Back-to-school means new classrooms, teachers and friends. While the dance of friendship is an easy line dance for many children, it’s a complicated tango for others. Every year, teachers spend a great deal of time thinking of ways to help their new students make the transition to a new classroom, where the subtle social rules can seem overwhelming, at least at first. Parents want to help their children fit in, and include new friends in their circles. Three new books will help all children explore these complicated social situations through the eyes of three very different children, perhaps picking up some skills—and empathy—along the way.

ON THE OUTSIDE, LOOKING IN
Peter H. Reynolds quietly explores the feelings of a little boy who is on the outside of the social group in I’m Here. The explanatory information on the jacket explains that he wrote the book “to help us all reach out, embrace, and appreciate children in the autism spectrum, as well as anyone who is different from ourselves.” Young children will be drawn into the world of the playground, where the little boy hears the chatter as one big noise. “They are there. I am here.” All alone, with just the breeze, a piece of paper and eventually one new friend, the little boy narrates his story with few words and an unspoken, overwhelming desire for friendship. Teachers and parents who want to help their children understand the perspective of a child with autism will find this book both moving and useful. The slow pace and blessed lack of bullies and mocking that often are included in books about social adjustment will help all children—and their parents—think of ways to embrace those children who might be on the outside looking in. They are here and they want to be friends.

A SMALL RABBIT WITH A BIG HEART
Squish Rabbit
is a remarkably teeny rabbit. He is so hard to see that he feels life is passing him by. Graphic illustrations by first-time author-illustrator Katherine Battersby, combined with paper, fabric and photograph collage, allow the reader to understand Squish’s predicaments based on how he is pictured on the page. At times, he is so tiny he is about to be stomped by another critter. When he thinks he is alone, he has a dandy tantrum that spans four comic style squares, bathed in a wash of red-hot anger. But when he is desperate to save a squirrel, his scream of “STOP” covers most of two pages. This is a book where design is the thing. Children will discuss why there is an ocean of white space between Squish and the squirrel when they meet and why they gain size and lose almost all distance when the page turns. And, of course, everyone is happy when Squish realizes that “his friends made him feel much bigger.” Squish Rabbit is perfect for the youngest new friends.

QUIRKY AND CONFIDENT
Perhaps my favorite new book about school and friendship is Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School. David Mackintosh brings us a remarkable little guy. The narrator is suspicious of Marshall; Marshall is different. He reads at recess, eats “space food” for lunch, stays in the shade and does not have a TV. The illustrations really get at the heart of Marshall. We see him wearing a straw hat, yellow-and-green-striped jacket and necktie; riding a giant old-timey bike; using school supplies straight from an antique store. When Marshall invites everyone to his birthday party, the narrator just knows it will be a miserable time. Turns out that Marshall’s party, despite the lack of electronics, is more fun than a trip to an amusement park! Quirky pen-and-ink illustrations provide plenty of details to explore. Adults will be reminded of Quentin Blake and Edward Gorey, which is just the right tone for a fellow like Marshall. It’s great to see a smart, inquisitive kid portrayed confidently as a hero. Marshall is remarkably self-assured, the kind of kid who is happy to have friends and happy to be alone with his own interesting mind. Children need to be reminded that, though it’s great to have friends, it’s also important to enjoy time alone to imagine, explore and invent.

For more back-to-school recommendations, read a roundup of four reviews from the August issue of BookPage: "Back to the classroom in style."

Robin Smith spends her summers thinking about her new group of second graders and hopes she will have at least one Marshall, some Squishies and a few quiet observers in her class each year.

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