Children’s Books and Literary Terms

Use children's stories to teach literary devices with high school students.

Do you have students who struggle with understanding literary terms? Approaching literary terms in a more familiar way may help. Combining children’s books and literary terms may be just the trick. 

I strive to benefit my own understanding from whatever perspective I have. (The whole turning lemons into lemonade thing). Even if I don’t actually have “lemons,” just different shaped lemons, I still search for learning.

As my own kids grow, my teaching inside the classroom changes. I see students at the end of public education; high school students are at the end of formal, mandatory education. My children are at the start of learning, of exploration, of reading.

Use children's books with older students to teach difficult concepts. Literary devices are in picture books, and older students will appreciate the fun read alouds.

When I read with my own kids, I experience their understanding of letters and sounds, sure. As they become more confident readers, I also see their growth of understanding and enjoying literature.

Part of this growth is because they have a grasp of literary terms. In fact, I am darn impressed with the assignments they bring home–looking at tone, mood, purpose–in first and second grades. Then they mention these literary terms as we read. My heart explodes! I love it.

Years ago, I used children’s books to teach short stories and literature with my high schoolers when my students struggled. Now I read these books as a pre-reading activity regularly and ask students to highlight literary terms. Even if I am teaching a higher level class and students aren’t fully grasping the literary term, I recall a popular story for them. I have found that when students understand terms such as theme, irony, and characterization in regards to literature for younger kids, the application of literary terms to their level of literature becomes easier. Here are three children’s books I have used to teach literary terms to high school students.

(NOTE: I once included Dr. Seuss in this article. This is an example of learning something and doing better. A friend of mine recently posted this scholarly article about Dr. Seuss. I will no longer be teaching Dr. Seuss in my classroom.)

1.Pete the Cat: characterization.

Pete the Cat has many adventures: he forgives friends who eat all the cupcakes, he writes his mom a thank-you note when she is his substitute teacher, and he plans too many activities for his friends.

No matter Pete’s obstacle, he is honest and truthful. He makes mistakes but does not stress about them. Pete is “groovy” and you will have plenty of opportunities to teach indirect characterization and show why you arrived at that conclusion.

2. Gerald the Giraffe: mood.

Gerald is known as a terrible dance until he finds the right type of music. Then he is the best dancer amongst the animals.

Mood sometimes presents as tricky for older students. Students can detect the mood, the feelings evoked in readers from reading.

They have sadness for Gerald when he can’t dance. Gerald hangs his head, leaves the party, and faces ridicule. Later, students feel uplifted and triumphant as Gerald finds what works for him and discovers his strengths.

3. Snowmen at Christmas: point of view.

A little boy wonders what his snowman does at night. He imagines what the snowmen do when humans aren’t around. 

I first used this book when I taught “A Raisin in the Sun.” My group of students disliked Walter so much that they focused on the dislike more than the understanding of the play. While I was glad they felt passionate about something with the play, they needed to move past it a bit. After reading Snowmen and understanding point of view better, they could ‘walk in Walter’s shoes’ – a theme of the play. We could look at what Walter did, look at how he acts in the time period, and understand his world a little better.

For all three of those books, and most children’s stories, the theme is quite evident. If students struggle to remember the meaning of ‘theme,’ I can quickly return to “The Three Bears” or “Little Red Riding Hood.”

I’ve found using literary terms from children’s books in the secondary classroom to be quite successful. Perhaps students are less intimidated by analyzing the content. Maybe the examples are quite evident. Maybe students are comfortable with the stories, familiar and fun from childhood.

No matter the reason, students respond well to analyzing children’s literature for literary terms. Sometimes my coworkers think I’m a little nutty, and that’s ok. My goal is for my students to understand literary terms. I’ll present the information in this way if it gets them there.

Download this free literary analysis activity to use with any piece of literature to encourage literary analysis.


  • Theresa

    MORE of this please! My students struggle even though they are in high school!

    • (author)

      I know. The inventive ways do seem to help. I’ll try to write up more ideas that I’ve picked up along the way. What helps you?

  • Jacquelyn Lepore

    I use Goldilocks and the Three Bears to teach analysis versus summary. What do we learn about stereotypes? Which bear has the larger portion? Why? Which bear has the softer bed? Why? Which bear is a child? How does the things he says show the reader he is the baby? Etc.

    • (author)

      Yes! I have never used that one, but it would work perfectly. My go-to is typically the Three Little Pigs. Why would one pig think that straw would be sustainable? Is the pig who built the brick house smarter, or does he have better resources?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.