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DAY ONE

First-day-of-school anxieties, as seen through bestselling picture books

"We Don't Eat our Classmates" book cover
Courtesy Disney-Hyperion books
Is this right?
By Thu-Huong Ha
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Over the next few weeks, the US will embark on its yearly ritual of back-to-school preparation. Parents will scurry to order fresh pencils, index cards, and lunch containers. Kids, meanwhile, will have their own first-day-of-school frets.

The country’s bestselling books this and last week, according to Amazon, the New York Times, and USA Today, give a picture of what adults think kids are most worried about—namely, the stress of other students, and whether there will be nap time.

Books about the first day of kindergarten, in particular, are popular right now in the US. It seems that the first day is a rite of passage that requires multiple books to explain what’s about to happen, much like getting a new sibling or learning about death.

Here’s a brief breakdown of what’s got kids nervous this month, based on the content of four briskly selling books:

  • First Day Jitters, by Julie Danneberg, illustrated by Judy Love
  • The Night before Kindergarten, by Natasha Wing, illustrated by Julie Durrell
  • Kindergarten, Here I Come! by D.J. Steinberg, illustrated by Mark Chambers
  • We Don’t Eat Our Classmates! by Ryan T. Higgins

Other children

First of all, hell is other people. The characters in all four books are primarily concerned with making friends, with one book explicitly concerned about monstrous children. In First Day Jitters, kids are portrayed as chaos:

Courtesy Charlesbridge/Illustration copyright 2000 by Judy Love from "First Day Jitters," by Julie Danneberg

We Don’t Eat Our Classmates!, in its third week on the New York Times bestselling children’s picture book list, is a play on the common stress of not getting along with other kids. Its hero, Penelope Rex, is a dinosaur who eats all her human schoolmates on her first day.

Kindergarten, Here I Come! describes the all-too-familiar process of figuring out which kid is your best friend:

Heather was my best friend
this morning on the bus,
but she talked so much to Shauna
that I made my best friend Gus.
But Gus said he was Noah’s friend
and wouldn’t take it back—
so I had to go and trade him
for a better best friend, Zack.

Teachers

Teacher quality and niceness are top of mind for characters. “Of all the teachers in the world, I’m glad that she’s my one!” says one.

At the end of First Day Jitters, it’s revealed that the person dreading going to school is the teacher herself, an upending of the fatal first moments of meeting a new teacher.

Biological needs without parents nearby

Two books feature students distressed by navigating their bodies’ needs without their parents around to help. In one, the children wonder:

The room was all filled
with toys, books, and maps,
but where were the beds
for midmorning naps?

And in another, a character makes every attempt not to doze:

You can snooze,
but I refuse.
Oh no, I WILL NOT GO TO…
ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

What parents packed for lunch, of course, is always a gamble.

Logistics

Students fret over finding their new classrooms, and what to do when everyone else seems to know where to sit. One is particularly fixated on that time-honored question of where to put your legs while sitting:

Crisscross applesauce, that’s the way we sit.
Not feet-out sauerkraut.
Not cottage cheese on your knees.

Emergency preparedness

What to wear on day one is, of course, paramount, as is having enough highlighters. But these books also show students clutching their favorite comforts of home, like a magic cape, or 300 tuna sandwiches.

Separation anxiety

Last, our small heroes worry about being separated from the people who understand them (and their many demands) the best: their parents. That’s most apparent in The Night before Kindergarten, which shows a classroom full of crying parents as its conclusion.

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