Circle Time
Circle Time Book Reviews
Getting Ready for School

        I've already gone through five "first days of school" with my kids, but this year will be different. My oldest will be starting her first year of public school -- maybe even riding the bus! My second child will go off to preschool for the first time without his older sister. This is the first year my third child, the human cyclone, will set foot in a classroom, and it's the last year my baby will stay home with me.
        These are some of the books I've used to reassure my kids about the first day of school. Now if only I could find a book to reassure me!
Kathy Bennett

Books in a School Setting
Miss Nelson is Missing - Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse - Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!
Books about the First Day of School -- preschool or kindergarten
Dinofours: It's Time for School! - Will I Have a Friend?
Annabelle Swift, Kindergartner - Froggy Goes to School
Minerva Louise at School - Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten



Books in a School Setting

Miss Nelson is Missing
written by Harry Allard, illustrated by James Marshall
original copyright 1977
recommended age level - 4-8
Circle Time rating
ISBN 0395252962 library binding
ISBN 0395401461 paperback
        Sometimes you don't realize how good things are, until they change. That's what's happening in Miss Nelson's class. The sweet, rosy cheeked teacher is saddled with a class of kids who are taking advantage of her gentle nature.
        'Now settle down,' said Miss Nelson in a sweet voice.
        But the class would not settle down. They whispered and giggled. They squirmed and made faces. They were even rude during story hour. . .
        'Something will have to be done,' said Miss Nelson.

        That something arrives the next schoolday, in the person of Miss Viola Swamp -- a witchy-faced, yet rosy-cheeked, tyrant in an ugly black dress. She cancels story hour, loads the class with homework, and warns, "If you misbehave, you'll be sorry."
        The kids soon long for Miss Nelson. They worry about what happened to her and go to the police for help. They even go to Miss Nelson's house, only to spot Viola Swamp walking down Miss Nelson's street!
        When Miss Nelson finally returns, she's very evasive when the children ask about her absence, and happily "surprised" by their changed behavior. The former hooligans show Miss Nelson the utmost respect. Later that day, while getting ready for bed, she hangs her coat in the closet, right next to an ugly black dress.
        James Marshall's illustrations perfectly capture the sweet, rosy-cheeked Miss Nelson, and the mean, but also rosy-cheeked, Viola Swamp. He gives just enough clues for kids to guess the true identity of the substitute. In addition to the ugly black dress in the closet, there's also a wig and a false, pointy nose lying around Miss Nelson's room.
        My two oldest kids adore this book! The four year old, who, to my knowledge, has never tormented a substitute teacher in his life, still giggles every time we read this. His older sister already knows better than to try any of the tricks Miss Nelson's kids pull -- after all, her grandmother teaches in her school system.
Top of Page   --   This Review Copyright © 1998 by Kathy Bennett (



Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse
written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes
original copyright 1996
recommended age level - 4-8
Circle Time rating
ISBN 0688128971 hard cover
ISBN 068812898X library binding
        Tromping around in her red cowboy boots, Lilly is a mouse after my own heart because she is so human! Instead of being a cardboard character, Lilly has real feelings -- she worships her teacher, gets furious with him, gets even, then feels mortified to learn he's not so bad after all, and finally, learns to forgive and ask for forgiveness herself.
        Lilly loved everything about school -- the pointy pencils, the squeaky chalk, and her teacher, Mr. Slinger. He's the type of teacher every child needs at least once:
        Instead of "Greetings, students" or "Good morning, pupils," Mr. Slinger winked and said, "Howdy!"
        He thought that desks in rows were old-fashioned and boring. "Do you rodents think you can handle a semicircle?"

