Never Too Old: Embracing Picture Books To Teach Older Students

Traditional picture books provide versatile, effective teaching tools for a range of students.

Students in Scio, NY, discuss illustrators’ choices.
Photo courtesy of Scio Central School District

Mary Zdrojewski was in for a surprise. Not long ago, the librarian in the Scio (NY) Central School District had been assigned a class of teens at her K–12 school. Zdrojewski asked the students what they wanted from their library class, expecting to hear requests for coding, robotics, or hands-on projects. “They just wanted me to read aloud to them,” Zdrojewski recalls. “I tried short stories, including the ‘Guys Read’ series, because I thought they would be ‘cool.’” But she soon discovered that “the students really wanted pictures to look at.”

Picture books and older students: More educators are making this match in their teaching, with significant success. While graphic and illustrated novels gain traction among teen and tween readers, traditional picture books hold a place of their own and provide versatile, effective teaching tools for a range of students. The ubiquity of social media might explain why today’s youth are particularly visually oriented, but that’s only part of the picture, says Wendy Lukehart, youth collections coordinator at the District of Columbia Public Library’s Penn Center. “People of all ages have always responded well to pictures,” she says. For centuries, she notes, humans spent quite a bit of time gazing at art, and, in the 20th century, flipping through photography-centric magazines, such as Life, to engage with current events and culture.

During a partner reading activity at IS 289 Hudson Middle School in New York City,
students analyze a book’s themes and the nuances of the writing.
Photos courtesy of IS 289 Middle School

Visual impact

Whether or not young people in 2018 more readily engage with pictures than their parents did, one fact is not debated: Older kids—in particular ELL students and those with special needs—can benefit from picking up a picture book, especially if they have a trusted educator to guide them in the process.

“Pictures are an immediate conduit to emotional connection,” says Lukehart. “If you want people to really engage with a topic, whether you are publishing a newspaper, writing a blog, or teaching a class, show a picture from which a narrative can be inferred or imagined.”

Picture books can also level the playing field. “Some students who may not have the strongest vocabulary, either from lack of exposure to a wide range of texts, or because English is not their first language, can do deep inference and interpretation when I’m reading a book to them,” says Christina DiZebba, an eighth grade literacy teacher at IS 289 Hudson Middle School in New York City. “I’m doing the decoding and making the ‘music’ of the text, which helps students who struggle with fluency, vocabulary, and prosody [making the text sound like what it means].” Highly evocative illustrations can bring out more sophisticated observations from those students. DiZebba points to the mix of dramatic and subtle illustrations in Tony Johnston’s The Harmonica. “Students who may not have background knowledge about the Holocaust can access the story’s emotional components.”

Zdrojewski, who works with students who have special needs, sees unique benefits of using picture books with this population. “They don’t need to rely only on auditory information from the read-aloud. They need some guidance in visualizing the story; the pictures give them that. The pictures also provide a place to focus. They’re less distracted.”

These books are valuable teaching tools because they are short, notes DiZebba. “In one 40-minute period, we can read a whole text and have a discussion about it.”

While graphic novels are popular, they represent a different experience from picture books, says Lukehart. “Picture books are uniquely designed to be a shared experience, whereas the multiple panels with small fonts in most graphic novels invite individual exploration,” she says. But “the differences dissolve the closer you get to hybrid or wordless versions of either format.”

Still, “picture books are incorporating many of the features of graphic novels,” observes Myra Zarnowski, a children’s literature and literacy professor in the Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education at Queens College in Flushing, NY. “There is an increasing use of speech bubbles, comic book–style inserts, diagrams, and so on.” She points to picture books by Meghan McCarthy or the comic features in Kate DiCamillo’s Flora and Ulysses. With teens, “I invite [them] to try their hands at writing picture books that incorporate the features of graphic novels.”

Literacy teacher Christina DiZebba reads Jacqueline Woodson’s Coming on Home Soon to students at IS 289.
Photos courtesy of IS 289 Middle School

Setting the stage for success

The way that educators introduce picture books to older kids can impact how fully students embrace and ultimately learn from them. For those who encounter resistance from students who think a picture book is “babyish,” a good offense can be the best defense.

“The educator needs to take the book seriously and present the reason for sharing it, just as they would with a science experiment or anything else,” says Lukehart. “If an educator believes [a book] presents a compelling perspective on a topic in a manner that will resonate with older students, there will be few problems.”

DiZebba agrees. “If your students trust you, and you get up in front of the room with the belief that this, whatever this may be, is valuable, they’ll go along with it. They may roll their eyes a little at first, but that’s their job. They’re teenagers. Believe me, they will be quickly won over by Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles or Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting or Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts.”

Choosing the right titles

Books that are short on text with provocative themes are best for middle and high school students, says Lukehart. Her favorites include Margriet Ruurs’s Stepping Stones; Walter Dean Myers’s Patrol: An American Soldier in Vietnam; Christophe Gallaz and Roberto Innocenti’s Rose Blanche; Tom Feelings’s The Middle Passage; Anthony Browne’s Little Beauty; Peter Sís’s The Wall; Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree; and Barbara Kerley and Brian Selznick’s Walt Whitman. (Also see Lukehart’s SLJ article, “Thought-Provoking Picture Books.”)

