If A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words…

Doesn’t it make sense to use nonfiction picture books in the middle grade classroom?

Nonfiction picture books use relatively few words and glorious illustrations to tell a story and they’re perfect for the middle grade classroom. First through fifth grade students can master the amount of information conveyed in a nonfiction picture book. There’s no slogging through dry chapters to turn up one or two facts for a report. And the illustrations open another curtain, revealing as much about the subject as a curious reader can see.

Unfortunately some kids—and adults—believe that picture books are too “baby-ish” for middle grade readers. This fall the New York Times stirred up a biblio-hornets nest with this article about the supposed demise of picture books and parents and teachers who push children to drop picture books in favor of thick “grown-up” chapter books. Educators and book lovers protested immediately. There is an important place for picture books in today’s middle grade classroom. But if you’re in the front lines of this battle how can you conquer the “picture books are for babies” hurdle? Are there innovative ways to use nonfiction picture books with older students?

Sure there are. Here are a few ideas:

1) Surround ’em.

When introducing a new picture book I use the total sensory immersion approach. Huh?  In a wired school the internet can be a classroom teacher’s friend. So each February 1, in honor of the start of Black History Month, my middle grade students walk into the library to see a huge image of Marion Anderson projected across the back wall.  One they’re settled I play a Youtube video of her concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

When we get around to reading WHEN MARION SANG by Pam Munoz Ryan my students have context. They care about Marion Anderson and her struggle. We live in Washington, DC so this happened in our town. They are stunned. Some students cry. All are engaged.

Same thing with M.T. Anderson’s THE STRANGE MR. SATIE (more about this book below.) Students enter my library to strains of Gymnopedie. They know “something” is up.

I’ve printed photographs of Satie and other artists who lived in Paris during the early 20th century and tape them at eye level around the room so we’re “in good company”. I greet the students with a hearty “Bonjour!”or “Comment allez vous?” Silly? A bit, but middle grade students aren’t yet too “cool” to get into the spirit of things. When we begin to read the picture book my students feel like they’re in Paris, too.

Sights and sounds aren’t the only senses. Satie ate only white food and (allergy restrictions allowing) how about an all white “banquet” of popcorn, white bread, and marshmallows. Point made on the composer’s “strangeness”.

2) Find themes that resonate with middle grade readers-

One of my favorites lessons revolves around Satie.

This elegantly written biography traces the life of oddball composer Erik Satie from birth to death. While Anderson celebrates Satie’s desire to follow his own path he doesn’t sugarcoat the composer’s life. After reading this picture book bio I springboard into a discussion with middle grade students about finding your passion and following your dreams. Middle grade students are always being told they can be whatever they want to be and  Erik Satie is a great example of someone who did just that—with both positive and negative repercussions.

Audiences hated some of his work and even rioted. It’s a great lead in to a discussion about reacting to criticism and being true to yourself. And whether conforming makes life easier. These are big, tough topics. And they are already on your middle grade student’s minds. What better way to jump into a tough topic than with a great book?

3) Work with what you’ve got (which is probably way more than you knew you had). Supporting materials can (and should!) be more than fill in the blank exercises, vocabulary lists, or discussion questions.Now more than ever authors and publishers are creating materials for teachers, librarians, parents, and booksellers to use along with nonfiction picture books. Many publishers compile guides on their sites. Here’s a list of some of the guides that go along with books published by the Macmillan kids group.

But don’t stop there. Many authors link to guides on their websites and guide authors list most or all of the guides in their portfolios. One of my favorites is Natalie Lorenzi’s site. (Natalie prepared a wonderful guide for my book , SOAR, ELINOR! as well as a super one for Audrey Vernick’s SHE LOVED BASEBALL: The Effa Manley Story) And check out the wonderful reader’s theater script Toni Buzzeo created to go along with WHEN MARION SANG.