        Lilly was so fond of Mr. Slinger that she wanted to be a teacher when she grew up. She practiced teaching her baby brother at home. At school, during free time, Lilly drew pictures and wrote stories about Mr. Slinger.
        Everything was wonderful until one Monday morning when Lilly came to school with some goodies she had gotten over the weekend: a pair of movie star sunglasses, three shiny quarters, and a "brand new purple plastic purse that played a jaunty tune when it was opened." She was so proud of her loot, and so crushed when Mr. Slinger put it all in his desk for safekeeping after she had disrupted school by showing it off in the middle of class.
        At free time, an irate Lilly drew a picture of "Big Fat Mean Mr. Stealing Teacher" and slipped it into Mr. Slinger's book bag. Later, after school was over and Mr. Slinger returned her stuff, Lilly was mortified to find a sweet note he had slipped into her purse, "Today was a difficult day Tomorrow will be better."
        Lilly went home and wrote a new story about how "Lilly was really really sorry. So everyone forgave her. . . .Even her especially incredible teacher." She drew a new picture of a smiling, forgiving Mr. Slinger. Her mom wrote Mr. Slinger a note. Her dad baked him no-frills cheese balls.
        It could have been the new story, the note, or the cheese balls that earned Lilly Mr. Slinger's forgiveness, but I think it was Lilly's heartfelt apology (with eighteen "really"s before the "sorry").
        Just looking at Lilly reminds me of my daughter at her age -- even down to the red cowboy boots! My daughter also writes stories (but her spelling is more creative than Lilly's), and she dances around with new and exciting trifles with all of Lilly's exuberance. She even does some things in the heat of the moment that she regrets later. Thanks to Lilly, she knows she's not the only one.
        Kevin Henkes' drawings of Lilly, Mr. Slinger, and the rest of the characters are so expressive that my kids can sit down with this book and "read" it to themselves. I especial love the way Lilly changes when she finds the note from Mr. Slinger: her eyes widen, and she grows smaller and smaller.
Top of Page   --   This Review Copyright © 1998 by Kathy Bennett (



Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!
written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss
with some help from Jack Prelutsky, Lane Smith, and Molly Leach
original copyright 1998
recommended age level - 4-8
Circle Time rating
ISBN 0679990089 library binding
ISBN 0679890084 hard cover
        I loved Dr. Seuss as a kid, but I have to admit, I don't always like reading him aloud now that I'm a parent. Don't tell my kids, but I know how Green Eggs and Ham ended up behind the sofa. Mom and Dad hid it there after they'd been forced to read about boxes and foxes and sockses too many times in a row one night. This new book, based on notes and sketches found among Dr. Seuss's papers after his death, might escape the fate of Sam-I-am, at least in our house.
        There are some definite funny moments. Discussing the cafeteria workers, the narrator says, "They make us hot dogs, beans, and fries, / Plus things we do not recognize." Although the food may resemble that found in some educational institutions, the philosophy does not. Instead of teaching the students the traditional canon and rote memorization, the teachers at Diffendoofer teach an eclectic mix. Extolling the virtues of his teacher, Miss Bonkers, the narrator says:
        She even teaches frogs to dance.
        And pigs to put on underpants.
        One day she taught a duck to sing --
        Miss Bonkers teaches EVERYTHING!
        Of all the teachers in our school,
        I like Miss Bonkers best.
        Our teachers are all different,
        But she's
different-er than the rest.
        Most of all, the teachers teach their students how to think. This works great, until the day of the dreaded standardized test. If the students at Diffendoofer School don't pass with flying colors, they'll be forced to go to Flobbertown, where everyone does everything the same. Amazingly enough, the test covers all the things the Diffendoofer teachers have been teaching -- and for those questions on material they haven't covered yet, the students use their thinking skills to come up with the right answers.
        Lane Smith's illustrations pay tribute to Dr. Seuss. Several characters from Seuss books walk the halls of Diffendoofer School, along with Smith's more angular characters. The library is stocked with Seuss books.
        At the end of the book, there's the story of how this book came to be. After reading the original verses and studying the original sketches, I re-read the story and marveled at how Prelutsky and Smith took a small amount of material and fashioned Hooray for Diffendoofer Day.
Top of Page   --   This Review Copyright © 1998 by Kathy Bennett (


Books about the first day of school -- preschool or kindergarten

Dinofours: It's Time for School!
written by Steve Metzger, illustrated by Hans Wilhelm
original copyright 1996
recommended age level - preschool
Circle Time rating
ISBN 0590689908
        I wish I'd had this book back when my oldest kids were apprehensive about the first day of school! In Dinofours: It's Time for School, Steven Metzger, a preschool teacher as well as an author, offers first timers and their parents gentle reassurance about that momentous event.
        Albert, a four year old dinosaur who acts just like the four year old in my house, isn't quite sure he wants to go to school.
        'Mommy, will you stay with me at school?' asked Albert.
        'I'll stay for awhile,' said Albert's mother. 'And then, when you're ready, I'll leave.'
        'I'll never be ready.'