High school students are fascinated by Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution by Steve Jenkins, says Mary Ann Cappiello, professor or language and literacy at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, and “Classroom Bookshelf” blogger. With a timeline that depicts the history of life on Earth within the confines of a 24-hour day, “the book provides fascinating content in a clear and digestible manner that can be used as a catalyst for in-depth research and classroom investigations,” says Cappiello.

Recommendations aside, librarians should just follow their hearts, Zdrojewski suggests. “My first advice for my fellow librarians would be to pick books they love, not ones they assume the students will like,” she says. “My students will sit through much more ‘childish’ books than I’d expect if they can tell from my face and inflection that I really like that book.”

Zdrojewski had often heard that older students usually go for anything by Patricia Polacco, whose books Zdrojewski doesn’t love. When she shared them, “I tried to be enthusiastic, I think the students could tell,” she says. “Yet when I read Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal, one of my all-time favorites, the students were super engaged.”

Award-winning reporter and editor Christina Vercelletto is SLJ’s former news editor.

English Language Learners: Tips

Judith B. O’Loughlin, education consultant at Language Matters Education Consultants in San Ramon, CA, has been working with K-8 English language learners (ELL) in public schools for most of her career.  With her older students, she looks for picture books that provided both written and visual “language” to support learning in various content topics. She explains that picture books can “explode” a content topic that might only have been referenced in passing in another text.

“In learning about the Civil Rights Movement, for example, one can read Rosa by Nikki Giovanni and learn more about how this leader influenced the movement toward civil rights legislation,” she says. “But if you read New Shoes by Susan Lynn Meyer, you gain a deeper perspective into what it meant to be African American under segregation and how it impacted the daily lives of children in America.”

O’Loughlin notes that picture books meet the criteria for most reading standards, including the Common Core Anchor Reading Standards. But she urges thinking beyond standards when choosing picture books for ELL students—and keeping these three points in mind:

1. Text and illustrations should support one another and enhance an understanding of the topic. Illustrations should provide clear and accurate information, as well as ways to build content language and promote oral and written discourse.

2  Ideally, illustrations and text work together to introduce important and/or abstract concepts through controlled language that English learners can understand. “This does not mean using age and grade-level language that is meant for younger learners,” emphasizes O’Loughlin. “ELLs need language development that meets their needs, not assumptions they are ‘blank slates’ with no knowledge or language at all.”

3. Stereotypical behavior of characters, or assumed stereotypes, should be avoided at all costs.

Tips for engaging older students with picture books

"Reading Aloud to Teens"

"Picture Books and Older Students"

"Picture Books in the Dorm Room"

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Amy Theisen

In my middle school library I use The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordecai Gerstein as a read aloud with our 6th graders each fall. It gives them some context for the World Trade Center and only touches on 9/11 briefly. Our 7th grade team does a day on 9/11 each fall. After they have done that day, I read 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy. I confess though that that one is hard for me to get through without my voice cracking!

Posted : Mar 21, 2018 07:40

Felicity Bent

I too teach EAL/D students (ELLs) and find picture books spark great conversations. "The Island" is brilliant.

Posted : Mar 08, 2018 12:23


I also love Jacqueline Woodson’s books especially Each Kindness and also Patricia Polacco! These books not only teach empathy but are great for teaching about life. There are many other, of course and I agree with reading things you love to engage your students or patrons. I have used Jacqueline Woodson’s “Each Kindness” with many different ages and it has worked every time!

Posted : Mar 02, 2018 07:42


At the Mathical Book Prize announcement this year, one of the speakers chose to read out loud the winning book "A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars" to the (all adult) audience, with a mind towards teachers sharing the book, intended for around the 3rd-5th grade age range, with middle school students up to 8th grade. One helpful comment for reading aloud to older students: "Since most children's picture books don't have very involved stories, you can stop and talk about what's going on, or give them something to think about and pay attention to as they listen." As he read, he invited the listeners to think about certain mathematical themes, do a calculation, fold a piece of paper, etc. Some chose to listen to the story, others let it function as background music to their own thoughts, and everyone seemed to enjoy it in their own way.

Posted : Mar 02, 2018 06:43


As a high school teacher who taught a culture course, I often started with picture books. These books allowed us to peek into what the culture feels is important for the children to know/feel/respect/love. Then at the end of the semester we would go back to the children's books from the cultures and reflect on how the books mirror the culture's values.

Posted : Feb 28, 2018 02:56

Sherry Rosso

As a public librarian, many picture books by Jacqueline Woodson are my favorites to recommend to upper elementary and middle schoolers, especially The Other Side and Show Way. And I love Brian Selznick.

Posted : Feb 24, 2018 09:43

Virginia Rinkel

I love Jacqueline Woodson's "The Other Side" and "Each Kindness".

Posted : Mar 01, 2018 07:08



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