Picture Book Windows to the World

BHIS2This summer, I’m working with reading specialists in a literacy camp for middle grade English learners in a diverse Seattle public school. Our students are immersed in the hard work of becoming stronger readers and writers.  At the same time, they’re eagerly exploring the world around them — their familiar world of family, school, and community, as well as the broader, less familiar world beyond.  Quite fitting, given the school’s motto — “A World of Learners.”

Picture books can be powerful and engaging tools for learning about ourselves and others.  Our literacy camp students, whose families came to Seattle from around the world, are especially hungry for books that reflect their own experiences and connect them with people whose lives are very different.  Teacher librarian Theresa Gekeler suggests the following selection of picture books that open windows for readers everywhere.

My Chinatown: One Year in Poems by Kam Mak (HarperCollins, 2001).  Kam Mak grew up in a place of two cultures, one existing within the other. Using extraordinarily beautiful paintings and moving poems, he shares a year of growing up in this small city within a city, which is called Chinatown (IndieBound description).


My Name is Bilal by Asma Mobin-Uddin; ill. by Barbara Kiwak (Boyds Mills Press, 2005). Bilal worries about being teased by his classmates for being Muslim. He thinks maybe it would be better if people don’t know he is Muslim. Maybe it would be best if he tells kids his name is Bill rather than Bilal. Then maybe they would leave him alone. Mr. Ali, one of Bilal’s teachers and also Muslim, sees how the boy is struggling. He gives Bilal a book about the first person to give the call to prayer during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. That person was another Bilal: Bilal Ibn Rabah. What Bilal learns from the book forms the compelling story of a young boy wrestling with his identity (IndieBound description).

Salsa Stories by Lulu Delacre (Scholastic Press, 2012). When Carmen Teresa receives a notebook as a holiday gift, the guests suggest she write down their own childhood stories, which they tell. But Carmen Teresa, who loves to cook, collects their family recipes instead!  With energy, sensitivity, and warmth, Lulu Delacre introduces readers to a symphony of colorful characters whose 9 stories dance through a year of Latin American holidays and customs. Countries include Mexico, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Guatamala and Peru. Seventeen delicious and authentic recipes are included (IndieBound description).

onegreenappleOne Green Apple by Eve Bunting; ill. by Ted Lewin (Clarion Books, 2006). Farah feels alone, even when surrounded by her classmates. She listens and nods but doesn’t speak. It’s hard being the new kid in school, especially when you’re from another country and don’t know the language. Then, on a field trip to an apple orchard, Farah discovers there are lots of things that sound the same as they did at home, from dogs crunching their food to the ripple of friendly laughter. As she helps the class make apple cider, Farah connects with the other students and begins to feel that she belongs (Clarion Books description).

mynameissangoelMy Name is Sangoel by Karen Lynn Williams & Khadra Mohammed; ill. by Catherine Stock (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2009). 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. In this busy, noisy place, with its escalators and television sets and traffic and snow, Sangoel quietly endures the fact that no one is able to pronounce his name. Lonely and homesick, he finally comes up with an ingenious solution to this problem, and in the process he at last begins to feel at home (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers description).

Dear Primo: A Letter to My Cousin by Duncan Tonatiuh (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2010). From first-time Mexican author and illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh comes the story of two cousins, one in America and one in Mexico, and how their daily lives are different yet similar. Charlie takes the subway to school; Carlitos rides his bike. Charlie plays in fallen leaves; Carlitos plays among the local cacti. Dear Primo covers the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of two very different childhoods, while also emphasizing how alike Charlie and Carlitos are at heart. Spanish words are scattered among the English text, providing a wonderful way to introduce the language and culture of Mexico to young children (IndieBound description).

My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits; ill. by Gabi Swiatkowska (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003). Yoon’s name means Shining Wisdom, and when she writes it in Korean, it looks happy, like dancing figures. But her father tells her that she must learn to write it in English. In English, all the lines and circles stand alone, which is just how Yoon feels in the United States. Yoon isn’t sure that she wants to be YOON. At her new school, she tries out different names – maybe CAT or BIRD. Maybe CUPCAKE! (IndieBound description).

Many thanks to Theresa Gekeler, teacher librarian at Grand Ridge Elementary in Issaquah, Washington for her wonderful book ideas!


Katherine Schlick Noe teaches beginning and experienced teachers at Seattle University. Her debut novel, Something to Hold (Clarion, 2011) won the 2012 Washington State Scandiuzzi Children’s Book Award for the middle grade/young adult and was named a 2012 Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People.  Visit her at http://katherineschlicknoe.com.

Katherine Schlick Noe
  1. What a wonderful list! I’ve read about half of them and look forward to finding the other half at the library!

  2. it is wonderful work that you are doing in Seattle. I really appreciate the recognition and approach to such a diverse population. thank you for sharing this selection of books, I am looking forward to reading and passing them along.