        Once inside the classroom, Albert meets his teacher, Mrs. Dee, and his classmates, who could have been modeled on the kids in my son's class last year. There's the boy who never met a stranger, the girl who grabs all the cookies, the kids who love to giggle during storytime. The classroom is pretty much like what my son experienced: a sand table, a playdough table, a dress-up area, an art center, a reading nook, and lots of bright colors and age-appropriate toys.
        When Albert starts to cry because he misses his mom, Mrs. Dee asks for his help in comforting a sad little doll. Later, when Brendan bursts into tears, Albert uses the same technique to comfort his new friend.
        Hans Wilhelm's illustrations capture the personality of each Dinofour. In the beginning of the book, Albert clings to his mother's leg, while Brendan zooms around the room from activity to activity. After story time, when the Dinofours spot their parents and caregivers waiting at the door to take them home, each little face is lit with sheer joy!
Top of Page   --   This Review Copyright © 1998 by Kathy Bennett (



Will I Have a Friend?
written by Miriam Cohen, illustrated by Lillian Hoban
original copyright 1967
recommended age level - preschool
Circle Time rating
ISBN 0027227901 library binding
ISBN 0689713339 paperback
        For over thirty years, this book has answered one of a young child's most important questions about starting school: will I have any friends? Walking to school on the first day with his father, that's the question Jim asks. His father smiles down at him and says, "I think you will."
        Jim's a little intimidated at first. "All the boys were making noise. All the girls were laughing. Where was his friend?" Like my two oldest kids, Jim stands at the edge of the action and waits for someone to invite him to join in. It takes awhile. He hasn't found his friend by snack time. He hasn't found his friend by rest time. Where is his friend?
        After rest time, the boy who was lying down next to Jim shows him a toy truck. Jim promises to bring his toy gas pump. He's found his friend!
        I wish my parents had shared this is a straight-forward, slice-of-life story with me when I was a shy three year old starting nursery school. It wouldn't have made me more outgoing, but it might have made me a little less nervous.
Top of Page   --   This Review Copyright © 1998 by Kathy Bennett (



Annabelle Swift, Kindergartner
written and illustrated by Amy Schwartz
original copyright 1988
recommended age level - kindergarten
Circle Time rating
ISBN 0531070271 paperback
        Sometimes having an older sibling to show you the ropes on the first day of school can be an advantage -- and sometimes it can be a liability! Annabelle's big sister, Lucy, is determined to teach her little sister all the insider secrets. Using their mom's make-up, Lucy teaches Annabelle the real names of the colors, like Raving Scarlet and Blue Desire. Having already taught her sister how to count past one hundred, Lucy seeds Annabelle's mind with the really important issues of math, like "[a]re there numbers less than zero. . . what's the number after infinity?"
        Armed with an extra dose of Lucy's advice and the admonition, "Remember, you're my sister," Annabelle sets out to conquer kindergarten. Somehow, the strategy doesn't quite work. No one else answers roll the way Lucy taught her to, or calls any of the colors anything even close to "Blue Desire." When Mr. Blum, the teacher, says it's time to do math, Annabelle isn't about to mention zero or infinity. But when Annabelle is the only kindergartner who can count the milk money, Lucy's lessons finally pay off.
        Annabelle gets to be milk monitor and deliver the money to the cafeteria. When the cafeteria lady asks her name, she proudly proclaims it the way Lucy taught her, "Annabelle Swift, Kindergartner!"
        Amy Schwartz does as good a job illustrating this story as she does writing it. I especially liked the interaction between the two sisters: Lucy wise in the ways of the world, lathering on her mother's "Blue Desire" eye shadow, and Annabelle gazing up at her in rapt attention.
Top of Page   --   This Review Copyright © 1998 by Kathy Bennett (



