One of the hills I will die on is the fact that students love picture books in the middle school classroom. They are just big kids that love to relax and listen to a good story. I think it must remind them of their elementary years, among other reasons.
Every time I meet someone and they ask me what I do for a living, I always receive shocked faces when I admit I’m a middle school teacher. I say “admit,” because when I tell people this, they think I’m a weird breed of alien. Truthfully, I love this age! I taught elementary, and I taught high school, and this is the perfect middle ground. I love life in the middle!
As teachers, we know that listening to books IS reading, so having middle schoolers listen to picture books helps with reading skills and fluency. Research has shown that many picture books contain extensive and varied vocabulary. So many picture books contain concepts, themes, and topics that fit nicely with many types of lessons.
I talk all about the wonderful reasons to incorporate picture books in Part 1 of this series. Check it out here.
For Part 2, I have three more picture books to show you that are perfect for middle school.
For these three books, I have chosen to highlight one of my favorite author/illustrators: Patricia Polacco.
Her books are perfect for middle school as they are longer in length and contain wonderful and serious themes. Polacco is also a talented illustrator, and her beautiful and unique artwork really captures the essence of the stories she is conveying. For a video interview and biography, please visit Reading Rockets Video Interview with Patricia Polacco.
The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco
The Keeping Quilt is the story of a generational, well-loved quilt that is passed down in Polacco’s family. She details the true story of how it was crafted in her family, how the quilt was used in weddings, as a tablecloth, for picnics, and to warm babies. Polacco weaves in elements of her Jewish and Russian heritage throughout.
I utilize this book to teach about oral histories and culture. Through four generations, just like the quilt itself, the oral retelling of how the quilt was created and its uses has been passed down, until Polacco decides to write a book about it. The Keeping Quilt is such a heartwarming tale, as the reader learns the author wraps her own baby daughter in the quilt. This picture book is also the perfect beginning example to show students how our personal oral histories can be written down too. It inspires me to think of stories that have been passed down that I could write about myself. This is also the perfect read that exemplifies the importance of culture and oral history.
Aunt Chip and the Great Triple Creek Dam Affair by Patricia Polacco
This book is kooky in the best way. I love to read it during the first month of school as a way to promote the importance of reading. Aunt Chip, the town’s former librarian, cautioned Triple Creek on the perils of erecting a TV tower. Then she promptly became bedridden for fifty years over the travesty. She was right! Since the TV tower had been put up, fifty years has passed, and the townspeople either never learned to read or don’t remember how. They spend their hours watching television, but oh, they do use books! They use books as door stoppers, to fix falling walls, and even as the town’s dam. Once Aunt Chip learns her nephew and his friends don’t even know how to read, she hops out of bed and makes it her mission to teach them. Her passion for books spreads and spreads and leads to a child plucking a book from the dam, causing the book wall to crash down and unleashing a fury of water into the town that may or may not destroy the TV tower.
With its amusing and interesting characters, whimsical illustrations, and unexpected events, this story is entertaining and informative. This picture book can be used to teach theme, connections, character traits, sequencing, and so much more. It is also a wonderful example of how to teach students to create and write multi-faceted characters. This book can be used to teach citizenship as the townsfolk sacrifice their freedom of the press and expression since they no longer can read and therefore cannot write.
Lastly, it’s just plain perfect to imagine a sad world in which reading is nonexistent, television reigns, and to warn students not to go down that path of screen addiction. Reading addiction is even more fun and opens us up to whole new worlds, just like Polacco opens her readers to the kooky town of Triple Creek.
Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco
Pink and Say is my final Polacco book on this list, and it is the most serious one. This thought-provoking picture book is absolutely perfect for middle schoolers with its significant and profound themes. Set during the Civil War, Pinkus, an African-American Union soldier finds a wounded Sheldon (Say), a White Union soldier in a field.
Pink rushes Say to his home to his welcoming and warm mama, Moe Moe Bay. Yet, Pink’s home happens to be in Confederate territory.
While home, Moe Moe Bay nurses Say back to health. They learn that Say doesn’t know how to read, and Pink teaches him. Their friendship blossoms beautifully. Isolated in Pink’s home, these two can be best friends. However, they know once they’re back on the battlefield, though fighting on the same side, they cannot speak to one another or interact. Before they are able to leave the comfort of Pink’s home, the book takes an ugly turn. Because of its content, middle schoolers are mature enough to handle that Moe Moe Bay is killed by marauders for housing Union soldiers and both boys are dragged to jail. Then, Pink and Say are separated with Pink suffering the same fate as his mother.
This book highlights the sorrow of the Civil War and racial injustice. The poignant illustration at the end is deeply moving as Pink and Say reach out to touch hands before they are separated. Say had previously shaken hands with President Lincoln. They are able to touch briefly as Pink states, “Let me touch the hand that touched Mr. Lincoln, Say, just one last time.” This is a central theme and driving force behind the whole story.
Say is, in fact, Polacco’s great-great-grandfather who passed down this story through her family. Not only could this book teach about oral history, but it would be the perfect addition to a Civil War unit. It can be used to teach English students symbolism as the illustration of the touching hands represents so much. This symbolic representation could then be compared to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Students can learn all about word choice and how to weave together those perfectly chosen words in well-crafted sentences that evoke emotion in their writing. The themes of unlikely friendship, loyalty, courage, honor, kindness, and duty can be explored as well.
If you’re a middle school ELA teacher wanting to dive into the endless possibilities of picture books, start with Patricia Polacco. Not only do her stories encompass a wide variety of concepts and lessons, but they’re also wonderful examples of how to write well. There are a wide variety of teachable moments in her books and you won’t be disappointed.