One of the most overlooked resources for engaging middle grade and teen readers is the picture book. Many educators, librarians, and parents believe once readers leave the elementary grades, they should leave picture books behind. Topics and the contents of some of today’s picture books suggests otherwise.
Today’s middle grade and teen readers have grown up in a highly visual environment and have an affinity for the combination of text and image. Further, the skill of visual literacy is an important one that can enhance the ability to interact with information and story. In addition to contributing to skill building, picture books are useful tools for introducing complex ideas and concepts.
In recent years, there have been increasing numbers of picture books with sophisticated stories and subject matter. For example, Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, addresses the sensitive issue of racial violence with clarity and nuance. The illustrations, including the endpapers, use perspective, color palette, and images that support close examination.
Picture books are also useful for exploring how visual style and the use of different media contribute to the story and complex subject matter. They support a wide range of reader abilities and encourage kids to connect with the text and visuals at the same time. Following are some suggestions of additional titles that can expand that connection.
Both The Big Bang Book by Asa Stahl and illustrated by Carly Allen-Fletcher and It Started With a Big Bang: The Origin of Earth, You, and Everything Else by Floor Bal and illustrated by Sebastian Von Doninck, are excellent uses of text and images to explain the complex concepts of the beginning of the universe. Jason Chin’s Gravity is an another equally useful introduction to a scientific idea.
An example of the treatment of sensitive topics is Nicky and Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued by Peter Sis, who brings his unique artistic style to bear on a little-known story from the Holocaust.
The creative process is on full display in pictorial biographies, Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines by Jeanne Walker Harvey and illustrated by Dow Phumiruk as well as Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery by Sandra Neil Wallace and illustrated by Bryan Collier.
The stories of two unique women with impact Pass Go and Collect $200: The Real Story of How Monopoly Was Invented by Tanya Lee Stone and illustrated by Steven Salerno and Turning Pages: My Life Story by Sonia Sotomeyer and illustrated by Lulu Delacre have compelling storylines and engaging art.
Not So Different: What You Really Want to Ask About Having a Disability by Shane Burcaw with photographs by Matt Carr brings forth the full life of a young man with spinal muscular atrophy.
The use of story and image symbolism are artfully depicted in Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh and We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom and illustrated by Michaela Goode. The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander and illustrated by Kadir Nelson provides a sweeping poetic narrative paired with dramatic art.
The endless range of subject matter presented in picture books, in the hands of skilled storytellers and artists provides many opportunities to explore different paths for learning and getting excited about reading and information.