WHETHER KIDS love it, hate it or simply tolerate it, starting school is a subject familiar to all. Several recent books pick up on the theme, and their audiences range from pre-kindergarten rookies to grizzled veterans of the third grade.
* ''Starting School,'' by Janet and Allan Ahlberg (Puffin paperback, $3.95, ages 2-6) is for first-time students as well as stay-at-home preschoolers who are curious about what older kids do in first grade.
The Ahlbergs' attention to detail -- familiar to fans of ''Peek-A-Boo!'' and ''Each Peach Pear Plum'' -- makes each classroom scene come to life, from one little girl hurling blocks across the play corner to another little girl using the toilet (a European-style water closet).
The Ahlbergs are British, and the students in this first-grade class are black, white, biracial and Asian Indian. Apparently, however, Jewish kids have been forgotten: All of the students play a role in the big Nativity play at the end of the first semester.
* ''School Days,'' by B.G. Hennessy, pictures by Tracey Campbell Pearson (Viking, $13.95, ages 3-8) is another winning collaboration from the folks who teamed up on ''The Missing Tarts,'' in 1989.
Hennessy's rhythmic text carries readers through one action-packed day at school, beginning with: ''School bus, cubby, starting bell. Circle time, then show and tell.'' Pearson's illustrations make the classroom look inviting, with dinosaurs dangling from the ceiling and the pet rabbit wreaking havoc everywhere.
* ''This Is the Way We Go to School: A Book About Children Around the World,'' by Edith Baer, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (Scholastic, $13.95, ages 3-7) is a painless way to learn a little about different cultures, and geography as well.
Each page shows a different kid or group of kids going to school in a different part of the world. ''Jenny, Jerry, Pete and Perry ride the Staten Island Ferry . . . Bundled up against the breeze, Niels and Solveig go on skis.''
Bjorkman's pen-and-ink with watercolor illustrations are fun -- they remind me of Patrick McDonnell's cartoon-like contributions ''Scorecard'' in Sports Illustrated -- and a map in the back of the book shows where all of the kids live -- a nice touch.
* ''The Best Teacher in the World,'' by Bernice Chardiet and Grace Maccarone, pictures by G. Brian Karas (Scholastic, $11.95, ages 4-7) is one of the books in the ''School Friends'' series about a little girl named Bunny Rabissi.
This time Bunny volunteers to deliver a note for her favorite teacher, Ms. Darcy. She's supposed to give it to Mrs. Walker, but she can't find Mrs. Walker's classroom and she's too embarrassed to ask. So she never delivers it, and she lies when Ms. Darcy asks if Mrs. Walker got the note.
Feeling horrible about the fib, Bunny finally gets up the courage to tell Ms. Darcy what happened. Of course the best teacher in the whole world tells her she is brave to own up to it, and all is forgiven. The story is just right for second-graders to read own their own, and it's worth noting that Ms. Darcy is African-American.
* ''Rotten Ralph's Show and Tell,'' by Jack Gantos, illustrated by Nicole Rubel (Houghton Mifflin, $13.95, ages 5-8) is another good read-alone book for early elementary school students. Rotten Ralph the cat is back, and readers familiar with ''Worse Than Rotten, Ralph,'' ''Rotten Ralph's Christmas,'' and ''Rotten Ralph's Trick or Treat,'' won't be surprised by how easily Ralph can wreck an average classroom.
Sarah warns Ralph about misbehaving as she's taking him to school for show and tell, and he's charming until he knocks over one student's red ant farm, wears another student's prize pumpkin on his head and then scratches his claws across the blackboard, making everyone's ears ache.
The teacher is furious, and Ralph seems genuinely repentant as Sarah walks him home. She tells him she loves him no matter what -- obviously a message for kids who sometimes act as rotten as Ralph. This will be out as a Sandpiper paperback next month.
* ''If You're Not Here, Please Raise Your Hand: Poems About School,'' by Kalli Dakos, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Four Winds Press, $12.95, ages 7-11) has 38 poems about the mundane and miserable and sometimes memorable moments of elementary school life.
Most are silly but a few are serious, including ''J.T. Never Will Be Ten,'' a beautiful tribute to a 9-year-old boy who has died, written from the perspective of his best friend. This is a sure-to-please collection for any classroom.
* Finally, no column on books about school would be complete without mention of a classic: ''Miss Nelson is Missing!'' by Harry Allard and James Marshall (Sandpiper paperback by Houghton Mifflin, $3.95, ages 4-8).
First published in 1976, this has spawned two spinoffs: ''Miss Nelson is Back,'' and ''Miss Nelson has a Field Day,'' also available in Sandpiper paperbacks. In ''Miss Nelson is Missing,'' the misbehaving students in Room 207 take advantage of their kind teacher, Miss Nelson. Then one day she doesn't come to school, and her substitute is the vile Miss Viola Swamp. Pretty soon the students are sorry they ever were rude to Miss Nelson.
There's a happy ending with a surprise twist, and there's always the chance that Miss Viola Swamp could return if the kids aren't careful.