Are you using picture books for high school English classes?
Whether you have five extra minutes in class or you need to add another dimension to your lessons, these twenty picture books for high school English will benefit your classroom. At first, you might be skeptical that children’s books, picture books, pre-chapter books—whatever you call them—belong in the high school classroom. They absolutely do!
Years ago, I began exploring ways to implement picture books in my secondary classroom. Students responded well, and our discussions covered concepts that never appeared within our normal curriculum. Students picked up these books and read them when they had a few extra minutes. I find students browsing them, simply enjoying literature, before the bell rings. Basically, I’ve acquired dozens of picture books for my older students and incorporate diverse topics with picture books into my lessons, and I continue growing my collection.
Below, I’ve included twenty picture books* that work well with my secondary English students. For ease of providing examples, I divided the books into six categories: social emotional learning, creativity, kindness, everyone can write, poetic devices, and background knowledge. Those categories came from conversations students and I had, but I’m sure as you use these books and other ones, you’ll think of other categories.
And? You don’t need categories! Sometimes a bit of structure might give you an idea of where you can add a picture book, but don’t hesitate to grab one and just share it with your students. Read on for twenty fabulous picture books.
Social Emotional Learning
Reading older students as you discuss taking care of yourself and working with others can feel awkward. Since I dislike simply bringing a topic out of nowhere, I use a book to discuss SEL topics. Here are three picture books to use with SEL.
Book: A Sick Day for Amos McGee
Overall: Amos visits his friends at the zoo every day. One day, he is sick and stays home to rest. His friends visit him.
Discussion: Even though Amos had a schedule, he knew when he needed to stay home sick from the zoo. (A reminder that I often need. . .) His friends cared enough about him to visit him and help him as he had helped them. Our society is changing, more toward staying home when you are sick rather than forcing yourself to go to school or work. This book is a great example of taking care of yourself and helping friends.
Book: a kids book about failure
Overall: Misspellings and mistakes are kept in this peppy book about failure.
Discussion: Dr. Layman Hicks acknowledges the feelings that accompany failure and the many times in life a person can face failure. He also stresses the growth and experiences people have when they attempt something new—knowing they might fail. This book works well after a rough lesson!
Book: Keeping It Cool
Overall: I love Melissa Boyd and own her other book, B is for Breathe. Boyd is a psychologist, and her books focus on developing healthy coping skills. Both books will provide steps for coping.
Discussion: Sometimes, older students simply lack the tools for coping with stress, change, and other tough situations. Not a lot of discussion is required with Boyd’s books because they are outlined so well—which is perfect for older students who might not readily discuss they struggle to deal with overwhelm.
With any class, but specifically with creative writing, students often need a pep talk about creativity. What is creativity? Well, that concept is hard to articulate, but people often know creativity when they see it. Part of creativity comes from authentically sharing ideas, no matter how silly you fear others might think they are. Here are two picture books that model creativity in different ways.
Book: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs
Overall: Grandpa tells the tale of a town, Chewandswallow. Food comes from the sky, but eventually, the townspeople leave because the “weather” worsens.
Discussion: The cover of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs boasts that over 4.5 million copies have sold—and I just bought it this year! I never read it with my personal kiddos, so I’ll share it with my students. We discuss taking liberties with names, story development, characters, and setting. The story has deeper meanings that students can discover online, but even if you don’t take that approach, you’ll still have a creative story and pictures to analyze.
Book: Hair Love
Overall: Some students may have seen the short that this book is based on. The creator of that short wanted to combat stereotypes and encourage the embracement of natural hair.
Discussion: The book flap of Hair Love says that the book celebrates “the joy that fills you up when you get to express yourself freely.” What would students experience if they expressed themselves freely? What part of their culture do they believe a story would help to provide a different angle?
Book: If I Built A Car
Overall: A little boy wonders what kind of car he would have if he were in charge of building a car. The results are interesting.
Discussion: The entire book rhymes and has a rhythm to it. The car floats, has an ice cream parlor, and drives itself. I wonder if the author wrote about his dream car before he realized what a car can’t do.
Sprinkle some kind messages in your secondary classroom with picture books. Most picture books model good behavior, but these three do so in ways that my older students always appreciate.
Book: Rescue Bunnies
Overall: Newbie is new to the Rescue Bunny Squad. He must complete tests and follow procedures, but eventually, he breaks protocol and stays with a giraffe who is stuck in mud. He refuses to abandon the giraffe as hyenas approach.
