Teaching Picture Books in MS/HS

abes-honest-wordsAs someone who has only taught secondary education, I can’t help but see every book through that middle school/high school lens…even picture books. And, oh how fun it is! As an adult, I still find myself learning from picture books—what better way to be introduced to a topic than from a means truly meant for beginners. In fact, I collect picture books written in Spanish in hopes of someday finding the time to practice my Spanish skills. Why not? Why not learn the Spanish language from the beginning, with the children.

So for this post, I’ve gathered some ideas for using picture books in middle or high school classrooms. First, I’ll provide some universal ideas, and then I’ll discuss a few books in greater detail.

  1. Teaching a second language – As I’ve already discussed, I like using children’s Spanish books to teach myself Spanish. My high school Spanish teacher taught me the basics of Spanish through tales of lobos y ovejas, so why not continue the practice that worked so well for me?
  2. As the lesson “hook” – I can almost promise you that no matter what subject you teach and what topic your teaching, you could (even if you have to get creative) find a picture book related to your topic. I truly do believe that kids of any age, up though 12th grade, would enjoy a little story time. If you’re the high school science teacher, please imagine what a kick a group of 12th graders would get if you bring in a rocking chair to class, ask them to take a seat on the floor, and let them know that you’re starting the class with story time. It’s different! It shakes up the routine, and they might just listen attentively out of shock and amazement in your behavior. Your book could introduce a very basic concept that you will then delve much deeper into. Find ways to analyze the book or conduct experiments and research the concepts, taking that book to a level unimaginable to younger children.
  3. To introduce concepts in literature – Students study literary devices all throughout their secondary career. In middle school, students need to study text structures such as cause and effect, sequence, etc. We want them to make inferences, draw conclusions from a text, and support them with evidence from the text. By twelfth grade, we they write extensive essays on themes, characterization, metaphors, etc. Why not apply advanced skills to picture books? Start with a picture book (simple) in order to refine their skills, and then have them apply that same refined skill to the novel that they’re reading (advanced) to apply their growth to grade-level texts.
  4. The table of artifacts idea — What is great about picture books is that they’re such quick reads! This idea, again, could be applied to any subject, but I’ll give you an example in ELA because that’s what I taught. If you’re practicing analyzing themes, get a ton of picture books (at least 1 for each student), and have them pick a book, take it to their desk, and write an analysis paragraph on the theme, and then return the book for another. They could then meet with others who wrote about the same books to compare and discuss. (I did a similar lesson as this using artifacts to study bias.)

Now, as promised, here are some ideas for specific books:


Gravity by Jason Chin

Along the thoughts of idea #2 (above), this book could be used as a hook or introduction to a lesson on gravity. The book is all about gravity—what it is, what it causes, and what would happen if we didn’t have it. It starts out simple; some pages only have one word, but it does gain in the complexity of ideas throughout the book and ends up providing a very good general overview of gravity. It discusses not only that gravity keeps us on Earth, but also that it keeps Earth orbiting the Sun, and it keeps the Moon orbiting Earth. It mentions the idea of mass and other concepts relating the gravity. Basically, if you’re going to use this book for a 6th grade class, it will most likely function to remind many students of some concepts they’ve forgotten. Then, of course, you can go on to learn all of the new 6th grade concepts. Fun idea: You could then end that unit by having your students write their own picture book on a concept they’ve learned.


You Are (Not) Small by Anna Kang

I fell in love with this very simple picture book the first time I read it. In 3-word sentences, it portrays the concept of perspective better than many chapter books could do. In the book, two creatures are arguing. A bigger creature tells a little creature he’s small. The little creature disagrees, and says that, instead, the bigger creature is big. This argument goes on until a much bigger creature joins and says they’re both small. Take your pick on how to teach this book, but if you teach ELA, please find a way! It all comes down to perspective—the world you see depends on your own life experiences. Everyone views the world through a different lens. I find this to be a very important concept in literature and for young adults in general as they navigate a world of understanding differences among people. I could also see this book used as an introduction to persuasive or argumentative writing—students should understand perspective, bias, and even the idea of faulty reasoning.


If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson

In this simple picture book, the reader sees that if you plant a seed, it will grow. That idea is then used a metaphor to point out that if you plant a seed of hate, hate will grow; but if you plant a seed of kindness, kindness will grow. Again, I see this as an important lesson for middle school; but it can also be used to teach the concept of theme/moral, metaphor, or event the text structure of cause and effect. If you want to pair this with a class novel, there are too many novels surrounding the theme of “planting seeds” to name, but one that jumps to my mind immediately is Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher–or, for the holiday season, consider an analysis of planting positive seeds while reading Asher’s newest novel, What Light.


Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport

There are a number a great picture books introducing young readers to historical figures and events, and I greatly encourage secondary history/social studies teachers to check them out. As someone who had a hard time keeping up with history class, I would have loved to start class with a picture book on the subject being taught that day, just to get me in the same frame of reference as the rest of the class. For history, I think the pictures and the simple explanation of the concept would help many students better visualize what happened. This biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. follows his life from childhood up to his assignation. It introduces segregation, historical dates, historical places, Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, peaceful protest, the “I Have a Dream” speech, and much more within the study of the Civil Rights Movement. In ELA or social studies, I would love to read this book to the class before analyzing King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” This text would put students in context before reading the speech. Another noteworthy book by Rappaport is Abe’s Honest Words: The Life of Abraham Lincoln (pictured at top), written in the same style.

My list is so small in comparison to the hundreds of picture books that could be used to teach at the middle and high school level. Two great things come from this idea: 1) It’s fun for older students to do something new every once and a while. 2) Most importantly, by providing basic background information in an easy-to-follow way, this is a great way to help struggling students start off a lesson at a similar level to their peers (without them ever needing to be singled out since you’re reading to the entire class).

I hope this idea has piqued your interest! Enjoy.

Books mentioned:
Abe’s Honest Words: The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Doreen Rappaport. 9781484749586. 2016. 2-4.
Gravity by Jason Chin. 9781596437173. 2014. 1-3.  
If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson. 9780062298898. 2015. Gr. K-2.
Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport. 9781423106357. 2007. Gr 1-4.
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. 9781595141880. 2011. 9-12.
What Light by Jay Asher. 9781595145512. 2016. 7-10.
You Are (Not) Small by Anna Kang. 9781477847725. 2014. PS-1.
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