Picture Books in Middle School Part 2

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.

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

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.

The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco

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 have 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.

Aunt Chip and the Great Triple Creek Dam Affair by Patricia Polacco

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 and Say by Patricia Polacco

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. It illustrates Pink and Say as they 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. This story 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 about word choice. Then, they will learn how to weave together perfectly chosen words in well-crafted sentences that evoke emotion in their writing. The themes of an unlikely friendship, loyalty, courage, honor, kindness, and duty can be explored as well.


If you’re a middle school 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 wonderful examples of how to write well. There are a wide variety of teachable moments in her books and you won’t be disappointed.

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What is Mentor Text?

Writing can be a difficult subject for students and teachers alike. It may be challenging to get students to truly understand how to write, and this, in turn, can prove challenging to us teachers. Some students view writing as an easier task than others, just as different subjects can come naturally to some children. Sometimes there’s a future Roald Dahl in our classes, but for other students, writing can be a discouraging task.

Those students that struggle with writing most likely have listened to or read hundreds of picture books and short stories by the time they step into their 2nd and 3rd grade classrooms.

There is an overwhelming connection between reading well-written work and turning those books into a how-to of writing for students. Our pupils may not realize it, but these same stories they know and love actually hold the essential tools great writers need in order to create new works of art.

So, what are mentor texts and what do they have to do with our students’ writing abilities? Mentor texts are those well-crafted picture books or short stories that teachers can use within the classroom to serve as a model to teach writing. Mentor texts serve as an example of what great writing is. It is simply the secret treasure trove to use in order to create and foster great work.

Common Core State Standards, or CCSS, places a heavy emphasis on narrative, personal narrative, persuasive, and informative genres, including compare and contrast pieces.

Most educators were taught how to teach in various methods classes. We were taught how to teach writing, but we were not taught how to write a children’s book ourselves. How many classes did you take on how to teach writing versus how to write a children’s book? There is a difference.

Sure, college taught us how to write a great essay, an awesome one for that fact, but we were not taught how to write a great children’s book or for that matter, an interesting children’s informational compare and contrast book either.

Furthermore, most of us educators weren’t taught how to write an intriguing personal narrative, unless we took a specific writing class. One of those intriguing personal narratives can be found in a wonderful children’s book. The Relatives Came, by Cynthia Rylant is a picture book that doubles as a personal narrative. Do you see exactly what I am trying to confer?

So, where did these children’s authors that we know and love learn to write such awesome masterpieces?They studied their writing craft by analyzing the same picture books we read to our students in our classrooms. The same exact books.

However, what they did that is differently than how we were taught to teach writing is that they not only studied the well-crafted sentences, but they studied the formulas or models of writing each picture book or short story secretly contained.

So, you might be thinking…that is all and great, but what should we do as teachers to develop our students’ writing skills to this level?

They studied their writing craft night and day by analyzing the same picture books we read to our students in our classrooms, the same exact books. However, what they did that is different from most of us is they not only studied the well-crafted sentences, but they studied the formulas or models of writing each picture book or short story secretly contained.

So, you might be thinking, that is all and great, but what should we do as teachers to develop our students’ writing skills to the level I am describing?

The answer is simple. We must do the same thing. We must use these same formulas secretly contained in picture books or short stories to help our students develop superior written works within our classrooms, and we should do this with the help of mentor texts.

We are going to turn to those mentor text, those award-winning picture books or short stories, to guide our students along the same writing paths as those great authors who have come before us.

Let’s think of mentor text as a treasure chest full of buried gold and jewels, and ourselves as a guide, while our students are the pirates in desperate search of this hidden treasure. With this in mind, our job is to guide our crew to their correct destination, which in this case is the treasure trove of outstanding writing.

So, how do we guide our students? Where do we find these formulas or models? By reading and mimicking mentor texts.

Mentor Text for Personal Narrative

The first thing for us to do is to provide great mentor texts specifically directed at what we are striving to teach. For example, if the genre we desire to teach our students is a personal narrative, we shouldn’t give our students a pencil, paper, and simply describe what a personal narrative is and then walk away to see what they create. No, we, as their guides, must direct them that treasure trove of personal narrative mentor texts.

One of the finest books I have read to showcase a personal narrative and to show students that a personal narrative doesn’t have to be as exciting as a trip to Disneyland in order to entertain an audience is Fireflies, by Julie Brinckloe. It is a simple story of a young boy who goes out into the night to catch fireflies.

Nothing fancy, no great birthday presents, no making the game winning touchdown. But, oh, how the author weaves a story of how humble an act of catching fireflies can easily turn into a grand adventure. By following her model, we see that instead of writing, “I ran into my backyard,” we see the author weave, “The screen door banged behind me as I ran from the house.” Instead of stating, “I was happy,” the author writes, “The moonlight and the fireflies swam in my tears, but I could feel myself smiling.” Ah, the beauty in the perfect example.

