In my work as Library Media Specialist at an International Baccalaureate School, my main job was support of the curriculum for students as seen through the IB Organization’s lens. This framework of thinking urges students to dig deeper into a subject, to be open-minded inquirers, and to find ways to apply the thinking they practice across their subjects and ultimately in their interaction with the world around them.
I have found that one great way to connect with students and to engage that deeper thinking is to use picture books. It’s easy to discount this format as “too young” for many students, but in reality, even the simplest-seeming of them can be powerful tools for scaffolding a topic, for generating new questions, and most importantly, for beginning a conversation with students that gets them thinking more deeply about a subject in new and different ways.
A picture book can be a connector through its art and visual nature, through topics and themes which are presented, explored and resolved in a short time (yes, I read picture books aloud to students all the way into middle school in my library), and simply through a layout which invites sharing with others. Engaging with a picture book can open doors for a wide array of students with differing needs and learning styles, and can lead to rich exploration in the classroom.
Picture books aren’t just about princesses and fluffy bunnies. They can help us understand the problems of hunger and oppression or the meaning of friendship or patriotism. They can help us understand differences between people so that we’re free to see similarities. They can help us examine our own lives more closely, all through the safety of the page. Picture books are my own read of choice with students of any age, and in our recent cry for diversity in children’s literature, they fulfill this need in some wonderful ways while making the curricular connections we need from the books we share with students.
Here are some picture books which can be useful tools for starting conversations with Middle Grade readers on a wide variety of topics. Synopses come from IndieBound unless otherwise noted.
My name is Sangoel, by Karen Lynn Williams and Catherine Stock, illustrated by Khadra Mohammed
Sangoel is a refugee. Leaving behind his homeland of Sudan, where his father died in the war, he has little to call his own other than his name, a Dinka name handed down proudly from his father and grandfather before him. When Sangoel and his mother and sister arrive in the United States, everything seems very strange and unlike home.(from Goodreads)
The Name Jar, by Yangsook Choi
The new kid in school needs a new name! Or does she?
Being the new kid in school is hard enough, but what about when nobody can pronounce your name? Having just moved from Korea, Unhei is anxious that American kids will like her. So instead of introducing herself on the first day of school, she tells the class that she will choose a name by the following week. Her new classmates are fascinated by this no-name girl and decide to help out by filling a glass jar with names for her to pick from.
I Pledge Allegiance, by Pat Mora and Libby Martinez, illustrated by Patrice Barton
Libby’s great aunt, Lobo, is from Mexico, but the United States has been her home for many years, and she wants to become a U.S. citizen. At the end of the week, Lobo will say the Pledge of Allegiance at a special ceremony. Libby is also learning the Pledge this week, at school—at the end of the week, she will stand up in front of everyone and lead the class in the Pledge. Libby and Lobo practice together—asking questions and sharing stories and memories—until they both stand tall and proud, with their hands over their hearts.
The Librarian of Basra: A True Story of Iran, by Jeannette Winter
Alia Muhammad Baker is a librarian in Basra, Iraq. For fourteen years, her library has been a meeting place for those who love books. Until now. Now war has come, and Alia fears that the library–along with the thirty thousand books within it–will be destroyed forever.
In a war-stricken country where civilians–especially women–have little power, this true story about a librarian’s struggle to save her community’s priceless collection of books reminds us all how, throughout the world, the love of literature and the respect for knowledge know no boundaries.
The Sandwich Swap, by Raina Al Abdullah and Kelly DiPucchio , illustrated by Tricia Tusa
Lily and Salma are best friends. They like doing all the same things, and they always eat lunch together. Lily eats peanut butter and Salma eats hummus-but what’s that between friends? It turns out, a lot. Before they know it, a food fight breaks out. Can Lily and Salma put aside their differences? Or will a sandwich come between them?
The smallest things can pull us apart-until we learn that friendship is far more powerful than difference. In a glorious three-page gatefold at the end of the book, Salma, Lily, and all their classmates come together in the true spirit of tolerance and acceptance. Selected by Indie Booksellers for the Summer 2010 Kids’ Next List
Boxes for Katje, by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Stacey Dressen-McQueen
After World War II there is little left in Katje’s town of Olst in Holland. Her family, like most Dutch families, must patch their old worn clothing and go without everyday things like soap and milk. Then one spring morning when the tulips bloom “thick and bright,” Postman Kleinhoonte pedals his bicycle down Katje’s street to deliver a mysterious box – a box from America! Full of soap, socks, and chocolate, the box has been sent by Rosie, an American girl from Mayfield, Indiana. Her package is part of a goodwill effort to help the people of Europe. What’s inside so delights Katje that she sends off a letter of thanks – beginning an exchange that swells with so many surprises that the girls, as well as their townspeople, will never be the same.
This inspiring story, with strikingly original art, is based on the author’s mother’s childhood and will show young readers that they, too, can make a difference. Boxes for Katje is a 2004 Bank Street – Best Children’s Book of the Year.
Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story of Africa, by Jeannette Winter
As a young girl growing up in Kenya, Wangari was surrounded by trees. But years later when she returns home, she is shocked to see whole forests being cut down, and she knows that soon all the trees will be destroyed. So Wangari decides to do something—and starts by planting nine seedlings in her own backyard. And as they grow, so do her plans. . . . (from Goodreads)
One Hen: How one Small Loan Made a Big Difference, by Katie Smith Milway, illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes
Inspired by true events, One Hen tells the story of Kojo, a boy from Ghana who turns a small loan into a thriving farm and a livelihood for many.
The Wall: Growing up Behind the Iron Curtain, by Peter Sis
Through annotated illustrations, journals, maps, and dreamscapes, Peter Sís shows what life was like for a child who loved to draw, proudly wore the red scarf of a Young Pioneer, stood guard at the giant statue of Stalin, and believed whatever he was told to believe. But adolescence brought questions. Cracks began to appear in the Iron Curtain, and news from the West slowly filtered into the country….By joining memory and history, Sís takes us on his extraordinary journey: from infant with paintbrush in hand to young man borne aloft by the wings of his art. The Wall is a 2007 New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Book of the Year, a 2008 Caldecott Honor Book, a 2008 Bank Street – Best Children’s Book of the Year, the winner of the 2008 Boston Globe – Horn Book Award for Nonfiction, and a nominee for the 2008 Eisner Award for Best Publication for Kids.
Sparrow Girl, by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Yoko Tanaka
Ming-Li looked up and tried to imagine the sky silent, empty of birds. It was a terrible thought. Her country’s leader had called sparrows the enemy of the farmers–they were eating too much grain, he said. He announced a great “Sparrow War” to banish them from China, but Ming-Li did not want to chase the birds away.
As the people of her village gathered with firecrackers and gongs to scatter the sparrows, Ming-Li held her ears and watched in dismay. The birds were falling from the trees, frightened to death! Ming-Li knew she had to do something–even if she couldn’t stop the noise. Quietly, she vowed to save as many sparrows as she could, one by one…
Benno and the Night of Broken Glass, by Meg Wiviott, illustrated by Josee Bisaillon
A neighborhood cat observes the changes in German and Jewish families in its town during the period leading up to Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass that becomes the true beginning of the Holocaust. This cats-eye view introduces the Holocaust to children in a gentle way that can open discussion of this period.
The Invisible Boy, by Trudy Ludwig, illustrated by Patrice Barton
Meet Brian, the invisible boy. Nobody ever seems to notice him or think to include him in their group, game, or birthday party . . . until, that is, a new kid comes to class.
When Justin, the new boy, arrives, Brian is the first to make him feel welcome. And when Brian and Justin team up to work on a class project together, Brian finds a way to shine.
From esteemed author and speaker Trudy Ludwig and acclaimed illustrator Patrice Barton, this gentle story shows how small acts of kindness can help children feel included and allow them to flourish. Any parent, teacher, or counselor looking for material that sensitively addresses the needs of quieter children will find The Invisible Boy a valuable and important resource.
Includes backmatter with discussion questions and resources for further reading.
Maddi’s Fridge, by Lois Brandt, illustrated by Vin Vogel
With humor and warmth, this children’s picture book raises awareness about poverty and hunger Best friends Sofia and Maddi live in the same neighborhood, go to the same school, and play in the same park, but while Sofia’s fridge at home is full of nutritious food, the fridge at Maddi’s house is empty. Sofia learns that Maddi’s family doesn’t have enough money to fill their fridge and promises Maddi she’ll keep this discovery a secret. But because Sofia wants to help her friend, she’s faced with a difficult decision: to keep her promise or tell her parents about Maddi’s empty fridge. Filled with colorful artwork, this storybook addresses issues of poverty with honesty and sensitivity while instilling important lessons in friendship, empathy, trust, and helping others. A call to action section, with six effective ways for children to help fight hunger and information on antihunger groups, is also included.
Emily’s Blue Period, by Cathleen Daly, illustrated by Lisa Brown
Emily wants to be an artist. She likes painting and loves the way artists like Pablo Picasso mixed things up.
Emily’s life is a little mixed up right now. Her dad doesn’t live at home anymore, and it feels like everything around her is changing.
“When Picasso was sad for a while,” says Emily, “he only painted in blue. And now I am in my blue period.”
It might last quite some time.
There are so many more I could share, some with humor and heart, courage and quirkiness, some that share themes of resiliency and integrity. I hope you’ll find some new ways to share picture books with the Middle Grade readers in your life!
Do you already have a favorite picture book to share?
Valerie Stein is proprietor of Homeostasis Press. She’s at work on two historical fiction books, including a historical mystery for middle grade readers.
Vaerie blogs about books and being grateful at The Best of It.
You can find her tweeting lots, especially about kids’ books, @stein_valerie