Top Ten Picture Books to Encourage Inquiry by Dawn Little

I’ve been thinking a lot about inquiry lately.  What is it?   Ways to create a classroom where inquiry is a common occurrence. Asking questions leads to asking more questions, and eventually to discovery and understanding. This year, I worked with third graders on developing inquiry skills.  As with most everything I teach, I typically turn to picture books to help me.  So when it came time to developing units of inquiry, I brainstormed a list of picture books that might be most useful in naturally leading students to ask questions related to the topic.  Here is a top ten list of books that might lead students to want to learn more, in no particular order. Note: Some of these books are more appropriate for students in 4th, 5th, or even 6th grade, use your judgment in choosing books appropriate for the grade level you teach.      

1. I, Too, Am America by Langston Hughes/Bryan Collier

Bryan Collier brought Langston Hughes poem to life in this beautifully illustrated picture book.  The poem is written about a time in history that many of today’s students may not be aware of – the Pullman Porters.  This book will lead to questions about the role Pullman Porters played in American history.

2.  Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine

One of my all-time favorite picture books, Henry’s Freedom Box leads to questions about the lengths slaves went to secure their freedom.


3.  January’s Sparrow by Patricia Polacco

A semi-true story about slaves who escape the south for a new home in Canada, but end up settling in Michigan.  This book could be paired with Henry’s Freedom Box in an exploration of slavery.  Students can come up with many questions related to slavery, slave catchers, and the Underground Railroad and well as lead to a deeper understanding of Civil Rights.

4.  Appalachia: The Voices of Sleeping Birds by Cynthia Rylant

A book written by Cynthia Rylant about her roots in Appalachia, reading aloud this book, will ensure an opportunity for students to wonder about the culture of Appalachia.  This is a great book to use in an exploration of culture.

5.  Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson

A biography of the young Nelson Mandela, a reader will learn much about his early life.  However, questions will remain pertaining to apartheid and the significance of Nelson Mandela’s role in the fight against apartheid.

6.  Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey

I was not aware of the Green Book.  The Green Book was a book created to inform black travelers of safe hotels, gas stations, etc. that they could frequent during the Civil Rights period in our country.  Readers are left with many questions regarding the significance of the Green Book.

7.   Now and Ben: The Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin by Gene Barretta

What did Ben Franklin invent that led us to modern day technologies?  There are many inventions, actually.  Readers will learn about various inventions and wonder about the connections between the Revolutionary World and the Modern World.  The evolution of technology if you will.

8.   Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner

Scientifically based picture book about the layer of life between the snowpack and the ground – the subnivean zone.  This book is a wonderful lead in to questions related to science, seasons, life cycles, and habitats.


9.   Me, Jane by Patrick McDonnell

No one loves chimps more than Jane Goodall does.  This is a great picture book depicting the early life of Jane that leaves readers wanting to learn more about her and her life’s work.

10.  Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau by Jennifer Berne

This book is a great example of inquiry within the text.  Written about the early life of Cousteau when he first began to wonder about the ocean, this book naturally leads students to wonder about the vast ocean and the interesting life of Jacques Cousteau.

Dawn Little is a Staff Development Teacher in Maryland.  She is a lifelong member of the Nerdy Book Club and doesn’t remember life before books.  Meeting her favorite author from childhood, Judy Blume, several years ago is the highlight of her reading life, so far.  Dawn is the author of Teaching Comprehension with Nonfiction Read Alouds and has presented for SoMIRAC, Literacy for All, and IRA.  She loves that her children (ages 10 and 7) are now recommending books to her!  You can find her on Twitter (@linkstoliteracy) and online at, and