Tag Archives: picture books for older children

The Rediscovery of Picture Books

Mushroom and BalletBoy, in the last few months, have rediscovered picture books as independent reads.  We have never totally left picture books behind us.  We kept reading them aloud occasionally for fun, as well as many that tied into history and science.  When we did our unit on Africa last spring, the kids read the picture books independently and we have done many US history picture books as independent reads as well.  I think a lot of parents these days shuffle their kids toward chapter books too quickly and try to pass this stage of reading by.

Over the summer, something suddenly clicked where both boys have been reading and checking out picture books more of their own accord.  I think part of it is that they’re now easy enough and both boys have been gratified by many of the history picture books they’ve read for school.  Many picture books have a higher reading level than the early chapter books that kids read, so even though they’re short, they can be challenging for many kids.  But more than the reading level, I think it’s that neither of them feels they have anything to prove anymore about reading.  It’s just something they do, so there’s no stake in trying to read a longer book.  They’ve both done that many times, so they feel free to read a short story now as well.  I think they like finishing a book in a single sitting.

While most picture books are sadly being pigeonholed as for younger kids these days, it hasn’t always been so, and there are many amazing longer picture books for kids to read and enjoy out there or picture books whose humor or style appeal to older kids.  Many of the best books for kids to read in elementary school are picture books.  They have a richer vocabulary and plots than easy readers or series chapter books and are even more sophisticated than many popular middle grades books.  I had a post ages ago about a few picture books that aren’t for babies. Here are a few more of varying length and difficulty, many of which have recently been read and enjoyed here.

Zathura by Chris Van Allsburg
Most of Van Allsburg’s books are like perfect little short stories for this age group.  He’s a great illustrator, obviously, with extremely detailed black and white illustrations in most of his books.  He’s also an imaginative storyteller.  This is a perfect example of one of his more appealing books.  We had not read it in a long time and the boys suddenly found it again and reread it with excitement.

Weslandia by Paul Fleischman
I just love this little book about a misfit boy who spends summer creating his own culture, complete with language, staple crop, sports and clothes.  The illustrations are bright and colorful.  The plot, with its themes of bullying and detailed imagination, seems perfect for slightly older kids who aren’t ready to leave playing pretend behind yet.

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig
This is one of those classic stories.  Many of Steig’s animal tales have an almost disturbing element to them.  The predators are actually all cruel predators in his tales, after the sweet donkeys, mice, and so forth.  We’ve been reading this one aloud since the kids were very young, but it’s now the sort of story they like to read on their own.

Diary of a Spider by Doreen Cronin
This series of sweet bug tales is practically an easy reader series in picture book format, but I’ve seen my kids keep going back to it, chuckling at the jokes and enjoying the story.  Unlike some of the others on this list, they could probably read several all at once, but they still enjoy them.  The illustrations are cartoony and the format of the diary makes them perfect for independent reading.

Meanwhile by Jules Feiffer
This is another very short picture book, but like other “meta” stories about books, such as Interrupting Chicken and David Wiesner’s The Three Pigs, my kids keep going back to this one as an amusing little tale.  Feiffer brings his frantic cartoon style to this story of a boy who keeps changing the story by jumping from one panel to the next via a “Meanwhile…” in order to get out of chores.

Dear Mrs. LaRue by Mark Teague
This series, about a smug dog, is a perfect quick independent read for this age.  I’ve always been a huge fan of Mark Teague’s.  He’s one of the great illustrators in my mind and his stories are always excellent.  One of the best things about this series is the way that the dog is betrayed as a terrible liar by the illustrations.

Pirate Diary by Richard Platt
This oversized picture book series, which also includes one about a castle and one about ancient Rome, is nearly as long as a short chapter book, but packaged with great illustrations, including two page spreads throughout.  It’s incredibly detailed and historically useful, so they make good history tie ins.  However, they’re also just fun reads, especially for any child interested in history.

Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco
Polacco is one of those authors, along with Eve Bunting, who write picture books so detailed  and deep that they can be touching reads even for adults.  We’ve used Polacco’s book Pink and Say for school recently and I took this one out as well.  In both, she mines her own family history to create stories with layered characters and plots.  She tackles cross-cultural friendships and issues in ways that are just right for kids.  Hers are the sort of picture books that no one can say are for toddlers.

