English Language Arts

5 Picture Books to Read and Use in the Middle School Classroom

Pictures books are amazing to read in the middle school classroom. When I was in college, my favorite education professor, who taught literacy, read picture books to us. When she first read us picture books, she said something that made a profound impact on me.

She basically asked if we enjoyed hearing the picture books. We all nodded eagerly. It was a nice break to sit back and listen to a book being read aloud, to look at the pretty pictures, and to relax for a few moments. Then she said, “If you, as a college student enjoyed it, why wouldn’t big kids as well?”

Wow. That hit me. Ever since then, I’ve been a teacher that tries to incorporate picture books at whatever level I’ve taught, which has been from 3rd-12th grade. (I know! That is an odd range of grades, but that is another blog post in itself!)

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When I taught high school English, I incorporated such books as The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss to explore the Holocaust before teaching Night by Elie Wiesel.

I read aloud folktales to teach allegory. I read The Day the Crayons Quit to teach diversity. I was the weird high school teacher who seemed like I had forgotten I had left the elementary classroom.

I knew fine and well what I was doing. Reading aloud picture books is a must for any grade level, even in middle school.

Here are some reasons why I read pictures books to older students:

Picture books are a quick and easy way to teach focused mini-lessons.
They demonstrate strategies you are trying to teach in a concise, concrete way.

You can use picture books to teach writing. Explore the story structure, character descriptions, plot, setting, and any other elements to learn how to write a story.

Picture books are just short stories with pictures added. You can teach a variety of concepts such as figurative language, grammatical structure, and so much more.

Students are still reading when teachers read picture books out loud. Think of it as an audiobook.

It gives students a chance to relax for a couple of minutes and reminds the big kids of the simpler days of childhood.

Middle schoolers can also benefit from the timeless moral and social-emotional lessons in picture books.

After teaching middle school for four years now, I find that this age especially loves a good picture book.

Middle schoolers are that fun, yet awkward age of trying to be very grown-up like, but also being sweet and lovable.

Middle schoolers are that fun, yet awkward age of trying to be very grown-up like, but also being sweet and lovable.

Here are some picture books I have incorporated while teaching 6th-8th English and some concepts you can teach alongside them.

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena

1. Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena is about a young boy and his grandmother enjoying the scenery of their neighborhood and the people in it, while on the bus.

Educators can teach imagery from this book and students can explore ideas for their own descriptive writing pieces.

“He saw sunset colors swirling over crashing waves. Saw a family of hawks slicing through the sky. Saw the old woman’s butterflies dancing free in the light of the moon.”

De La Pena uses wonderful word choices to highlight imagery. Students can learn all about the importance of word choice in their writing with Last Stop on Market Street.

This sweet picture book highlights the theme of looking for beauty in the mundane and that it is important to celebrate all the diverse neighborhood inhabitants.

The Dark by Lemony Snicket

2. The Dark by Lemony Snicket

The Dark by Lemony Snicket is a picture book I normally save for around October, but it can be taught at any point in the year.

A young boy, Lazlo, is scared of the dark, but the dark talks back to him. I used this book to teach personification. As the dark starts to communicate with the boy and take on actions, readers get a great idea of how to write and recognize personification.

I also like to explore theme with this book as students inevitably find out not to fear and that the big things we are scared of are not always as they seem. This could be a first day of middle school book as students may have fear of starting middle school.

The Name Jar by Yanksook Choi

3. The Name Jar by Yanksook Choi


Speaking of the first day of school, The Name Jar by Yanksook Choi is our third book on the list. I always read this picture book the first week of school to my sixth graders.

It is a longer picture book, so I like to break it up over a couple of days. It is about a young girl, Unhei, who has just moved from Korea to America. She decides to choose an American name for her classmates to call her. Her peers help her out by putting their name ideas in a jar. Unhei also means Grace and Unhei explores her Korean identity with the choice of another name.

I use this book for several lessons. I ask students to explore their name meanings and to ask their parents how they received their names. We explore how names shape identity.

After the Fall by Dan Santat

4. After the Fall by Dan Santat

After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again by Dan Santat is a sweet continuation of the original nursery rhyme. Readers learn that Humpty Dumpty becomes afraid of heights because of his fall and must overcome this fear. The themes of perseverance, courage, and facing fears is present in this wonderful book. It is a perfect choice for social-emotional health that any middle schooler needs. It has a growth mindset as Humpty Dumpty overcomes his biggest challenge.

Some ideas you can teach with this book include having students write their own epilogue to a popular nursery rhyme.

Students can compare and contrast this version to the original nursery rhyme and explore how Humpty Dumpty becomes a dynamic character who changes and has varied depths to him. Dynamic and static characters can be a mini-lesson taught with this particular picture book. There are so many things you can do with After the Fall. An author study would be particularly interesting as Santat wrote and illustrated the book himself.

You can teach the concept that even if a picture book is on a lower reading level than we are accustomed to, writers, particularly Santat, went to college and needed great knowledge to write a book like this. Writing a picture book is in and of itself a science.

Spaghetti in a Hot Dog Bun by Maria Dismondy

5. Spaghetti in a Hot Dog Bun by Maria Dismondy

Spaghetti in a Hot Dog Bun by Maria Dismondy is a great first week of school picture book. With its focus on social-emotional health and anti-bullying, we see how the protagonist deals with an unkind peer who makes fun of her hair and what she eats for lunch. We see how she overcomes this conflict in a wise way. The reader learns that it’s wonderful to be yourself and not to change due to peer pressure, which is a central point many middle schoolers struggle with. We have so many activities that can be completed with this picture book, that we made a whole unit on it. Please go check it out!

Conclusion

Middle school students benefit from picture books read to them in a variety of ways. From learning writing skills, comprehension strategies, ELA objectives, and morals and life lessons, picture books can and should be used frequently in the middle school classroom.

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