After listening to this story, my students started thinking about all the simple things they could write about, how they could turn a simple sentence into pure magic by imitating Brinckloe’s style.

My students decided by following Brinckloe’s model, they could write stories about scraping their knees while riding their bikes or whisking away from a dog someone let run loose at the park. By following the model of Fireflies, my students understood how an author could make a simple occurrence in their life turn into an intriguing and interesting personal narrative.

Mentor Text for Opinion Writing

Another genre that seems to bring so much dread to both teachers and students is persuasive or opinion-based writing. In opinion-based writing, students must first introduce their topic, state an opinion, and then give reasons and evidence to support their opinion. Last, the young writer must conclude with a summary re-stating the main opinion.

That sounds like such a technical, structured piece of writing that most young authors would slowly sling to the floor after hearing that particular explanation. However, this is where, once again, we can utilize those mentor texts to lead them to a treasure trove of gold. A great book to share with your students to get them excited about writing their opinions in order to persuade others and make students laugh at the same time is The Big Bed, by Bunmi Laditan.

This is an adorable story of a little girl who does not want to share her mommy and her bed with her father. She goes to great links to convince or persuade her father that he should sleep in a cot beside their big bed. She uses science, charts, sales pitches, past history, everything she can conceive to convince her father that she belongs in her mommy’s bed instead of him. For example, one of the compelling reasons she wants to sleep with her mommy is because she is afraid of the dark. Instead of just stating this fact and hoping for a buy-in, the author writes, “Science has proven that one of the many symptoms of bedtime is darkness. Daddy, are you scared of the dark? Because I am…I can’t sleep alone.” Who could argue with this fact?

After reading this story, my students better understood this particular style of persuasion and the direction they could travel in order to convince their audience to buy-in on their opinions. How did we do this? We studied the model the author and other authors have utilized to create these wonderful pieces of writing. We followed their hidden treasure map to create our own convincing works of persuasion.

Mentor Text for Informational Text

Students love science. It is one of those magical times for them to explore the world around them, searching for answers to some of life’s mysteries. They also love reading the new style of illustrated biographies. However, it is another issue when you ask them to perform the daunting task of writing about their findings or to ask them to write a unique biography. So, what is a teacher to do? The same as before, turn to mentor text to demonstrate to our students the different text structures authors use to create those awesome science books and illustrated biographies they love to read so much.

For example, in additional to the library classes I teach, I also am a writing coach to my fourth-grade teachers. Recently, our students worked on creating compare and contrast writings. Their middle and conclusion paragraphs were awesome. However, they seemed to have a difficult time creating their introductory paragraphs. Their writings were good, but it was not something that would catch a reader’s eye and make a student want to continue to read their writings. So, what was I to do?

I searched my non-fiction section in the library to gather all the interesting compare and contrast books I could find. That is when I was blessed to find Lisa M. Herrington’s What’s the Difference series, with books like Frogs and Toads, Turtles and Tortoises, Monkeys and Apes, Butterflies and Moths, and Crocodiles and Alligators. We dove headfirst into these books to see if we could find a model the author may have used to create these interesting pieces of informational text.

It was funny but after reading some of the books comparing unique animals, the author’s model jumped out at us, easily teaching us a new and exciting way to use mentor texts as a guide or model.

From this point, we went back to our Google drive accounts, and courageously deleted the students’ original introduction paragraphs and re-wrote their passages utilizing the mentor text model instead. To the students’ surprise, it drastically changed their paper to the point that everyone wanted to read each other’s writings. It was amazing how much of a difference the mentor text model made. I have been using this method for a while now, and even I was truly impressed with the differences between their first drafts and their new work.


The struggle that a majority of students feel in the classroom concerning writing is real. However, there is hope. With the addition of mentor texts in our classrooms for the express purpose of providing excellent writing models greatly increases the students’ odds of creating those masterpieces we have been dreaming of. Mentor texts can be utilized for many different types of genres, including personal narrative, opinion pieces, and informational texts. There are many different examples. Some are classics, such as Fireflies, by Julie Brinckloe. Others are newcomers, such as The Big Bed, by Bunmi Laditan, which include many of the traits the CCSS recommends. To sum up, mentor texts are well-crafted picture books or short stories that we should utilize within our classrooms. They are truly the treasure trove of gold we need as models for our students to create and foster great writing within our classrooms.

For more information, please visit

6 Suggestions for Using Mentor Text Within the Classroom, by Christina Gil.

8 Tips for Teaching with Mentor Texts, by Christina Gil.

Mentor Texts, by Dr. Joanne Meier.