Teaching a Love of Picture Books by Katherine Sokolowski

what you know first

School starts for us in less than two weeks. I have been escaping to my classroom each evening while my oldest son has football practice on the grass below my windows. I straighten tables, arrange our meeting area, and organize shelves. The other night found me standing in front of our picture books. Tubs and tubs of picture books line the shelves of my fifth grade classroom. A student two years ago counted and told that we had well over three hundred picture books. Her goal became one of reading them all.


My fifth graders leave our year together with a deep love for picture books, but they don’t all start the year feeling that way. Along their journey in school, some have picked up the notion that picture books are “baby books” and they are far too mature to be seen reading them. I work quickly to rid them of those misguided thoughts.


I love all books, but picture books have a special place in my heart. I fell in love with reading aloud with the hilarious book The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone. I remember my first grade teacher, Miss Tuck, let me come back to her class when I was a wise second grader and I got to read that book to her students. They laughed in just the right places. I was convinced I wanted to read aloud for a living.


I remember reading some picture books like Goodnight Moon or Barnyard Dance so often to my boys as they were babies, that I could say the books from memory. I would sit in the rocker in their room, sleepily rocking them back and forth, and repeating the words softly as we both would drift off into dreamland.


Then there are books I treasure in the classroom. I love showing the students the secrets that some picture books have under their jackets – pull off the cover to Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown and you have tiger stripes below. In fact, that became a favorite discussion point during our Mock Caldecott unit last year – what was under the cover? What do the end papers look like? When I overheard students discussing page turns, medium, or the gutter, I knew we were creating a community of picture book lovers.


I even share with my students how much I love picture books still as an adult. I tell them the story of debating the merits of Jon Klassen’s hilarious book, I Want My Hat Back with friends on Twitter when the book was released. I show them the red hat that Jen Vincent’s mom made for so many of us. I share the Christmas ornaments of Bear and Rabbit that I had a friend make and gave as gifts. I even tell them how a group of students took over my lesson plans a year ago because they wanted to create their own reader’s theater version of the book – complete with a red backdrop at the end when Bear realizes who has his hat.

Picture books become such an integral part of our classroom in fifth grade; it is hard for the students to not fall in love with them. There are serious picture books and hilarious ones. Some that make my students think and change like Each Kindness. There are others that make them laugh and want to vandalize some books like Battle Bunny. When I survey my students at the end of the school year, our selection of picture books is consistently one of their favorite parts of the classroom library.


So, as I stood in front of the tubs the other night, the dilemma I was facing was where to begin. Flipping through the books is like revisiting old friends. I know I will begin that first day with What You Know First by Patricia MacLachlan. It is the book I almost always begin and end our school year with. At the start of the school year I want my students to remember that they have a story before coming into our classroom, that their choices and experiences have led them to this place.  And at the end, I want them to take our year with them as something they now know as they move on. I love how it bookends our year. So first book, check. But what else must I share those first days? What books will help them begin their love affair with this format? My Nerdy Book Club friends, I think I have a problem. Three days are all I have that first week of school. Here is the stack I started.


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Picture books. So much to love. So much to teach. Our classroom is incomplete with out them.


Katherine Sokolowski has taught for fifteen years and currently teaches fifth grade in Monticello, Illinois. She is passionate about reading both in her classroom and also with her two sons. You can find her online at http://readwriteandreflect.blogspot.com/ and on Twitter as @katsok.