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School stories soothe the first-day jitters


"Jurassic Park" lunch box? Check. Barbie backpack? Check. Two pairs of absurdly overpriced sneakers certain to be outgrown before Mom and Dad have made a dent in the back-to-school deficit? Check.

It's time to give the checkbook a break. For books that will help kids get ready for their first day of school -- whether they're graduating from the baby sitter's to a day-care classroom or starting first grade -- check out the library.

Here are some titles you should be able to find on the shelves. Sharing them with kids might help ease first-day phobia.

* "Cleversticks" by Bernard Ashley, illustrated by Derek Brazell (Crown, $10, 30 pages, ages 3-7), features the model for multicultural preschool classrooms. It stars Ling Sung, who has decided he doesn't want to go to school anymore.

His classmates include Manjit, a girl from South Asia who knows how to write her name; Sharon, an African-American girl who can button her jacket all by herself; and Terry, a white boy who knows how to tie his shoes.

Ling Sung is miserable because he can do none of the above. But then one day he fiddles with a couple of long-handled paintbrushes, flips them around and uses them as chopsticks to eat pieces of his broken cookie.

The kids and teachers clap and want Ling Sung to teach them his trick, and he's more than happy to show them how to use the chopsticks just as he does at home.

* In "Michael" by Tony Bradman, pictures by Tony Ross (Macmillan, $13.95, 28 pages, ages 4-8), all the kids at school look the same -- they're ruddy-faced British kids in blazers and ties. But Michael doesn't fit in.

"That boy will come to no good," his teachers say, because he doesn't follow directions, he daydreams, and when the rest of the class is copying over math problems, he scribbles his own crazy equations.

The teachers give up, leaving Michael free to build his spaceship. Mr. Ross's illustrations (his cartoon-like teachers are fine buffoons) are, like Michael, "a little scruffy." They help make this celebration of independence a must for nonconformists, and would-be astronauts, everywhere.

* Bruce McMillan is a writer and photo-illustrator who creates "concept" books that don't bore adults or kids -- a mean feat. One of his latest is "Mouse Views: What the Class Pet Saw" (Holiday House, $15.95, 32 pages, ages 4-8).

Mr. McMillan takes readers on a tour of school as seen through the eyes of "Chase," a pet mouse who has escaped his classroom cage. It's a study in perspectives, and kids of all ages can take turns guessing the objects that are shown in tight close-ups on one page, then at a familiar distance on the next. The giant pink cylinders, for instance, turn out to be pencil erasers.

As a plus, Mr. McMillan includes a map of the school, showing Chase's route from the second-grade classroom, through the music room and gym, around to the kindergarten and then across the hall to the cafeteria. He says he included the floor plan because teachers told him they need more books that introduce map skills.

And like Mr. McMillan's other books, this one teaches those skills well, kids won't even know it's good for them.

* Kids who are reading on their own are "first-day" veterans by now, but they'll still get a kick out of "The Adventures of Snail at School," by John Stadler (HarperCollins, $14, 64 pages, ages 4-8).

Mr. Stadler brings back the sports star of "Hooray for Snail!" and "Snail Saves the Day" for an encore in this "I Can Read Book." In each of the three chapters, Mrs. Harvey the teacher asks for a student volunteer to run an errand.

Each time Snail leaves the classroom, he gets caught up in an adventure -- a fire extinguisher turns into a rocket, for instance, and blasts Snail into outer space. When he finally gets back to Mrs. Harvey's room and explains his delay, she tells him to stop making up stories. But are they just stories?

* In "My Mom Made Me Go to School," by Judy Delton, pictures by Lisa McCue (Bantam Little Rooster Book, $2.99, 29 pages, ages 4-8), Archie's back-to-school nightmare makes any other kids' experiences look tame.

Archie's mom runs the poor kid through the gantlet. First he has to go shopping for stiff corduroy pants that are two sizes too big and a pair of saddle shoes that pinch his toes. The next day, he goes to the dentist. Then it's on to the doctor for shots. The next day: a buzz haircut.

By the time kindergarten finally starts, Archie has been so traumatized that the classroom is a welcome refuge.

* Here are a couple of tried-and-true introductions to school. We can always tell when something at preschool is bothering our daughter, who's soon to be 4, because that night she'll pull out one of these favorites.

"Betsy's First Day at Day Care," by Gunilla Wolde (Random House, $4.95, 25 pages, ages 2-5) shows Betsy, who is at first afraid to leave her mother's side, as she tours a day-care center and makes a new friend.

"Grover Goes to School," by Dan Elliott, illustrated by Normand Chartier (Random House, $2.99, 33 pages, ages 3-7) stars furry, lovable Grover from "Sesame Street." He is worried that no one will like him at school, so he goes overboard to make friends. But after trading away his new crayons and agreeing to games he doesn't really want to play, Grover finds out that the kids will still

like him even if he says "no" once in a while.

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