“The picture book is a peculiar art form that thrives on genius, intuition, daring and meticulous attention to its history and various complex components. The picture book is a picture puzzle, badly misunderstood by critics and condescended to by far too many as merely a trifle for the “kiddies.”
– Maurice Sendak
Maurice Sendak understood what many advocates of picture books for teens understand: simple is not simplistic. A writer and illustrator can express something incredibly profound in a picture book using few words and engaging art. It may not have a high Lexile level or Accelerated Reader points, but it may enable the reader to make connections and see themes in a new way. No reader to my knowledge has ever gushed over his favorite textbook, but a beloved picture book will remain an important part of his life. Educators and librarians can tap into this highly visual art form to support teens’ development. As teens develop more abstract thinking skills, they are actually better able to understand the content of many picture books. They are also able to think more globally about the social and political issues the books address and think critically about their own communities. We can use picture books for inquiry-based units, writing workshops, models of traits of writing, curricular connections, nonfiction sources, and much more. Feel free to share ideas of how you envision using picture books for teens – and share your recommendations in the comments!
Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, illustrated by Matthew Myers
This book is being heralded as the most subversive picture book to date, and for good reason. The authors have taken the traditional elements of a children’s story – a tale of a sad bunny whose friends forget his birthday – and wrecked havoc on this cavity-inducing sweet tale. They have literally defaced the original tale and rewritten the story into a tale of danger, mayhem, and entertainment, created by a child named Alex who received this book from his Gran Gran. Clearly, he is none too pleased with this gift. The joy of reading and writing comes through this act of sarcastic point of view that will delight teens who are able to get the humor in this act of defiance. This book begs to be read aloud repeatedly – with multiple teens reading the original scrawl and the superior, darker tale. And soon readers will be able to access the original Birthday Bunny story and create their own adaptations. I can imagine many teachers running with this idea and having students to create their own remixes of previously saccharine tales. And I can’t wait to see what their students come up with!
A Rock is Lively by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long
Educators seeking to draw students into the natural world should take note of the marvelous books in this series, including An Egg Is Quiet, A Seed Is Sleepy, and A Butterfly Is Patient. These beautiful nonfiction books often read like poetry and capture the grace and elegant design of nature. But A Rock is Lively stands out from the rest by boldly recounting the loud and cacophonous process that goes into forming rocks. It is an informational text that will have Common Core enthusiasts cheering, but most importantly, it will engage teen readers in learning more about the world around them. And they will never be able to say that rocks are boring ever again!
Where the Forest Meets the Sea by Jeannie Baker
Far beyond the overcrowded and polluted cities a place exists that is untouched by people, a place that still retains its natural majesty that has grown over millennia. Towering trees touch the sky as colorful birds dart between the branches and snakes and lizards creep within the shadows. The world of the rainforest is buzzing with life, with countless unique creatures whose fate is anchored to this pristine space. Open the pages of Jeannie Baker’s Where the Forest Meets the Sea and you can enter the world of Australia’s Daintree Wilderness, the oldest and largest remaining rainforest in Australia, which is threatened by deforestation and over-development. Illustrated with textured collages made from natural materials, Baker draws readers into the world of the rainforest. Baker’s message is effective because it is told through the lens of a father and son adventure tale, a method that allows readers to project themselves into the story and consider the importance of preserving this natural wonder. Where the Forest Meets the Sea can provoke discussion about what is an individual’s responsibility to protecting the environment. Educators can use it as a springboard to discuss teens’ own community and the environmental needs of places being lost. Educators could even pair it with Seedfolks by Paul Fleishman to discuss what people can do to maintain natural spaces.
Picture books are wonderful because they say something big in a small way. With 32 pages to share a story, authors have to be incredibly selective about their word choice, ideas, and themes they present. This makes picture books ideal mentor texts for teaching the 6 traits of writing. I have used picture books in high school classrooms to emphasize a specific theme and help students develop their own themes. One of my favorite books that captures a moment perfectly is Eve Bunting’s The Memory String, illustrated by Ted Rand. In lyrical prose, Bunting tells the story of Laura, a young girl who carries the memories of her family history on a string of buttons. She is devastated when the string breaks and it is Laura’s stepmother, Jane, who help her learn that the memory string can grow and change. This is an incredibly sophisticated story about loss, grief, growing up, the power of memories, family, motherhood, etc. (This story can be nicely paired with the Newbery honor book, The Hundred Penny Box by Sharon Bell Mathis, illustrated by Leo and Dianne Dillon as part of a lesson about personal narrative and storytelling.) When I have shared this book, I usually bring an item of personal significance and share my own story to inspire my students to do the same. The Memory String helps students realize that they each have a reservoir of stories to tell and share.
