A LITTLE LIBRARY - Kid's book on kindergarten rises above cliche plots

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The strange thing about writing a once-a-month column is the sensation that time is passing far too quickly. One day, I'm celebrating the start of summer, and the next, I'm trying to get in the back-to-school spirit.

The start of school can be difficult, and the transition from preschool to kindergarten brings challenges for both parents and children. A friend told me that, when starting kindergarten, a child gets her first backpack and her first lunch box - and takes her first steps toward independence.

My search for the best books about beginning kindergarten got off to a slow start. I browsed the stacks in the children's wing of the library and searched the internet. After a short time I found myself, on the whole, rather dissatisfied with the kindergarten books I had come across.

It seemed many of these stories had the same unexciting plot: a child worries about starting school, but ends up meeting the teacher, making friends and fitting in. While these stories admirably attempt to allay preschoolers' fears, they fail to convince me that kindergarten is actually a fun place to be.

It was a relief, then, to find Antoinette Portis's creative take on the subject: "Kindergarten Diary" (HarperCollins, 2010). Portis fills the diary with cute and colorful mixed-media illustrations and expertly mixes realistic depictions of the classroom with the kindergarteners' imaginative adventures in the jungle and outer-space worlds created by the monkey bars.

Portis takes common plot elements-meeting the teacher, learning to share, and show-and-tell-and infuses them with quirky liveliness. I laughed to see the imagined "scary" teacher with her paper clip earrings and Medusa hair made out of slithering pencils.

Portis gently faces parental anxiousness when she depicts the adults peering sadly through the classroom window. "The teacher made all the grown-ups leave. Hardly anybody cried," she writes.

She also manages to capture children's anxieties about starting school; on the book's first page, little Annalina stands in an oversized sweatshirt with the hood cinched tightly around her face. "I only like preschool," she says.

Yet, by the end of the story, Annalina is confident and "un-scared" as she looks forward to first grade.

Ultimately, "Kindergarten Diary" succeeds not merely by showing kids (and parents) what they can expect in kindergarten, but by depicting how school can leave space for imagination and delight.

"Kindergarten Diary" is definitely a "keeper" in the get-ready-for-school genre. But my search for the best books about starting school continues - please help me by emailing me your favorite titles.

Zoey Smith works at the Whitman College Bookstore and is helping expand the children's book section. She can be reached at smithze@whitman.edu.

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