Top 10 Picture Books for the Secondary Classroom by Kim McCollum-Clark

As a teacher of future English teachers, I am always trying to open my students’ eyes to the wonder and power of the picture book, both as an art form and as a terrific instructional tool for the secondary classroom.  Being students of capital-L literature, my teacher-babies sometimes forget to consider these compact and powerful texts.  It’s the best way I know to get numerous, diverse and COMPLETE texts into students’ minds.

It’s hard enough to squeeze out the time in the overcrowded middle and high school English curriculum to read young adult and classic novels, but with picture books, you can read the entire work aloud, model the focus you want students to concentrate on, let them explore the craft, have the discussion, and even try it out in their own writing–all in one period!  Secondary teachers can use picture books in so many ways: as writing prompts, as mentor texts for craft and genre study, as “ways in” to thematic units, as complete texts for close literary analysis or application of different critical lenses.  And the amazing power of the best picture books, I argue, is as “literary” as the most la-ti-dah text on your shelf already.  They were carefully and purposefully constructed by multiple artists: the author, illustrator, and book designer, at the very least.

So here, in no particular order: my top ten.

1. Amos and Boris, written and illustrated by William Steig.  I use this story of an unusual friendship for discussions of sentence length/variety and style.  I ask students to imitate (in the rhetorical sense, of writing their own sentences in the same syntax and sentence length) various passages to experiment with Steig’s cadences.

2. Where the Wild Things Are, written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.  This classic picture book is perfect for exploring layers of meaning in a literary criticism exercise.  Because students “know” the book, they are amazed when they start unpacking the details of the books’ construction and the significance of Sendak’s choices.

3. Fox, written by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Ron Brooks. This slight text is a rich and inventive allegory about relationships.  It will stimulate discussion and even arguments about the book’s theme. Brooks’ art is intense and worth careful consideration. Students will re-read and look carefully to support their positions.

4. An Angel for Solomon Singer, written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Peter Catalanotto.  I include this book to get the magical Cynthia Rylant and all her works in my students’ hands.  Rylant’s character study of a city diner is a wonderful evocation of character and setting.

5. Orville, A Dog Story, written by Haven Kimmel and illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker.  Judy Schachner (of Skippyjon Jones fame) read this book aloud to us at the PA Writing Institute in 2010, and many participants – adult teachers – had to excuse themselves because its emotional power was so great.  A perfect short story in picture book form.

6. Voices in the Park, written and illustrated by Anthony Browne.  Four people come into the park; four distinct voices narrate what happened there.  A terrific book for teaching perspective/point of view for reading and voice in writing.

7. Mr. Emerson’s Cook, written and illustrated by Judy Schachner, is a biographical picture book inspired by Schachner’s great grandmother, cook to the writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. This book helps describe Emerson’s Transcendalist views.  Also great to explore how facts and research are woven into fiction.

8. Rose Blanche, written by Roberto Innocenti and illustrated by Christophe Gallaz, is a story set in the Holocaust about a German girl who tries to help the children in the concentration camp close to her home.  Also an allegory of the White Rose (Rose Blanche) student movement that tried to resist Hitler.  A good opportunity for a bit of research and an exploration of the power of allegory. Why can’t we tell every story “straight”?

9. Flotsam, written and illustrated by David Wiesner, is the story of one boy’s unbelievable beach adventure.  Wiesner, a three-time Caldecott winner, “writes” and paints wordless books.  His immersive artwork is a delight of the imagination, and somehow he conveys plot, character, theme and a wonderful sense of humor in his art.  My sons had to help me decide which Wiesner title was “the best,” so check them all out!

10. A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms, written by Paul Janeczko and illustrated by Chris Raschka, is a kinetic work of art describing twenty-nine different poetic forms in prose and amazing illustrations.  The book goes way beyond sonnets and haikus, and best of all, suggests how a poet might choose a poetic form to match his or her poetic intention.  Janeczko is one of my favorite anthologists of contemporary poetry and Raschka is a wonderful, wild-child illustrator.  This book is one of a trilogy, and I recommend them all!


Nerdy friends, you are never too old for picture books–I feel like you know that! But go forth and spread the word of their amazing literary power, the purposefulness of their construction, the beauty of their craft, and their utility in EVERY classroom.  These amazing masters, both wordsmiths and visual artists, can light up our reading and writing lives.

Kim McCollum-Clark teaches English and English Education at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, where her collection of young adult literature, graphic novels, and picture books are on constant loan to her teacher-babies.  You can find her on Twitter as @KimMcCollum.