Discussion: The discussion with Rescue Bunnies leads itself. Would you stay with someone stuck in a bad situation? What if hyenas were approaching? Are you comfortable breaking rules for the greater good?
Book: Frog and Toad Are Friends
Overall: I started reading these stories aloud for selfish reasons: They are some of my favorite picture books. Frog and Toad are so mismatched, and they are so grumpy. I love their small interactions like making lists or gardening together.
Discussion: Students typically gravitate to a discussion about friends or couples who simply understand each other—nuances, mannerisms, needs, and wants. More than any other book series, Frog and Toad discussions connect to characters from stories we read as a class.
Book: Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!
Overall: The bus driver steps away. The pigeon wants to drive the bus. Readers are not to allow the pigeon to drive the bus.
Discussion: Students love this book, and I get it—it’s hilarious. The pictures are darling. With older students, this book is perfect for discussing peer pressure and the stress that can arrive in unforeseen circumstances.
Everyone Can Write
This category is important to me. One of my classroom messages is that literature, for readers and for writers, is for everyone. I want my students to see themselves as both readers and as writers. I can stress that message with these three picture books for high school English.
Book: I Promise
Overall: LeBron James walks students through ideas for doing well in life. This book is uplifting and encouraging.
Discussion: Students know LeBron James, but they might not know he is a writer too. In I Promise, he stresses that the promises students make for their lives will help them to succeed.
Book: We Are in a Book!
Overall: Mo Willems’ We Are in a Book! breaks the fourth wall as Elephant and Piggie discuss what page number the book ends and how the reader interacts with the reader.
Discussion: I know that Mo Willems is on my list twice, but students respond so well to his books. Why? Our discussions often wrap back to why this author resonates with so many people. His illustrations and stories are fresh, and my students can write fresh stories too.
Book: The Book With No Pictures
Overall: How can a picture book have no pictures? This book requires the reader to say ridiculous statements, so be prepared for your teens to laugh at you.
Discussion: Students know the author from his acting work, but they might not realize he is a writer too. Hence, everyone can write.
Throughout my poetry units, I read from picture books. Students might tell me that they don’t enjoy poetry, but I want to show them that they have already read poetry, probably as young children. These picture books provide scaffolding and examples for poetic devices.
Book: Poetry for Young People (series)
Overall: These poetry books are beautiful and contain brief histories of the author. You can spend about ten minutes on each book—maybe fifteen.
Discussion: When I read about a poet, I ask students to research a bit about the author. Then we combine our knowledge and head into reading the poetry. Along the way, we discuss poetic devices that we learn about together.
Book: Giraffes Can’t Dance
Overall: Gerald is a sweet giraffe who cannot dance. Other animals can dance. Eventually, Gerald finds music that fits his style.
Discussion: The last page does not rhyme, and that drives students crazy. What is the effect of that? What liberties can an author take with poetry?
On a completely anecdotal note, I have found that younger kids do not specifically enjoy nonfiction. That could absolutely not be true in your experience, but overall, older students tell me that they enjoy informational texts more than they did when they were younger. Well, let’s read them! Grab these beautiful books that provide snippets of history, and put them in your students’ hands.
Book: The Story of Ruby Bridges
Overall: Ruby Bridges is a Civil Rights icon and activist.
Discussion: The author of this book is a psychology professor at Harvard. Often, I start the discussion after reading this book by asking why a psychology professor would write about Ruby Bridges. Older students immediately pick up on the trauma and study that diverse fields have with the Civil Rights Movement. Our conversation unfolds from there.
Book: Classic Lit A to Z
Overall: This book is a simple A-Z book with references to Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz, and more.
Discussion: Some students enjoy the classics, and this book has snippets about each character or book that each letter references. Our best discussions with this book come from our realizations over what books we have read and either enjoy or dislike.
Book: Friends for Freedom
Overall: Did you know Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas were friends? Had disagreements like friends? Their history is interesting!
Discussion: When I teach about important historical figures like Frederick Douglass with his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, I try to pull in other pieces to show students many parts of his life. Hopefully, additional research and information will spur interest and encourage further research.
Book: The Gay BCs
Overall: This book has basic definitions for the LGBTQ community.
Discussion: Students simply might not know proper terms, but this book provides basic definitions while normalizing sexual orientations and gender identities. This book is continuously read in my classroom, and when students have a question, we consult it together.
Those are my twenty books!
Since I’m acquiring new picture books (all the time!), I’d love for you to add a title and to explain why it works so well with your older students.