Froggy Goes to School
written by Jonathan London, illustrated by Frank Remkiewicz
original copyright 1996
recommended age level - preschool, 4-8
Circle Time rating
ISBN 0670867268 library binding
ISBN 0140562478 paperback
        If you want a light-hearted look at the first day of school, this is the perfect book. Froggy, who as you might guess is a frog, is nervous about the first day of school. So nervous, in fact, that he lets his imagination carry him away. First he has the dreaded dream about running late on the first day of school, nearly missing the bus, and arriving only to realize he's running around in his underwear!
        When he really does get to school, he's thrilled to find his name tag on his table. "He liked his name. It was the first word he knew how to read. It was the only word he knew how to read. He read it aloud, louder and louder. Frrrooggyy." A little too loud, it turns out, as his teacher, Miss Witherspoon, kindly informs him that it's time to pay attention. Later, as he gazes out the window, he's so impressed by the falling leaves that he topples out of his chair. Miss Witherspoon tells him, "Kindly stay in your seat, dear. . .We'll sit on the floor at circle time."
        At circle time, Froggy shares how he learned how to swim over the summer. He soon has the whole class going through the motions -- even the principal joins in! When his parents ask about his first day of school, he proudly informs them that he taught the principal how to swim!
        As Frank Remkiewicz draws him, Froggy is just your average little boy who happens to be a frog. He may have webbed feet, but he covers them with sneakers. Froggy's face is a mirror of his emotions -- wide-eyed terror when he awakens from a bad dream, pink-tinged embarrassment when he notices the principal watching his "swimming lessons."
Top of Page   --   This Review Copyright © 1998 by Kathy Bennett (



Minerva Louise at School
written and illustrated by Janet Morgan Stoeke
original copyright 1996
recommended age level - preschool, early readers
Circle Time rating
ISBN 0525454942 hard cover
        The world looks different when you're a chicken.
        Your kids might know what a school looks like, even if they haven't spent much time in one, but to Minerva Louise, an inquisitive hen, that big empty building she encounters during her early morning walk is a wonderful, fancy barn. She filters everything she sees through her own experience, so that the custodian raising the flag becomes the farmer hanging his laundry out to dry, and the wastebasket at the side of the teacher's desk becomes a feed bucket. The kids' cubby holes are nesting boxes -- there's even one with an egg in it. To Minerva it's an egg, but your kids will recognize it as a baseball nestled in a ball glove.
        This is another great book if you need something light-hearted to calm first-day jitters. The illustrations are crisp and bright, and it's hard not to like Minerva Louise, even if she is a silly goose, er, chicken.
Top of Page   --   This Review Copyright © 1998 by Kathy Bennett (



Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten
written by Joseph Slate, illustrated by Ashley Wolff
original copyright 1996
recommended age level - preschool, kindergarten
Circle Time rating
ISBN 0525454462 hard cover
        In the excitement of getting haircuts, new shoes, and new crayons, your preschooler or kindergartner might not realize just how much preparation her teacher has to do to get ready for school. I never realized how much work was involved until I married the son of one of the world's finest kindergarten teachers.
        Miss Bindergarten starts off the first day of school with the help of three separate clocks, all set for six a.m. As her students get ready for the first day of school, brushing their teeth, finding their sneakers under the dresser, kissing their baby sisters good-bye, Miss B gets ready, too. She brushes her teeth, finds her shoe under the dresser, drags all the supplies to the classroom and sets everything out .
        The rhyming text of the story alternates between Miss B's preparation and that of her students. "Adam Krupp wakes up. Brenda Heath brushes her teeth. Christopher Beaker finds his sneaker. Miss Bindergarten gets ready for kindergarten." The story introduces each one of Miss B's students, showing two or three getting ready for school, then switching back to Miss B with the same phrase, "Miss Bindergarten gets ready for kindergarten."
        Ashley Wolff's illustrations add a charming touch to the book. All the characters are animals, with very human characteristics. She gives one of the few examples of a disabled kid that treats the subject as just another kid, not "the kid in the wheelchair." My favorite character is Miss B. With her little Post-it (TM) reminders everywhere and her steaming cup of coffee, she reminds me of someone I am related to by marriage.
Top of Page   --   This Review Copyright © 1998 by Kathy Bennett (


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