Using Picture Books to Teach Middle Grade and Beyond

Teaching with Picture Books

by Robyn Gioia, M.Ed.

When most people think of picture books, they think of cute pictures and feel-good stories that thrill children from ages 0-7. But, teachers know better. There is much more to picture books than meets the eye.

Students have grown up with visuals since the day they were born. From elementary to high school, picture books can spark the imagination and open the eyes as an introduction to a subject. Picture books boil down to the main topic and draw the reader in with interesting tidbits. Our public libraries are full of wonderful picture books ready to do the job. Picture books inspire conversations and provide topics for research. They allow insightful tie-ins to curriculum and present opportunities for projects. Their pictures bring the topic to life. They create understanding unlike anything else. They are quick reads that can fit into almost any schedule.

Take the book, The Turtle Ship by Helena Ku Ree.

One of the greatest historical war heroes in the S. Korean culture was Admiral Yi Sun-Sin. He is known for saving Korea from Japan, a conquering country with a formidable naval fleet. Because of his design, the undefeatable Turtle ship had the ability to defeat the Japanese. His larger than life statue looms high over the skyline in Gwanghwamun Square, Seoul.

In the picture book, a young Sun-Sin comes to life as a boy who is afraid to enter a shipbuilding contest sponsored by the King. The King needs an indestructible ship able to withstand ongoing invasions from the sea. Sun-Sin decides to accept the challenge. The author imagines what experiences might have influenced a young Sun-Sin’s turtle ship design, and from there the story is told.

Teaching Middle Grade with Picture Books

(Artwork from “Fighting Ships of the Far East (2)” by Stephen Turnbull © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc)

The Turtle Ship picture book goes step by step through the design engineering process. Young Sun-Sin tries and fails at several design attempts before creating the design known today. This was something I was able to use in my 6th-grade science class. As we talked about the boy Sun-Sin and identified how the process was evolving, it created a bridge to understanding the design process. We had also learned that historically, a lot of designs were inspired by nature. The Wright brothers studied birds before designing the first airplane. In our story, Sun-Sin looks to his turtle for solutions.

When I used The Turtle Ship book in our lesson, my students were fascinated by the Turtle ship design from the 1500s. They learned the ship could rotate in one spot and fire cannons from each of its sides. They discovered soldiers were encased inside the ship so the enemy could not attack. They loved that the top was curved and covered in spikes to keep from being boarded by the enemy. They also learned that the hull was designed to ram into other vessels.

The Korean Turtle Ship

The turtle ship became one of the top engineering designs in warship history. You can read about this incredible ship and its design ingenuity on the U.S. Naval Institute News website. USNI News asked its readers, “What is the greatest warship of all time and why?” The answer can be found on the USNI News website

Teachers in grade levels from primary to high school have used this story to inspire students with a wide range of activities and topics.

Engineering Design Process (EDP)

Research on Korean Inventions

Historical Fiction Comparative Study

Creating a Historical Timeline between Asia and American History

Writing Sijo, a Korean Poetic Form

Analyzing Civic Characteristics of Main Characters

Origin Story with Read-Alouds and Comparisons with Multiple Sources

Teaching Korea through Writing

Teaching Modern Asian Culture through History

Creative Writing

Using the Glossary for Vocabulary Understanding

Study of Honor

Compare and Contrast Other Korean Historical Picture Books

STEAM: Create a Vessel that Holds the Most Weight

STEAM: Design a Boat That is the Fastest

Downloadable Teaching resources:

Lee and Lowe Teaching Guide: TURTLE-SHIP.TG

Historical Information on Admiral Yi Sun-Sin: Admiral Yi Sunsin_KSCPP(1)


Folding Tech: An Interview with the author + GIVEAWAY

The designs of objects found in nature and of so many things we use are related to origami: insect wings, leaf buds, brains, airbags, and robots, to name a few. I was blown away by all I learned about origami in Folding Tech: Using Origami and Nature to Revolutionize Technology. I am excited that I had a chance to find out more by interviewing the author, Karen Latchana Kenney.

About the Book

Hi Karen! Thank you for sharing Folding Tech: Using Origami and Nature to Revolutionize Technology with me. It was such an informative read that got me interested in learning about so many different STEM topics (who knew that heart stent designs are based on cucumber and pineapple origami patterns!).


Can you give us a short summary about the book?

Folding is not necessarily the first thing that comes to my mind when thin
king about technology, but it’s really important if you want to send massive solar panels or telescope lenses into space or minute surgical tools or drug delivery systems into the human body. Folding transforms objects in surprising ways, and

With Lerner’s AR app and a phone or tablet, readers can transform certain images in books into interactive features. This image shows the AR view of the Mars Insight Lander, which allows readers to fold and unfold the spacecraft’s solar panels.

engineers are being inspired to find new ways to fold technology through unexpected sources—the ancient art of origami and natural folding patterns found in insect wings and leaf buds. This book explains how art, science, and mathematics intersect to develop new folding methods that can be used for space and medical applications. It also includes some DIY folding activities along with really cool augmented reality features that show folding tech in action.