My Favorite Book About the French Revolution

This is going to sound crazy, but my favorite book about the French Revolution is about a small turtle named Mack.  Think about it.  Yertle the Turtle is the story of a despot who orders all the turtles to allow him to stand on their backs in order to build up his kingdom.  Honestly, it’s not even that different from this famous cartoon of the era, showing the first and second estates riding on the back of the third.  Like in the French Revolution, or in any revolution, it turns out that they people on the bottom have power by virtue of being on the bottom.  Mack helps overturn the order of things in the pond.  In the final illustration, he sits on Yertle’s old rock perch while Yertle is stuck in the mud.  When I taught school, I used to begin my lessons on the French Revolution with this book.

Last week, when I sat down to think up a list of picture books for older readers, I very nearly included some Seuss because I think many of the Seuss titles work extremely well as ways to begin to tackle bigger topics.  Sure, some of them hit you over the head a little bit, like The Butter Battle Book‘s blatant Cold War allegory.  However, others, like The Sneeches or The Lorax are clearly about social issues, but don’t have an exact parallel and provide a good way to begin thinking about an issue for elementary and middle school students, whether you agree with Seuss’s perspective or not.

I think this is one of the services that picture books can bring us.  They provide us with simple ways to meet complex topics.

Picture Books that Aren’t for Babies

In response to the New York Times article declaring that parents see picture books as primarily for very young children, I’ve made an off the top of my head list of picture books that are not for for the preschool set, or at least, not best appreciated by them.  For more titles, the blog Tinderbox wrote an excellent defense of picture books through the lens of the homeschool curriculum Five in a Row, which creates entire units of study based on picture books.  Here’s a list of the Five in a Row books.  And here’s the books I thought of:

Grandfather’s Journey by Allan Say
This book is the perfect example of how a picture book can convey complex themes and ideas through a very simple story.  It’s the story of immigration on a personal level.  While younger children might get something out of it, the emotions shown aren’t something that younger children can easily connect with.  I found it useful when I was teaching middle schoolers.  Allan Say’s brilliant art enhances the story and keeps the very adult feel to the book.

MosesWhen Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Weatherford
Like Grandfather’s Journey, this is another example of a beautiful nonfiction picture book that’s not for younger readers.  The story is a detailed one and beautifully told by Weatherford, who is also a poet.  I could go on and on listing picture book nonfiction and biographies.  Especially in the last decade, there have been many amazing ones released.

The Three Golden Keys by Peter Sis
Sis has written board books for young children, but his most amazing works are books that don’t seem to be for children at all.  This book, which brings together the legends of Prague as well as Sis’s own personal history with the city, is incredibly complex, in both the artistic style and the language.  Sis has several other mind-blowing autobiographical picture books that aren’t for young children, including his book of intricate mandalas, Tibet Through the Red Box, and the more recent memoir of communism, The Wall.  He’s also the author of a number of picture book biographies.

The Stinky Cheese Man (and Other Fairly Stupid Tales) by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith
Most of the Scieszka and Smith ourve can be enjoyed by younger children, but is really best for children in the elementary school years.  My boys thought this book was interesting when they were younger and found it on the shelf, but it wasn’t until they got to kindergarten that I heard them suddenly start laughing when we read it.  Like many of the great fairy tell retellings (I almost put David Wiesner’s The Three Pigs on this list too), these stories aren’t enjoyable until you’re old enough that you really know the original story and can get the jokes.

The Secret Knowledge of Grown-Ups by David Wisniewski
Does this book even make sense to very young children?  The art style is silly and light to match the text, but it’s not for preschoolers.  The jokes are the sort of things that only children sophisticated enough to have observed grown-ups a little longer would get.  Wisniewski has several other titles, including the radically different Golem, which is appropriate for older children as well.

The Eleventh Hour by Graeme Base
This intricate tale was so popular when it was released that even adults enjoyed puzzling out the mystery.  I can’t imagine many kids could figure it out before first or second grade, at least not without a great deal of help.  Base has another book, Enigma, which is perhaps even more difficult.

Zen Shorts by Jon Muth
This beautifully illustrated philosophical tale has been thought-provoking for adults and children alike.  The story isn’t short either.  It’s one of the few very popular books of recent years that I would say is clearly not for preschoolers.