Book List: Starting School

The jump from kindy, kōhanga, daycare, or home to SCHOOL can be quite a leap. Former Sapling co-editor, and mother of two kids who have started school in recent memory, Thalia Kehoe Rowden, has read a hundred First-Day-of-School books and introduces us to the best of the best.

It’s a hard road finding the perfect book. When you have an ‘issue’ you want to explore using the magic of literature, it gets even harder.

For once, even highbrow kid-lit gourmets will be looking with eagle eyes more at the message than the medium, because there’s no point choosing a hilarious, well-crafted masterpiece about starting school if it tells your kid that there will be crocodiles in the toilets and bullies on the jungle gym.

I’ve checked today’s books out for all sorts of overt and subtle messages, about school, and about whose experiences are important. This list is full of good books to help your little ones navigate their big feelings, and open up conversations between you, as you get ready to launch into a new adventure.


Maddie’s First Day – Penny Matthews & Liz Anelli – (Walker Books)

This is one of the best of the books that introduces the routine of a school day. It follows the same arc of all ‘first day’ books, starting with getting ready in the morning, arriving in the classroom to encounter both new friends and normal worries, and ending with good feelings. You get to see lots of the specific new things that kids encounter on their first day at school.

The story is set in Australia, so we see a familiar, multicultural school full of kids wearing wide-brimmed sun hats to play. They do wear uniforms, though – which isn’t most New Zealand kids’ experience at primary school.

Maddie’s family has brown skin. Her parents take turns doing school drop-off and pick-up, and it’s a delight to see her dad wearing the bubba in a front pack. One of Maddie’s new friends gets around in a wheelchair (unremarked). These are things that lift it beyond some of the other books that introduce school routines – and I’m sorry they’re still rare enough to mention so explicitly.

Ready For School – Hannah Davison, Flicka Williams & Marco Palmieri – (My Big Moments)

This personalised book is a bona fide treasure – thoughtful, well-written, contemporary, and backed up by research.

Cleverly, the character with your child’s name isn’t the kid having all the Big Feelings – that’s their bestie, Perry, who is sharing the journey from kindy to school with your child. Perry and your child solve some of their own problems, are well supported by loving adults, and have a realistic and positive experience of starting school.

The illustrations are bright and inclusive, and the school is both familiar and inviting. The book comes with extra tips for adults in the back, for helping kids to thrive in this ‘Big Moment’.

Lena’s Shoes are Nervous – Keith Calabrese & Juana Medina – (Atheneum)

You will find a great range of ‘first day’ books at your local library, including books from around the world, like this American delight. Just make sure you explain to your junior colleague that ‘kindergarten’ in the United States isn’t like our kindy – it’s the same as the first class a New Zealand five- or six-year-old starts in.

Lena’s favourite blue dress is excited about school. ‘My dress is very outgoing,’ she explains to her dad. It’s her shoes that are the problem. And since her dress and shoes don’t exactly get along (since the infamous splashing in muddy puddles incident), it’s up to her green headband to have a comforting chat about first day nerves.

‘The shoes are shy and a little embarrassed.Lena encourages them to use their words.

The shoes say that school is big and loud and different and they’d really rather not go.

The headband is a good listener and understands.’

This book is a lovely mix of whimsy and wisdom – providing a safe place for both giggles and tears, if they need to come out.

School’s First Day of School – Adam Rex & Christian Robinson (Roaring Book Press)

For a different take on introducing the school routine, spare a thought for newly-built Frederick Douglass Elementary School, who is feeling pretty nervous about all the unknowns.

School’s friend Janitor says it’s going to be a fun time when all the children come to play games and learn.

‘Oh,’ said the school, ‘will you be here?’

‘You’ll see me after the school day is over,’ said Janitor. ‘Don’t worry – you’ll like the children.’

But the school thought that Janitor was probably wrong about that.’

Some of the first day goes okay for School. But early on, he’s troubled by the big and little kids who seem to hate school. ‘I must be awful,’ he thinks.

This charming book spends a lot of pages on the uncomfortable feelings, but as School gets to know the new entrants, hears funny jokes, learns about shapes, and sees beautiful drawings, he’s won over, and by the end, he wants all the kids to come back for a second day, after all.

First Day Andrew Daddo & Jonathan Bentley (ABC Books)

Here’s a much shorter, simpler one, that’s all about the nervous/excited preparation and journey to the school gate – with a twist.

A little girl and her mum are getting ready for the first day. There are pancakes and fruit salad, washing, brushing, and scrubbing, hats, handbags, hugs, and pep-talks.

The cute surprise, hinted at, then revealed at the end: it’s Mum who is the nervous one!

First Day is cleverly constructed and light-handed, and can be read repeatedly and shared with the other important people in a child’s life.


Time for School, Little Dinosaur Gail Herman & Michael Fleming (Random House)

Dinosaur fans will be impressed by the paleontologically-correct cast of little dinos who have different attitudes to preparing for school life. A wee bit too moralistic about last-minute prep for my taste, and starring two male characters, with no little girls.

First Day Margaret Wild & Kim Gamble (Allen & Unwin)

This multicultural, multi-layered book is a much more detailed introduction to school routines and experiences, following five very different children and their families. There’s one brief, problematic scene of kiss tag which I edited out on the fly. On the plus side, there’s a mum who’s also having her first day of new study, and best of all, a dog.

Mae’s First Day of School Kate Berube (Abrams)

It’s Mae’s first day of school, and she’s pretty jolly grumpy about it. Near the school gate, she makes a friend who joins her to hide up a tree eating cookies.

Then someone else’s nerves drive her up to their branch. She’s a bit older, and looks suspiciously like their new teacher…

Thalia Kehoe Rowden
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Thalia Kehoe Rowden is a former co-editor of The Sapling, and a Wellington writer and human rights worker. She is passing on a family inheritance of book dependency to her two small children, and is delighted to be part of The Sapling, as it gives her even more excuses to read excellent children's books. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and ​at ​her parenting, spirituality and social justice website, Sacraparental.