[Here’s more about Lerner’s augmented reality feature: ]


When does the book come out?

It comes out on November 3 (Election Day—be sure to vote!) from Lerner Publishing, under their Twenty-First Century Books imprint.


Tell us who would especially enjoy this book (as it’s more than just kids—and adults—who enjoy origami!).

I think teens interested in space technology, insect and plant biology, and medical engineering would enjoy this book too.


About the Author

Tell us a short summary about your writing journey. Did you enjoy writing as a child? Did you plan on writing middle grade nonfiction, or did you start out writing something else?

I always loved reading (and being read to by my mom) from a young age. One of my first favorite books was a nonfiction book about being a reporter. I thought—that is what I want to do when I grow up. Being able to share ideas and information through writing and books is something I’ve wanted to do since then. I always wrote stories, and was lucky enough to have a wonderful third grade teacher (Mrs. White) who encouraged me to continue doing so. I love writing nonfiction—and find endless inspiration in the real world. STEM and STEAM topics are some of my favorite to write about.


What is your connection/background with STEM?

I have no formal connections with STEM, but it’s a huge interest for me. Some of my most memorable moments are spent in nature, on long walks or bike rides on the many Minnesota trails. I believe we have so much to discover about the natural world and I view scientists as the innovators that solve some of the most interesting problems humans and our planet face.



This book has so much great technical information in various branches of math and science. What kind of research did you do to understand all the various concepts you write about?

I did a lot of reading for my research—books and articles in scientific journals—along with watching some really interesting documentaries, from a TED talk by Kaori Kuribayashi-Shigetomi to NOVA’s “The Origami Revolution” to the PBS Independent Lens film “Between the Folds.” But I always think the best research comes from talking with experts in the field, and I was lucky enough to interview two origami and mathematics pioneers—Western New England University Mathematics Professor Thomas Hull and former NASA physicist, scientific researcher, and now origami artist Robert J. Lang. Their insight, passion, and research really informed my writing and helped me understand more of the mathematics behind folding. Plus their websites are packed with their complex and really interesting origami creations, information for readers, and other resources.


What was the most fascinating tidbit you researched? (Personally, I loved the information about ladybug wings, especially how scientists made a see-through top wing to see what was happening beneath it.)

Here are a few of my favorite discoveries found while researching this book:

  • Earwigs have some of the most elaborately folded wings in the natural world. The surface area of its lacy wings grows ten times larger when unfolded!
  • One of the first origami-inspired folds went into space in 1995 on the Space Flyer Unit, a Japanese spacecraft.
  • That an Indian mathematician (Tandalam Sundara Row) made some important contributions in the late 1800s that linked mathematics with paper folding. Being of Indian descent, this was especially interesting to me!
  • Folding tech is being used to gently capture fragile deep-sea specimens—I’m fascinated with all the strange creatures found in the deep sea.


For Teachers

This book has me itching to teach math (and science) again! How can math teachers use this book in their classrooms?

Math teachers could try some of the folding activities  shown or discussed in this book—like the Miura-ori Fold or Thomas Hull’s PHIZZ unit. Students can look at the geometric shapes and angles revealed within the folds of their finished creations.


How about science teachers?

(And, personally, I think it would be wonderful as a guided reading book—so much to discuss and annotate.)

Oh, there’s so much in nature that’s involved with folding and mathematics. Students can research how beetle wings fold in unusual ways, how leaves fit compactly within buds, and more. They could even try designing their own folded creations to see how much they can reduce the surface area of a piece of paper.


How can we learn more about you? 

You can find out more about my books on my website ( or Twitter (@KLatchanaKenney).


Thanks for your time, Karen.

Thank you, Natalie!


Karen Latchana Kenney will be giving a copy of Folding Tech: Using Origami and Nature to Revolutionize Technology to a lucky reader. Enter the giveaway below for a chance to win a copy.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

*This giveaway is only available in the United States

Folding Tech is available here:

Teachers, You Inspire Us

On this Labor Day Holiday, it only seems appropriate to give a huge shout out thank you to all the teachers. You INSPIRE US!

According to the Department of Labor:

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

While many workers fulfill that particular requirement, teachers do that every day by inspiring their students. Teachers aren’t just the ones who work in the classroom, but also are paraprofessionals,  coaches, librarians, and yes, even parents. Everyone who works with students has the ability to have a positive affect on them. Sometimes you see it right away, and sometimes it doesn’t happen for many years. Regardless, some teaching moments and teachers in particular stay with us our whole lives.