Like Jake and Me by Mavis Jukes, illustrated by Lloyd Bloom
We read books for different reasons at different times and it’s important to frame this kind of reading for readers. The more tools we give them to examine art, the more they will get from it. (An excellent text to learn the ins and outs of reading pictures is Picture This by Molly Bang.) Despite being a Newbery junkie, I had never read Like Jake and Me (1984 Honor book) until I took a Children’s Literature class this past fall with Kate McDowell and she helped us explore this text – and yes, read it to us. (Even as adults, there’s nothing quite like being read to.) Like The Memory String, this is a story of a family in transition. Alex tries to build a relationship with his stepfather, Jake, but finds little in common. The perspective of the pictures mirrors the off-kilter relationship that Alex has with Jake without a common thread to connect them. Each picture can be analyzed by looking at the colors, contrasts, angles, proportions, depth, and more. As Jake and Alex start to connect, their size and space from each other changes. The emotional experience is matched with the visual one. Alex is finally able to help Jake when he encounters a wolf spider and hilarity ensues. But more importantly, Alex is able to show Jake that he is capable and brave. It is the blend of text and pictures that conveys the process of understanding each other. Like Jake and Me shows the experience of a developing child and parent relationship that many teens can relate to. Teaching teens to do a picture analysis can improve comprehension and attention to detail. It will help them see other visual media in a new light.
Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco
Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco is a powerful book more suited for teens than younger children. Anita Silvey observed in her Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac that “there should be a statute of limitations on the number of times that you cry when reading a book . . . even though I know what will happen, the text has the same effect” (“June 22”). It is both the authentic voice of the text and the masterful pictures that weave together a narrative of war and loss. Pink and Say is a true story that was passed down from generation to generation in Polacco’s family. During the Civil War Sheldon (Say) is wounded and Pinkus (Pink) saves his life by taking him home to Pink’s mother. Marauders senselessly murder her and the boys escape. They are then captured by Confederate soldiers and taken to Andersonville, where Pink is hanged. Educators can use Pink and Say to put a human face on the history of the Civil War and help young people understand the choices they faced. It can be used as a springboard to examine the themes of right and wrong and moral development, as well as the horrors of war. Learning history can often feel like simply a list of places and dates to students, but when it is paired with captivating stories like Pink and Say, students will better understand the struggles of people of the past – and how it relates to their present.
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
Wordless picture books can engage readers in making connections between the text and their own lives. This can help all readers, especially struggling readers or English Language Learners, get the most out of the reading experience. Yes, looking at pictures and analyzing them IS reading. The Arrival is a wordless portrait of the immigrant experience. It tells the story of man who has left his wife and child to create a better life for them in the new world. Life in this strange country comes with its own challenges, but there are others who help him and pave the way for a happy reunion. Tan has created a fictional world that shows the alienation and isolation that new immigrants feel through his breathtaking illustrations and creative approach. Readers will gain a sense of strangeness as they explore Tan’s world and better understand the search for a place to call home.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
At 526 pages, Brian Selznick’s Caldecott award winning book challenges assumptions about what is possible to do in a picture book. Selznick combines his text with rich black and white illustrations that propel the narrative forward, creating a groundbreaking new form of visual storytelling. Selznick’s attention to detail breathes life into each page, whether it’s the text or illustration. Reading Hugo is like watching a gorgeous silent film – with the magical ability to make it into a “talkie.” Teens will be drawn into the story of Hugo, an orphan who lives in a Paris train station, desperate to fix his most precious possession, an automaton, when he steals from the wrong person, a toy shop owner, who has secrets of his own. Set in 1930’s Paris, it has the atmosphere of historical fiction, the anticipation of mystery, the poignancy of a coming of age tale, and the excitement of an adventure. Teens may have to search for this book in the children’s section, but it will be well worth the effort. It is certainly worth having two copies in your collection for both sections.
The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis
That summer the fence that stretched through our town seemed bigger.
We lived in a yellow house on one side of it.
White people lived on the other.
And Mama said, “Don’t climb over the fence when you play.” She said it wasn’t safe.
Picture books can serve as a catalyst to important discussions about societal and personal issues. Within the framework of a particular story, you can open up dialogue about the teens’ own experiences and perspectives on these difficult subjects. The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrations by E.B. Lewis tackles the issue of racism through the lens of Clover’s experience with a fence that divides her from her neighbor, Annie. In the end, the two girls sit on the fence together and Annie says, "Someday somebody's going to come along and knock this old fence down." In Steven Wolk’s article, “Using Children’s Books to Teach Democracy,” he used The Other Side to provoke a profound discussion about society. He found that the students made connections about the fence as a “symbol of social and political division.. but also hope.. that prejudice would stop if everyone knew each other...”(Wolk, 2004). Books like The Other Side – and Woodson’s latest book, Each Kindness, can help create a more democratic and kind community within a classroom or library.
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsberg
Adolescence is a pivotal time for developing a sense of wonder about the world outside and the world within. Teens are developing critical and abstract thinking skills, creativity and humor, and love of language. Young writers can have their talent nurtured by using wordless books to express themselves. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsberg is the classic example of a book educators have used to inspire students to write. For struggling readers, wordless books remove the pressure of decoding words to focus on comprehension. When educators allow students to become storytellers, who have their own perspective and voice, adolescents gain confidence and feel supported. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick and other (mostly) wordless picture books open the door to adolescents writing about their own interests and experiences. The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: Fourteen Amazing Authors Tell the Tales, a compilation of stories written by prominent authors, is a companion to the original mysteries. In her review, Elizabeth Bird suggests that rather than inhibiting children’s creativity, “Maybe the kids will read these stories on their own, think to themselves “I can do better than that!”, and be inspired to write their own versions as well.” Pairing both the original book and the compilation can be a wonderful exercise in understanding multiple points of view and interpretations, not to mention examining authors’ styles.
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