Although my youngest children are twins entering fourth grade, I still take notice of new books by Rosemary Wells, one of our favorite storytellers and illustrators. Her latest is Yoko Writes Her Name. Yoko, who is Japanese, worries that she won't graduate from kindergarten after her classmates pronounce her Japanese writing "scribbling." Things get worse when Yoko shares her favorite book with her classmates, who tease her about reading from right to left. Luckily, Angelo comes to the rescue, complimenting Yoko on her "secret language," and asking her to share her knowledge. Mrs. Jenkins catches the excitement, adopting Japanese as her class' second language. As always, Wells' illustrations are bright, fun and filled with heartfelt characters. An added bonus is Japanese calligraphy, so young readers can try Japanese writing themselves.


Mrs. Miller's students are heading to Elm School in Off to First Grade, a delightful book written by Louise Borden and illustrated by Joan Rankin. This is truly a story about beginnings, taking a slightly different approach than most first-day books: it's all about the getting ready and going, and not about what happens once everyone gets there.

The story is told from the 23 students' points of view, in short snippets, as the children share their enthusiasm, hopes, fears and questions that first morning. They all have something to share, starting with A for Anna and ending with Z for Mr. Zimmerman, the principal. Mostly there is excitement, as Anna brags to her little brother about the "zillions of books" she will read to him, and Otto admires his new red sneakers. Of course, there's some nervousness: Ignacio is a newly arrived immigrant and Yoshi isn't sure he's ready. By the end of the book, all 23 children stand in a circle around Mrs. Miller and Mr. Zimmerman, who is ready to read them a book (a copy of Off to First Grade is tucked under his arm). Rankin's lovely watercolors make each student jump to life, and give this book about "going" great forward motion.


Poor Boris. He's the star of Carrie Weston's The New Bear at School. The students in Miss Cluck's classroom are initially excited about the newcomer, hoping for a fluffy, pink bear, a Paddington-type bear, or any kind of teddy bear. However, when the door opens and a grizzly bear walks in, everyone screams.

Things go downhill from there, as Boris breaks his chair. When Boris grins, everyone panics at the sight of his sharp teeth. Chaos erupts, and Boris feels ostracized. That is, until a gang of bullying rats preys upon some students after school. Boris unwittingly scares them off, just by appearing and smiling (his sharp teeth have a way of exciting everyone). Boris ends up a hero, and suddenly the hairy, scary bear has been transformed into a soft, cuddly friend. Tim Warnes' pastel-toned illustrations are just right (he was inspired by watching cartoons with his kids).


Michael Wright's bright, bold illustrations in Jake Starts School look like they are a cartoon! The book is full of humor and funny bird's-eye view perspectives, and it's Homer Simpson-esque in a good, ages four-to-seven kind of way. I love, for instance, the big spread in which Jake's parents turn to him in the car, saying, "Big day, son!" and "Isn't this exciting?" They both have big heads that fill the page. Meanwhile as Jake spots students and the bus outside the car window, the narration states: "As they arrived, Jake was surprised to see so many kids." In true-to-life fashion, Jake screams and bolts the minute he lays eyes on his red-headed teacher. He grabs his parents' knees for dear life and refuses to let go. When no one can pry Jake away, he and his parents go through the day glommed together, and it is quite amusing indeed. Of course, the situation resolves itself, and Jake finds happiness in his classroom, as we hope children everywhere will this fall.

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