That happened to me. I truly believe that I would probably not be a science author if I hadn’t had some amazing teachers in my life.

Here is my story:


I have always loved science! It captured my attention and imagination from a very young age. Luckily, I had parents who encouraged my love of science. Oh, and we also had a creek in our backyard. I spent many wonderful days exploring that creek, knee-deep in water, mud, and yes, sometimes frogs.

At the age of 9, I decided that I wanted to become a pediatrician. I didn’t really know how to do that until I stepped into my 7th grade science class and met a woman that would change my life. Her name was Susan Roth. And to this day (over 40 years later) I still remember my first day in that class. She had a full skeleton model in her classroom. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.


And then there was Mrs. Roth, herself, a very outgoing, happy, encouraging teacher who was EXCITED about science. And most of all made science EXCITING for us!  She used the textbook only as a guide, but instead we focused on the most amazing experiments in her classroom. She encouraged me to study the creek water, really look at it. I did reports with my classmates on the microscopic creatures that we found in it. We mapped the entire creek throughout our little town. We studied its levels, how it moved, and discussed erosion affects from the floods we had occasionally.

We also worked with that skeleton, of course, studying all of the parts of the human body, the systems, and I  could even name all 206 bones!

The best part about Mrs. Roth was that she always encouraged everyone. This was in the 1970’s and it was unusual to have a female science teacher where I lived. Yet she fit in so well. I remembered one day telling her that I wanted to be a pediatrician and she didn’t laugh. She didn’t stop to say, um, that is a difficult road. Instead, she said, “Awesome! I know you’ll be great. You can do anything.”  Those words stuck with me.

In fact, about ten years later when I was nervous about applying to the U.S. Naval Academy, where I would eventually go to college, I remembered Mrs. Roth’s words. They gave me the courage to apply, get in, and pick chemistry as my major. After all, that was the degree you’d need to go to medical school back then.

Being a chemistry major is not easy.

Those of you that have taken even 1 chemistry class in college can probably agree. When you add the requirements of 2 years of math classes, 3 years of engineering classes, plus all of the naval ship classes, it’s a lot. I got bogged down in all of that work, and my grades were about middle of the road. My dream of becoming a doctor was slipping away.

And then I had another teacher, Dr. Joseph Lomax, he was my chemistry teacher at USNA. He knew how hard I worked in the class and that my grades didn’t always reflect the amount of effort I was putting in. He took the time to talk to me and to listen to my dreams about becoming a doctor. Having had it for almost 12 years, it was a tough dream to give up. He didn’t shrug it off, instead, he told me how I could take my gifts and use them in a different way.

He told me that  I had a gift for explaining difficult things in a way that students could understand. That I could take complex science and engineering ideas and turn them into easily understandable concepts. It was something not everyone could do, and that I’d make a wonderful teacher some day. He was right.

Those words Dr. Lomax said to me carried me a long way. In fact, you might say that they helped me to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. At only 24 years of age, I could never have envisioned– all these many years later– that I would end up here, writing STEM books for children.

But when I look back, it makes total sense. I feel like I spent my whole life moving in this direction. Taking complex and unique STEM topics and turning them into exciting books for kids which, hopefully, will inspire them to love science and STEM as much as I do. I am very lucky to have a job I love. And I do it in the name of my teachers.

I’ve dedicated two of my books to my teachers. For Mrs. Roth, I dedicated my Dr. E’s Super Stellar Solar System book


“To Susan Roth, my 7th grade science teacher, who opened my eyes to the amazing intrigue and adventure that the world of science has to offer. She is my true Science Super Hero.”





And to Dr. Lomax, I dedicate my new chemistry book, ” Thank you for believing in me and helping me to see how my gifts in STEM can be used to inspire others as yours have done for me.”





In fact, all of the amazing things I’ve been able to do as a STEM author can be traced back to their encouraging words. I wouldn’t be there without them. (And my AWESOME family, too, of course).



I realize that this year is particularly difficult for all who are teaching. Unusual circumstances have changed the way things normally work.  And yet, I know you are all doing your best to continue to make those personal connections. Students won’t forget that.  When they reach a time in their life when they need a voice to tell them, “You can do it”, it just might be that of a special teacher who believed in them.

HUGS to all of the amazing teachers out there and THANK YOU for what you do for us. We appreciate it!

Enjoy your holiday. You deserve it.


And in honor of my two amazing science teachers, I am offering a giveaway of these two books as a pack.


I’ll pick 3 winners. To be entered, leave a comment below about a teacher who inspired YOU. OR if you are a teacher, let us know about the kids YOU inspire every day. 😀