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Classy new school-themed tales include 'the junkyard wonders'

Published August 20. 2010 05:00PM

As kids head back to school, it's a perfect time to check out these new school-themed books:

- Author/illustrator Patricia Polacco has been plumbing her family history for years, creating a remarkable set of picture books for older readers. In her newest book, "The Junkyard Wonders", Polacco focuses on her childhood trials as a late academic bloomer who, in this case, was put in a class of seeming misfits that other students called "the junkyard." As in her earlier book, "Thank You, Mr. Falker," Polacco details how an inspired teacher named Mrs. Peterson celebrated her students' unique gifts, calling them geniuses and "junkyard wonders." Under Mrs. Peterson's direction, the students created "tribes" within the classroom and learned to see - and tap - their potential. Young readers will be riveted by the story, as well as Polacco's trademark illustrations, filled with color and energy. (Ages 5-10.)

- A young pirate fan takes readers through an unusual school day filled with swashbuckling buccaneers in "A Pirate's Guide to First Grade". Written entirely in pirate lingo by James Preller, this book will have young readers shouting "Arrrr!" and "Shiver me timbers!" in no time. But it's the illustrations by Greg Ruth that really put a spotlight on the protagonist's active imagination; Ruth shows the boy surrounded by pirates - drawn in brown - wherever he goes. Kids will love the contrast between the antics of the imaginary pirates and the regular school-day routine. (Ages 4-8.)

- It's the first day of school, and a teacher asks her class: "What do you hope will happen this year?" As author Kay Winters writes in "This School Year Will Be the Best!", each student voices a different desire. Some are prosaic - such as, "This year I'll kick the ball into the right goal," while others are funny - for example, "I hope I won't be a vegetable in our school play!" Artist Renee Andriani does a wonderful job of extending Winters' text in her comic illustrations. (Ages 4-7.)

- Author/illustrator Hanoch Piven has won acclaim from critics and readers for his illustrations, which show people created through various objects, including pencils, balloons and marbles. In his newest book, "My Best Friend Is As Sharp As a Pencil", Piven offers a set of classroom portraits and, in the process, gives readers an entertaining lesson in similes. For example, the book's protagonist describes her art teacher "as artistic as a paint palette" and Piven then crafts the art teacher's face from a paint palette. Piven includes a note at the end urging young readers to try creating their own "object art" illustrations. (Ages 5-8.)

- One autumn day, a young dog named Rocket is awoken from his daily nap by a yellow bird who is thrilled to have her first student. Confused, Rocket says he's nothing of the sort, but the bird insists and begins her first lesson, focusing on "the wondrous, mighty, gorgeous alphabet ... where it all begins." In "How Rocket Learned to Read", author/illustrator Tad Hills celebrates the joy of learning, as well as the power of a good teacher to change lives. Hills' marvelous illustrations in this oversized picture book are both simple and evocative, while Rocket and his winged friend are cute, but not cutesy. (Ages 3-6.)

- With a clear, rhyming text, authors Paul DuBois Jacobs and Jennifer Swender take readers through a sometimes scary ritual in "Fire Drill". The cut-paper collages by Huy Voun Lee capture the children's emotions, showing one girl with her fingers in her ears to block out the sound, and other children getting antsy after they file out into the schoolyard. (Ages 3-6.)

- Anna is worried about going to kindergarten, but it turns out to be a wonderful experience as author/illustrator Antoinette Portis shows in "Kindergarten Diary". Young readers will readily relate to Anna's anxiety as well as her happiness at making friends and learning new skills. Portis' deceptively simple mixed-media illustrations give the book added panache. (Ages 3-6.)

- Author David LaRochelle and illustrator Brenda Sexton team up to give readers a different take on math in "1 + 1 = 5 and Other Unlikely Additions". Just how does 1 + 1 = 5? Well, you take one set of triplets and add one set of twins and you end up with five babies. Or, how about 1 + 1 = 7? Add one square to one triangle and you've got seven sides. LaRochelle's text is thought-provoking, while Sexton's illustration kick up the comedy a few notches. (Ages 5-8.)

- Two new dictionaries are great additions for family learning. "The Oxford Illustrated Children's Dictionary" features a paperback format and a layout that makes it easy to find words. The hardcover "Scholastic Children's Dictionary" is filled with illustrations and concise definitions. (Both books ages 5-10.)

(Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at

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