School is back in session, and for some, a time of nervousness and anxiety. These 20 back-to-school books for readers of all ages will help get you in the learning mood.

The mornings are darker and the days are shorter. Though the summer sun still technically shines on all of us, autumn is on its way—which, for many, means the school year is already several weeks old.

(3 Ideas for Increasing the Diversity of Children’s Home Libraries)

The start of the new school year was always a time of nervousness and insecurity for me. I worried about being bullied, having decent grades, seeing my friends in class, and being active outside of the classroom. And as has been true throughout my life, when I feel the spark of self-doubt creep into my brain, I turn to books.

This list of 20 back-to-school books range from themes on starting the new school year to books that would be great conversation starters. 

Picture Books

The Day You Begin written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Rafael López

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The prolific Jacqueline Woodson reminds us that being different is a superpower in the beautifully written and illustrated picture book, The Day You Begin.

School’s First Day of School written by Adam Rex and illustrated by Christian Robinson

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A sweet and hilarious take on the start of school year narrative, Adam Rex’s story shows the school, itself, is nervous—but as the day progresses, the school relaxes, as he realizes he’s not the only one with first-day jitters. 

All Are Welcome written by Alexandra Penfold and illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman

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Alexandra Penfold’s message is simple: All are welcome here. A beautiful celebration of how diverse a classroom should be, with simple and sweet rhyming such as this:

No matter how you start your day.

What you wear when you play.

Or if you come from far away.

All are welcome here.

Chrysanthemum written by Kevin Henkes

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Kevin Henkes’ story follows Chrysanthemum on her first day of school, where she’s immediately bullied for her name—something she used to love about herself. Through tears and tribulations, Henkes shows us how to persevere in the face of those who make use doubt ourselves.

A Classic: Leo the Late Bloomer written by Robert Kraus and illustrated by Jose Aruego

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Leo is a lion cub who hasn’t found his roar, who can’t read or write, who won’t play or draw. His father is worried about him, but his mother is patiently and reminds him: A watched bloomer never blooms. Then suddenly, on his own time, Leo comes into his own. 

I was given a copy of Leo the Late Bloomer by a cousin of mine, who was many years older than me and a person I deeply admired. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized the impact it had on me: that though I was shy, I was still me, and in time, I would bloom.

Middle Grade

Ways to Make Sunshine by Renée Watson

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Renée Watson’s Ways to Make Sunshine unapologetically shows that being a fourth-grader can be frustrating at times, fun at others, and that there are countless opportunities to make sunshine in your own life.

The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga

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A thoughtful and important book about the realities many students face today, Jasmine Warga’s The Shape of Thunder is timely, beautifully written, and not to be missed.

The Queen Bee and Me by Gillian McDunn

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Gillian McDunn’s story about a long friendship that may be at the end of its rope is an important story about how to know when to say goodbye to someone, even when you love them.

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

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Kelly Yang’s semi-autobiographical story about an immigrant family trying to make a life for themselves in America is poignant, oftentimes funny, and always touching. 

A Classic: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

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I was asked once in a rapid-fire-type question-and-answer what my favorite book of all time was, and to my surprise I blurted out Tuck Everlasting. I mentioned this to a friend and they said, “Yeah, that sounds right.” The more I sat with it, the more it felt true. Natalie Babbitt’s classic story is a beautiful meditation on nature, on life, and how to live our own.

High School

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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Angie Thomas’ debut novel made her a household name, and for good reason. Pulse-pounding, infuriating, and important, The Hate U Give is one of those rare reads where the hype is all true.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

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Two young girls in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1950s have a friendship that is blossoming into something more, in a time that asked them to keep it a secret. Heartbreaking a hopeful, Malinda Lo’s young adult romance is perfect for all readers.

Kent State by Deborah Wiles

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Written in verse from six different perspectives, Deborah Wiles’ Kent State may be few in pages but is made up for by emotional impact. Replaying the events of May 4, 1970, Kent State has a pulse that never slows.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

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Elizabeth Acevedo’s debut novel-in-verse captures how it feels to be coming into one’s own, from first crushes to growing dreams, and everything in between. (Read more about Acevedo in our October/November 2021 issue.)

A Classic: A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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A Separate Peace was one of the first required reading books that I felt an immediate love for, and one I return to frequently. A complicated and thoughtful depiction of friendship in a very formative time of life.

College

Normal People by Sally Rooney

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Sally Rooney’s debut novel is about lifelong friends with a complicated past to the world by storm, leading to an award-winning miniseries. Outstanding and infuriating, Normal People is sure to get you and your bookish friends chatting.

Temporary by Hilary Leichter

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A delightfully weird little novel about a perpetual temp worker who is on a quest to find permanence. Hilary Leichter’s book captures that feeling of trying to find oneself in a time when we’re supposed to know exactly what we want to do and who we’re supposed to be.

Luster by Raven Leilani

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Luster is darkly funny with sharp writing and interesting observations on what it means to be young and unsure of what we want.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

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Yaa Gyasi’s latest novel tackles personal ambition, family obligation, personal trauma, and the need to have hope. Transcendent Kingdom is a quietly compelling work of fiction.

A Classic: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

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My hot take with this book is that we’re asked to read it far too young. I read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time as a sophomore in high school, and I can say with certainty that not only did I not like it, but I didn’t altogether understand it. I was then asked to read it in a Psychology in Literature class in college, and I had a very different experience reading it. In thinking we, at 16 years old, understand a 16-year-old character solely because we’re the same age is a mistake. My suggestion is to try reading J.D. Salinger’s classic novel again as an adult, and see if your feelings about it are different.

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