Picture books are great for enhancing literacy in the elementary grades. They can be read aloud to a group, shared with an individual child, and paged through by the students themselves, taking in everything the pictures add to the text. These new picture books offer up another layer of opportunity: the content of each serves as a starting point for a lesson or unit on a particular area of study in the classroom.
In The Price of Freedom: How One Town Stood Up to Slavery by Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin, illustrated by Eric Velasquez, we learn about John Price, a runaway slave who ended up in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1856. Oberlin was a final stop along the Underground Railroad and was a community of people who felt strongly that slavery was wrong. Opponents of the Fugitive Slave Act, the townspeople rallied to free John Price after he was captured by a slave hunter, risking their lives to pull off a harrowing rescue. John Price vanished from town a few days later, perhaps crossing the border into Canada, but the townspeople who participated in the rescue were jailed for three months. Their determination and spirit would clash with those who wanted to perpetuate slavery, contributing to the hostile sentiments that led to the Civil War. (9780802721662. Gr. 2-4.)
You could use this book as a starting point for teaching about this historic time period, or you could use it in a discussion about injustice and about fighting for what you believe in. Ask students to think about something that is unfair or not right—their concerns could range from school bullies, polluted water, abandoned pets, and homelessness to global news stories about war and poverty. Help them to research issues they are concerned about and to explore ways in which they can make a difference. For ideas, try The Kid’s Guide to Service Projects or The Kid’s Guide to Social Action by Barbara A. Lewis or Cleaning Up the Earth by Precious McKenzie.
Henry and the Cannons: An Extraordinary True Story of the American Revolution by Don Brown tells the story of Henry Knox, an obscure bookseller who was determined to transport much-needed cannons from Fort Ticonderoga in New York to General Washington’s troops outside Boston. After a grueling 50-day winter journey over 300 miles of rough terrain and ice-covered rivers and lakes, Knox and his men delivered 59 cannons to the revolutionary army. Quietly, Americans assembled a formidable looking fortress on a hill overlooking Boston, ultimately scaring the British into retreating. (9781596432666. Gr. 1-3.)
Determination works wonders, and underdogs often succeed by shooting for the moon and then going for it. Have students write down a goal they each have for the next week or month at school. It could be “reading my first chapter book,” “writing and illustrating my very own story,” “running a whole lap on the track,” or anything that a student would have to work hard to achieve. Challenge students to choose goals that are meaningful to them.
The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline, is the story of an Italian immigrant as he relates it to his great-granddaughter. His matchbox diary is a lovely old cigar box filled with small matchboxes, each of which holds a small object that has its own tale. From an olive pit and a macaroni noodle to a fish bone and typesetting letters, the objects come alive as the elderly book-and-antique dealer tells the small girl how he acquired and saved them. (9780763646011. Gr. 1-4.)
This unique way of keeping a diary is a great one for young children. Ask students to think about a small object that reminds them of a recent event—a ticket stub, a bead, a birthday candle, perhaps. Ask them to use their imaginations! Have students bring in their objects in small boxes and over the course of a few days (a few students per day), ask them to share their objects and tell the stories behind them. Encourage interested students to use their objects as a starting point for their own “matchbox diaries.”
Frog Song by Brenda Z. Guiberson, illustrated by Gennady Spirin, is a richly illustrated informational text about frogs from around the world. Fun fonts complement the beautiful paintings, highlighting frog noises such as “sloop-slooop,” “fwish,” and “chirp-chweet!” Interesting information that students will enjoy, especially about frog eggs, tadpoles, and babies, is offered in perfect amounts on each spread. The book ends with a field guide of the frogs, an environmental page titled “Frogs in Trouble,” a bibliography, and a list of websites. (9780805092547. Gr. PS-2.)
Help students explore some of the websites listed in the back of the book. Several of them have audio clips you can play for students to hear the frog sounds described in the book and others as well. You may also have students draw a picture of a frog (you could supply the outline from a website like Frog Life Cycle). You could also have them record a sound to go with their frog.
Millions, Billions, and Trillions: Understanding Big Numbers by David A. Adler, illustrated by Edward Miller is a fun look at what exactly these long strings of digits actually mean. Fun illustrations show concrete examples like the number of granules in a quarter cup of sugar or the amount of time it would take to count to a million. (9780823424030. Gr. 2-4.)
Play estimating and counting games with students. You can use a jar of jelly beans, a bowl of paper clips, a baggie full of Cheerios, a stack of books, a ten-by-ten square-foot area of dandelions, and whatever else you can come up with. First ask students to write down an estimate of how many objects there are, and then have them team up to count. Come back together as a class and discuss the activity. How well did they estimate the number of objects with each of the items? What strategies did they use to estimate? What strategies did they use to count (by tens, for example)?
Picture books often do more than tell a story. Have fun using them to teach, as well!