Our theme for the month of June is “Top Ten.”
Since I started working with kids, I’ve also re-discovered a love of picture books, some of the first stories I ever loved. I read picture books often with students of all ages. Pretty much any language skill can be found somewhere in the pages of a story, and I’ve found that books tend to keep kids more entertained than grammar drills and worksheets.
Reading children’s books as an adult, I’ve found magnificence not only in the beautiful stories packed so elegantly into a few colorful pages, but also in the role of a story to teach. To make stronger storytellers.
What follows is a list of some of my favorite picture books to read with students.
10. Bartholomew and the Oobleck (1949), written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss
This is one of the few Seuss tales that isn’t in meter, and I find that, especially working with language-impaired kids, the sing-song poetry of most of Seuss’ books results in a bit of linguistic overload, and the actual content of the story simply flies over their heads. This book, however, sticks to more idiomatic language, while still retaining Seuss’ love of silly-sounding new words. Plus, it creates a great opportunity for a cross-curricular focus with science: making actual oobleck.
9. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (1985), and subsequent titles, written by Laura Numeroff, illustrated by Felicia Bond
I wasn’t aware of the If You Give… series until I was an adult already working in schools. I like these books in particular for the salient (and silly) way they portray cause-and-effect relationships, and make use of complex sentence formats (especially the conditional clause). Also, if you have at least two books from this series on your shelf, they make fantastic tools for teaching kids to compare and contrast different books, as they all follow a parallel story structure.
8. Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! (2003), written and illustrated by Mo Willems
I think Mo Willems has a brilliant and rare gift for really understanding what it’s like to live in the mind of a young child. The pigeon wants something, can’t have it, doesn’t understand why they can’t, and resorts to every trick they can think of (from looking cute to whining to throwing a tantrum) in order to get their way. Young kids can both relate to this, and (usually) understand why it would be both ridiculous and impossible to allow a pigeon to drive a bus. The cherry on top is that this story’s fourth wall-breaking format allows the kids to play the part of the adult, repeatedly shouting “no” every time the pigeon asks.
7. Zen Shorts (2005), written and illustrated by Jon J Muth
I happened on this gorgeously illustrated book by chance when looking through stacks of donations to my school’s library. In the story, three young kids meet a mysterious panda who plays with them and tells them stories. The stories within the story are drawn from Zen Buddhist and Taoist literature, and all present a philosophy of open-mindedness and flexible thinking in a manner surprisingly accessible to young readers. I also really like the way the book handles embedded narratives for young kids, distinguishing them from the main narrative by utilizing a distinct illustration style.
6. The Snowy Day (1962), written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats
If you, like me, are looking to add more people and authors of color to your kids’ bookshelves, this is a fantastic place to start. This simple, elegant story captures the wonder of going outside and exploring. It revels in the youthful delight of finding things in nature, like sticks and snow. In addition, there are great opportunities to practice simple inferences (“Why did the snowball in his pocket melt?”).
5. We Are In a Book! (2010), written and illustrated by Mo Willems
I initially attempted to avoid repeat authors when making this list, but Willems deserves the second shout-out. I adore this book for the way it introduces the concept of metanarrative (a concept I learned in college) to young readers. Part of what makes a story a story is the reader’s interaction with it, which goes back again to my earlier point: stories have a function of making stronger storytellers.
4. Head, Body, Legs: A Story from Liberia (2002), written by Won-Ldy Paye and Margaret H. Lippert, illustrated by Julie Paschkis
This book is a retelling of part of a Liberian creation myth, outlining the story of how a human body, with its different limbs, was formed. In addition to providing a great opportunity to work on category awareness (namely body parts), I’ve found that this story is useful for the particularly salient way it shows the elements of narrative structure (characters, setting, problem, emotional response, plan, action, result, resolution). In some stories, even stories for kids, picking out things like plan, result, and resolution can get kind of abstract. But in this story, Head’s journey to find Arms, Body, and Legs and eventually join with them is so clearly told that each element of narrative structure becomes clear and plain.
3. Chalk (2010), illustrated by Bill Thomson
Wordless picture books are a speech pathologist’s best friend because they prompt kids to dip into their own storytelling skills. Also, I’ve found many kids to be even more drawn in to narratives when they themselves get to act as the narrator. Some even like to give the characters made-up names or use funny voices for dialogue. This book in particular is one of my favorites of the subgenre for the unique illustration style, creative concept, and tight narrative structure.
2. Bark, George (1999), written and illustrated by Jules Feiffer
This book was initially recommended to me by a friend and fellow teacher of young kids. It’s a wacky story about a dog who makes other animal noises (such as “moo,” “oink,” “quack”) instead of a bark, and a trip to the vet reveals that the cause is several other animals getting stuck in the dog’s belly. It’s got a surprising (and slightly dark) twist at the very end that really pushes kids’ ability to make inferences. I love watching kids’ eyes go wide with shock and surprise as they figure it out.
1. The Rabbit Listened (2018), written and illustrated by Cori Doerrfeld
This is a beautiful and profound story about processing emotions, actually written by a Minneapolis author and illustrator. When you’re a young person, a critical part of learning how to communicate is learning how to communicate your feelings. Even as adults, we sometimes continue to struggle with this. I love this story in particular because it has just as much to teach to the adult reading as it does to the child. Communication is a give and take. Stop sometimes, and listen.