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Back to School: 20 Books for a Thriving Year

Back to School: 20 Books for a Thriving Year

School is going to look a little different this year, but books with themes of inclusion, kindness, celebrating diversity, and positive self-image are ALWAYS important. 

Whether read aloud in the classroom or shared one-on-one at home, the stories in our back-to-school book list will help make children feel welcome and inspire them to be their best selves.

Back to School Booklist created by Rosemary D'Urso for the London Littles community. For more excellent book lists, visit Rosemary at and @librarymombooks.back to school books for kids books of valuesBack-to-School Books That Celebrate Diversity and Will Help Children Feel Accepted and Welcome:

All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold; illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman, 2018 (Ages 4 and up)

Poignant language paired with colorful illustrations featuring a diverse group of students drive home the message that school is an inclusive and welcoming place to ALL. This is sure to become a classic classroom read aloud that is reread every year.

Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev; illustrated by Taeeun Yoo, 2015 (Ages 4 and up)

This charming story is a must-have. When a boy and his pet elephant are excluded from a pet club, he finds other children with unusual pets and they form their own club that welcomes everyone. Without being overly didactic, this lovely friendship story teaches children the beauty of inclusion.

The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson; illustrated by Rafael López, 2018 (Ages 5 and up)

At some point in our lives just about everyone feels like they don’t belong. This complex feeling can be especially confusing and scary for children. The Day You Begin is a powerful book that encourages children to celebrate their uniqueness and share their stories. In doing so, they will often find commonalities with others. With moving text and beautiful illustrations, this special story will resonate with a number of age groups.

A Normal Pig by K-Fai Steele, 2019 (Ages 5 and up)

Pip feels like a normal pig until a new pig comes to school and makes her question the things she likes. This engaging story takes a realistic scenario and helps reinforce the importance of celebrating differences and individuality.

Just Ask! by Sonia Sotomayor; illustrated by Rafael Lopez, 2019 (Ages 6 and up)

Inspired by her own experience with juvenile diabetes,  Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has created a vibrant picture book encouraging children to ask questions and learn more about people’s differences to better understand and embrace them.

This is a beautiful book that raises awareness about conditions that many children face such dyslexia, autism, Tourrette syndrome, ADHD, and several others. Questions are posed to the reader creating an interactive element that allows children to connect with the characters in the book and learn that even though we all may be different, we also share commonalities. Using a garden as a metaphor, Sonia Sotomayor shares the important message that just like plants “each of us has unique powers to share with the world and make it more interesting and richer.”

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Back-to-School Books That Build Confidence and a Positive Self-Image 

You Matter by Christian Robinson, 2020 (Ages 2 and up)

If ever there was a book that a child NEEDS to hear, it is this one. You Matter combines Christian Robinson’s beautiful signature artwork with a message that each of us is important. With just the right amount of humor mixed in with the simple text, this is a book that will resonate with the youngest listeners to the oldest readers.

A Boy Like You (2019) and A Girl Like You (2020) by Frank Murphy; illustrated by Kayla Harren (Ages 4 and up)

In these beautifully illustrated treasures, an unseen narrator gives sage advice to a young boy and girl encouraging them to be their best selves. The emboldening text urges children to try new things, stand up for themselves and others, be a good friend, and love themselves just the way they are. There are many great lessons in these books and they are sure to be revisited often through the years.

The King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes; illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, 2019 (Ages 4 and up)

Filled with colorful illustrations and affirming text, this playful book generates lots of excitement for starting school. When a mother deems her son the “king of kindergarten”, he gains the confidence to face anything. With a giant smile, he listens to his teacher, shares, plays, and makes new friends. This charming story will leave readers eager to explore their own royal school kingdoms.

Your Name is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow; illustrated by Luisa Uribe, 2020 (Ages 5 and up)

Names hold such power and when they are pronounced incorrectly, even inadvertently, it stings. This compelling story stars a young girl who is devastated when her classmates and teachers cannot say her name correctly. Her mother teaches her the lyrical nature of names; a lesson that is elegantly captured through enchanting illustrations. Most notably, her mother shares the importance of one’s cultural heritage and how it shapes identity.  With a new-found confidence, the girl returns to school and shares her knowledge with her class.

All the Ways to Be Smart by Davina Bell; illustrated by Allison Coploys, 2019 (Ages 4 and up)

Rhyming text and lively illustrations feature a variety of diverse children showcasing their own special talents. “Smart is not just being best at spelling bees, a tricky test. Or knowing all the answers ever…Other things are just as clever. Every hour of every day, we’re smart in our own special way. And nobody will ever do…the very same smart thing as you.”

I love the message of this book! In a society that puts a ton of pressure on children, I’m thrilled to discover a book that reassures them that there are a lot of ways to excel and that we each have our own unique gifts.

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Back-to-School Books About Kindness and Empathy 

Words and Your Heart by Kate Jane Neal, 2015 (Ages 3 and up)

I could not love this book more. It does an incredible job of conveying the concept that words hold great power. Simple, engaging illustrations combined with playful text presented in various sizes and fonts create a child-friendly avenue for this important message. It touches upon the fact that words can be hurtful, but encourages the reader to use words to look after each other’s hearts. This book is beautifully crafted and impactful.

Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller; illustrated by Jen Hill, 2018 (Ages 4 and up)

This exceptional book expertly demonstrates what kindness looks like and the impact it can have on people in a child-friendly way.

When Tanisha spills grape juice all over her new dress, most of the other kids laugh.  However, one unnamed girl wants to be kind, but she is not exactly sure how. Poignant text matched with soft illustrations demonstrate the girl’s thought process as she thinks of examples of kindness she has experienced.

There are many books that cover this subject, but Be Kind stands apart. It does a remarkable job of providing an overview of kindness along with clear examples that make this abstract concept more concrete for children. It touches upon both the individual and global impact of kindness and while it may not always be easy to be kind, each small act is meaningful.

Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts; illustrated by Noah Z. Jones, 2007 (Ages 5 and up)

This powerful story will stay with readers long after closing the book. Jeremy desperately wants a pair of black high-tops with two white stripes, but his grandmother cannot afford them. He sadly watches as all of his friends come to school with the coveted shoes. Finally, he finds his own pair at a secondhand store. Even though they are too small, he squeezes his feet in them each day until he notices one of his friends has shoes being held together with tape. In a heartfelt act of generosity, Jeremy gives his friend the popular shoes.

This thought-provoking book does an excellent job of reinforcing messages of need and want with kindness and compassion in a realistic scenario. 

I Walk With Vanessa: a story about a simple act of kindness by Kerascoet, 2018 (Ages 5 and up)

With themes of kindness, courage, and anti-bullying, I Walk With Vanessa is a must-have for classroom libraries.

When a young girl observes a hurtful act toward a new classmate, she decides to take action and extend kindness to the victim by walking with her to school. Soon several classmates join together and form a united front.

The book is made even more powerful by its lack of text. It allows readers to interpret the characters’ expressions and develop their own conclusions. This story is an excellent tool for teaching anti-bullying standards. It touches upon a child demonstrating bullying behavior, a victim, and a bystander. The story can be used to prompt an important discussion about each character’s role and the actions they take. Students can take turns role playing the characters and because there is no text, children can create their own dialogue further internalizing the situation.

The Cool Bean by Jory John and Pete Oswald, 2019 (Ages 5 and up)

When a bow-tie wearing bean laments over the distance that has grown between him and his old friends who wear sunglasses and swagger through the halls of the school, he is shocked to discover that coolness is more than how you dress and move. The cool beans are kind and help those in need.

My son came home one day asking what the word “nerd” meant because someone at his school told him that “nerds” grow weird things out of their belly buttons. I honestly don’t know where kids get these ideas, but what I do know is that kids can feel a lot of pressure in school to act “cool” and I am so incredibly thankful that there is an entertaining and engaging picture book out there teaching them that it is cool to be kind!

I also highly recommend this dynamic duo’s other two books with positive messages, The Bad Seed and The Good Egg.

 Back-to-School Books That Encourage Children to Work Hard and Try Their Best 

Be A Maker by Katey Howes; illustrated by Elizabet Vukovic, 2019 (Ages 4 and up)

 “Ask yourself this question in the morning when you wake: in a world of possibilities, today, what will you make?” So begins the rousing book, Be a Maker, that inspires children to create something amazing each and every day. Whether it be artwork, music, an invention, or even a friend, this story inspires children to make a difference in the world. The rhythmic text and charming illustrations culminate in a sweet scene where a diverse group of people come together to celebrate one way they have made their community a better place. 

The Magical Yet by Angela DiTerlizzi; illustrated by Lorena Alvarez, 2020 (Ages 4 and up)

This story is perfect for empowering children to take risks, work hard, and embrace mistakes. Rhyming text and colorful illustrations follow a young girl who struggles to learn to ride a bike. Just as she is determined to walk forever, she meets the Magical Yet. Presented as a glowing pink flower-like object, the Magical Yet teaches the girl that with determination, practice, and grit, she can tackle any problem. 

The engaging illustrations feature a diverse group of children learning to accomplish a variety of tasks giving this charming book wide appeal. 

The Dot by Peter Reynolds, 2003 (Ages 4 and up)

This is one of my all-time favorite children’s books. When a discouraged girl named Vashti believes she cannot draw, her art teacher encourages her to make a simple dot. When the teacher then frames her dot, Vashti is inspired to make more artwork and creates her own gallery full of work. This deceptively simple story inspires readers to believe in themselves and gives them the confidence to make their own mark.

I’m Gonna Push Through by Jasmyn Wright; illustrated by Shannon Wright, 2020 (Ages 4 and up)

What started as a mantra for inner-city third graders has become a global empowerment initiative. With the goal of teaching children to be their best selves and find their inner strength to overcome life’s adversities, I’m Gonna Push Through is sure to reassure and lift up readers.

I think many of us could use a lesson in emotional resiliency at the moment and with its diverse characters and universal message of hope, this is a book that will resonate and encourage many.

Ada Twist Scientist by Andrea Beaty; illustrated by David Roberts, 2016 (Ages 4 and up)

The rhyming text tells the story of Ada Twist, a curious little girl who asks questions and creates science experiments to better understand how the world around her works. This is a great story of perseverance and will serve as inspiration to other budding scientists. We love this entire series and also highly recommend Rosie Revere Engineer, Iggy Peck Architect, and Sophia Valdez Future Prez.

back to school books for kids about kindness

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