When I put together my website for SOAR, ELINOR! I included a special page called Look Listen and Learn where I post unexpected links to Elinor Smith’s world. Elinor was a pilot in the late 1920s so I linked to an online radio station that plays nothing but music from that era and I posted actual newsreel footage of Elinor breaking altitude and endurance records.

Plus I added a link to live broadcasts from aircraft control towers all over the country. When students follow this link they aren’t just passive readers anymore. They’re pilots. In my teacher’s guide students are given news photos and challenged to write a story to go along with it.

So now what do you think? Are nonfiction picture books obsolete? Are they for little kids and babies? No way. These picture books are worth way more than a thousand words. They’re worth their weight in classroom gold.

What are your favorite ways to bring nonfiction picture books alive?

Tami Lewis Brown was a librarian at The Sheridan School in Washington, DC. This fall she’s been on the road talking to kids about her new picture book biography SOAR, ELINOR! but she’ll always miss the classroom.

Tami Lewis Brown
  1. Tami, great post about using nf picture books in the classroom. I especially love the way you use music to provide a multi-sensory experience.

    At one school where I did an author visit, the teacher used my picture book, JOSE! BORN TO DANCE, to teach kids about timelines. The kids worked in groups; each group was given a laptop to research a different time period relating to the book, from Jose Limon’s childhood during the Mexican Civil War to the dance company that still performs today. I talked about the timeline of my life and how it was similar to and different from Jose’s, and the kids also created illustrated timelines of their own lives.

  2. Tami, great ideas! I think many of these will also work with my community college students. I learned this fall that it was pretty easy to persuade them to analyze kids’ NF PBs without thinking of the assignment as babyish. Many of these students are parents themselves, so it also would give them ideas about how to talk books with their kids. Pass it on!

  3. A couple of nonfiction picture books that I just got into my elementary school library are Soar, Eleanor (about the youngest pilot) and Stand Straight, Ella Kate: The True Story of a Real Giant. The kids LOVE them!

  4. A terrific description of how to use many resources – including picture books – to teach, engage, and encourage students to explore. Thank you, Nancy Bo Flood

  5. Joanne- this is genuine “interactivity”, in my opinion. Some book app that lets you click to hear a word read aloud doesn’t do anything for me as a teacher or, I’d argue, the child as a learner. But probing and experiencing the world of a book by exploring resources off the page models a way of looking at the world through books (by, in a way, actually touching that world) that I think creates life long learners (and book lovers).

  6. I love that one too, Cathe! The illustrations are AMAZING. They actually give me a bit of vertigo. One of the highlights of my life as a writer was talking to Mordecai Gerstein about writing The Man Who Walked Between The Towers. That’s a book that raises some HUGE issues and themes.

  7. I love The Man Who Walked Between the Towers.

  8. I think you make some great points. I think the less we pin kids into boxes, the more they are free to explore the written word in all it forms. Using multisensory activities reaches across all learning styles and keeps things fun. There’s a lot to be said for fun and learning–how much more motivating are the activities you mention than a dry presentation on a story that may seem irrelevant without the learning bridges you suggest. Great post.

  9. Audrey your book about Effa Manley is wonderful! I can’t wait to share it with middle grader readers.

  10. Great piece, Tami, and thanks for the mention of Natalie’s awesome guide for She Loved Baseball. I’ve been thinking about this very topic from the author’s side a lot these days and I appreciate your spot-on insights.

  11. Thanks Karen! These special activities are fun for the kids, of course, but in truth a day with extra stuff like videos and songs makes everything more fun for me, too. Plus, in our independent school we don’t “teach for the test” or worry about No Child Left Behind – which frees us up to actually learn.

  12. You are a very cool librarian and teacher. (I would know…I’m a parent of a very cool couple of kids who love books — and have the unfortunate luck to end up in a school with a dud of a librarian.) Anyway…thanks for encouraging the use of these beautiful and available resources for kids of all ages. You rock. 🙂