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Use picture books in the content areas

october 27, 2008

Use picture books in the content areas
Rose Blanche, by Roberto Innocenti

Most picture books (also known as “children’s literature”) are usually 32 pages or less with illustrations on every page or double-page spread. At first glance, most middle school and high school teachers would walk past them assuming picture books to be for an elementary classroom only. However, the power of these texts is that they can help students learn more about the world around them. In a few short pages, students can learn about history, culture, political issues, and events. The greatest power of a picture book is that it can provide information, experiences, explanations, and/or view points on an in-depth topic of study that is referenced minimally in a textbook.

Don’t believe these texts to be too immature. It’s not shallow text with simple word choice. In fact, just because they are marked E (for Easy Reader), don’t be misled. The vocabulary, inferences, and plot lines are often very sophisticated. These types of picture books address complex issues and situations and are intentionally written for a more mature audience than the Easy Reader label would indicate.

If you are a teacher who already uses picture books to layer understanding, consider the impact of utilizing more than one picture book during the same unit. Most picture books do not provide great breadth (i.e. all facets, facts, and points of view) on an event. Rather, they tend to target a single idea of a much bigger picture. That said, multiple texts throughout the unit can fill in gaps and offer several perspectives in order to provide students a clearer picture on the theme, topic, issue, or event.

For example, if you are reading The Diary of Anne Frank, Number the Stars, Behind the Bedroom Wall, or The Upstairs Room in the language arts classroom, or covering the Holocaust within a social studies class, consider layering your teaching with some of these titles:

  • The Number on My Grandfather’s Arm, by David Adler, is a nonfiction picture book. The black and white photographs and the text reveal the true story of this man who was the lone family survivor of the Holocaust.
  • The Harmonica, by Tony Johnston, is a book inspired by the real life of a survivor. The main character is a conflicted young boy who receives bread crusts for playing his harmonica for the concentration camp commandant. He’s torn between wanting the food and betraying his people.
  • Rose Blanche, by Roberta Innocenti, shows a very different perspective of the Holocaust. Rather than that of a captive or survivor, this book is about a young girl who sneaks to the concentration camps and passes food to the young children through the barbed wire fence.
  • The Yellow Star: The Legend of King Christian X of Denmark, by Carmen Agra Deedy, takes the perspective of someone standing up against the evil. When all Jewish people are ordered to wear a yellow star to identify them as Jewish to the Nazis, the leader of Denmark devises a plan to keep all safe. He encourages everyone to wear the yellow star, making it impossible to tell a Jew from a Dane.

When utilizing a picture book, plan to read it to students aloud, showing the illustrations as you go.

Here’s a great list of picture books searchable by genre, content area, and grade level.

You’re not looking to replace your content area text by reading picture books. Rather, these are just to deepen understanding. Seeing faces and images helps the students envision, relate, and ultimately remember the details of the subject matter. And, for your visual learners this is especially helpful. If they can visualize the subject matter, their comprehension increases dramatically.

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