her, she takes some regrettable action in retribution.

Lilly makes a mistake, but Mr. Slinger accepts her apology and suggests, yes, an interpretive dance that makes everyone feel better. If only all classroom conflicts were resolved thus!   Use this book to normalize the making of mistakes, and to build the understanding that we can always fix our mistakes.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Leo Lionni’s Swimmy is the story of a little black fish who uses quick thinking and his own unique characteristics to rally a school of little red fish to fend off a big, bad predator.

Use this book to help students understand that being different can be a good thing, and that working together can make even the the most insurmountable problems solvable.

Happy Reading and Happy Back to School to all!