being a teacher

Not Just for Little Kids – What Picture Books Have Taught My Middle Schoolers

I never thought of leaving picture books behind.  Of giving them away.  Of hiding them away in a closet, only to be brought out when the need was immediate.   To save them for a certain lesson or day.  When I packed up my 5th grade classroom my beginning picture book collection came with me.  No questions asked.  And when I unpacked my boxes of books, out they came, proudly on display, ready to be read and shared and remembered.    And since then the collection has only grown, only multiplied, and their hands keep reaching, and their eyes keep reading.  You can say we are a picture book classroom.

Yet, it is not just the books themselves that have made us love them.  It is not just the fact that they are on display, nor that they are oh so inviting to the students.  You cannot just buy a few picture books and then wait for them to do their magic.  The books are not enough, even if they a brilliant start.  For the real change comes in how we use them.  How they take center stage on the very first day and never leave.  How they allow us to build our community, to strengthen our trust, to have incredible hard conversations, and also allow us to laugh.

You can say that picture books are the thread that bind us altogether and we would say that you are right.  And yet, when I share this love some think I am crazy.  That picture books are too easy for 7th grade and not at all what they need.  That they need advanced texts that they can analyze and work with, that will test their skills of comprehension and push their thinking.  And so to those that do not quite understand.  To those that may doubt their place.  To those that think that picture books are just for little kids, I offer the following.

Picture books taught my students that being a better person can sometimes happen too late to fix a situation.  That every word matters and so does every action.  That stories do not always have a happy ending and that we make a choice every day to be better human beings or not.

Picture books taught us that someone finding their courage to be their true self in a world that wants to stop them need our protection and friendship.  That even though someone may choose differently than we would, does not make them less than.  Does not make them somehow wrong.  even if we don’t understand why.  Even if we cannot relate.

Picture books taught us that sometimes innocent illustrations are not so innocent at all and carry far more damage than can ever be expected.  Our job then is  to notice and pause and discuss and then do something about it.

Picture books taught us to trust ourselves.  To fight for our own beliefs and to have confidence in what we discover.  That the world has room for more than one right answer and that we all deserve to be heard.

Picture books taught us that reading should move us.  Whether to laugh, to think, to yell out in injustice.   They taught is that we still have much to learn and much to investigate.  That sometimes all we need is a short story for us to follow a path into a larger one.  That the world is filled with stories waiting to be discovered if we just start to pay attention.

Picture books taught us that reading does not have to be hard to be worthwhile.  But that we can handle the hard when it happens.  That we do not have to struggle through complex texts but can instead access them in smaller pieces and that doesn’t make us dumb, or bad, or any other label we may have had before then.

So when people act surprised that I would ever hand a picture book to a 7th grader, I ask them to try it.  To build a community that believes in the power of picture books and uses them for good.  To create a community where all reading counts, not just the assigned texts, not just the grade level books.  Where students are encouraged to read for fun, to read to learn, to read to challenge themselves and their opinions.  Where picture books help us become better human beings, not because the teacher told us we had to work on it, but because within their pages we saw something to strive for.

So yeah, picture books may be for little kids as well.  But for the big kids, for the ones I teach, they are an entirely new world that doesn’t judge, that doesn’t frustrate, that doesn’t make them hate reading.  That helps them become what we all hope they do; better readers, better thinkers, better writers, but most of all, better human beings.  All in the power of picture books.

PS:  Want ideas for which picture books to have in your classroom, here you are!

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

13 thoughts on “Not Just for Little Kids – What Picture Books Have Taught My Middle Schoolers”

  1. What a joy to meet you at NCTE! I have been slow to the picture-book-in-the-middle-grade classroom craze. I’ve been more intentional this year. When I read aloud a picture book, my students can’t help themselves. They come closer and closer, eventually circling me tightly to see the pictures, to make the book their own. I recognize Each Kindness in your post. I understand the power of reading aloud and creating a caring community. My students and I thank you.

  2. Pernille, how do you display your picture books? I have a collection of a lot of books (hundreds) and have them open on the tops of cupboards but would like to do a wall-based display next year. Thanks!

    1. I have a rain gutter attached to my wall and use that as well as the ledge by my whiteboards to display and on top of bookshelves. I then just rotate the stock out as kids only sometimes browse through the ones shelved.

  3. Terrific post Pernille. When you stated, “sometimes all we need is a short story for us to follow a path into a larger one”, it reminded me how story can teach us to better people and lead better lives, not just to become better readers.

    Related, my 3rd grade son came with me to our middle school for training I was helping facilitate regarding action research in their LMC. Right away, he noticed there were no picture books. I encourage him to let the principal know his feelings about this, before he gets there. 🙂

    Good to see you again at NCTE, take care.


  4. About three years ago I began building my picture book library in part due to my principal’s influence (she could pull a picture book for any situation especially at staff meetings), your posts and those from The Nerdy Book Club. I have been a slow starter with this as I have been teaching for 20 plus years at the grade 6/7 level. Even though I now have all these amazing picture books I have not been using them as a teaching tool – they are hidden in my cupboard (gasp) waiting for the perfect teaching moment to bring them out.
    Every time I read one of your post about picture books I remind myself it is time, but as so often happens when we try new things we are unsure of where to start. I present in my school district on formative assessment in the classroom. So often I hear from teachers, “I just want to come and see you teach, to see what it looks like in action.” This is how I feel about how you use picture books – I would love to see it in action as modelling is the best way to teach anything new.
    Do you have any video clips of you working with a picture book in your grade 7 classes or do you know of any that can be the ‘modelling’ to help me take the first step?
    My goal in second term (starting in two weeks) is to pull these books out, get them on display and start to integrate them into my teaching. Thank you for reminding me of the importance of this.

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