February 17


Ten Picture Books for Talent Development by Sarah Haywood

I work with gifted students, and there is somewhat of a paradigm shift occurring in this field. Traditionally, students have been identified as gifted and then provided with modifications and/or services. Recently, research has shown that a “talent development” approach may be more beneficial for students. One way this can be done is to conduct a series of lessons or activities designed for gifted and high-ability learners with the entire class prior to beginning the referral or identification process.  Typically, these lessons are taught by two teachers so that one can closely observe student responses while the other leads the lessons. Talent development serves many purposes as it “levels the playing field” for students. It especially helps those who lack access to rich conversations and critical thinking opportunities, those whose family members may not otherwise advocate for referrals, and those who wouldn’t typically have the support of a teacher for referral if he or she doesn’t look or behave as a “typical” gifted student.

This year our staff has implemented a series of lessons such as this with first graders. The lessons consist of introducing something related to mathematical thinking (often a “Which One Doesn’t Belong” problem) and then reading aloud a picture book followed by a brief class discussion. Lessons conclude with a question for individual responses and a place for students to draw what they think “comes next”.

When selecting books for these lessons, I searched through many lists and blogs. I knew we needed stories that were short in length, yet open to complex thinking and multiple interpretations. In no particular order, here’s a suggested list of ten books that are a great fit:


How to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham


Bob Graham’s books often contain layers of meaning- which are perfect for this type of lesson. Of course, the story is about hope for the future, but it also provides an opportunity to discuss compassion for others. Conversations such as this are ideal for promoting deep thinking and discourse, even with first graders.



Jubari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall


I have seen this 2017 book on a lot of lists, and it really is that good! Students easily identify with Jabari and his fear of trying something new, but it’s also good to discuss the importance of the father as an encourager. Let’s have explicit conversation about how critical it is to support and build up the people around us.



Tomorrow’s Alphabet by George Shannon


Alphabet books are often read aloud to early readers, but this one is quite different. D is for puppy because it’s tomorrow’s dog. R is for grapes because it’s tomorrow’s raisins. As students talk about and then create their own pages in this style, it requires a bit of planning and thought.


If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson


In addition to amazing art by Kadir Nelson, the sparse text tells a story about the importance of kindness and sharing that is perfect for first graders. A great topic for both conversation and illustration is the connection between the words “plant” and “grow” and the ideas of imagination or creativity.


Baby Rattlesnake told by Te Ata and adapted by Lynn Moroney


This short folktale is ideal for young readers who will empathize with Baby Rattlesnake because he simply cannot wait until he’s old enough for his rattle. When he gets this gift early, he doesn’t use it properly. This is a perfect springboard for dialogue about the need for rules and the importance of personal responsibility.



City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems


Be sure to read this one ahead of time before sharing with a class, or you could end up crying. This story lends itself to discussion about the characteristic of resilience and the importance of making new friends. These topics are especially significant for our students who move frequently.



Oliver by Birgitta Sif


Oliver “felt a bit different,” and at the end, he finds a like-minded friend. This is a powerful message, and it gives students an opportunity to talk about how they should feel “comfortable in their own skin” rather than conform to fit in with their peers.



Ten Black Dots by Donald Crews


Yes, technically this is the second Donald Crews book because he’s the illustrator of Tomorrow’s Alphabet. In this classic, he’s created a simple counting book that can be creatively adapted by students as they develop an addition or subtraction fact (similar to the idea behind Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s This Plus That).


Triangle by Mac Barnett


Honestly, this book is so much fun to read with students, whether they are in first grade or fifth grade. There’s no work required to create a thoughtful discussion question after sharing this book, because the story already ends with one that’s perfect. I cannot wait for the release of Square, this coming May, especially after getting a peek of it at a recent conference.


The Greatest Treasure by Demi


This is a folktale with an essential and timeless message. When a family unexpectedly becomes wealthy, their new treasure doesn’t lead to happiness. The story also includes several proverbs, which can be “modernized” and illustrated by students.


When education leader Dr. Joe Renzulli explained his School Enrichment Model for gifted learners many years ago, he wrote that “A rising tide lifts all ships.” By grounding talent development lessons in a variety of high-quality literature, all students benefit from and have their thinking elevated by exposure to terrific stories and the conversation that results. We are fortunate to be working with students during a time when picture book authors and illustrators are creating many rich choices, and I can’t wait to add to our lessons with upcoming 2018 releases. I also realize that I have not included books that may be a perfect fit, so if a title comes to mind that I’ve overlooked, please share it in the comments section below.


Sarah Haywood is a faithful reader of the Nerdy Book Club blog, a serious Twitter lurker, and she has an out-of-control book collection. She works with gifted students and their families in Virginia. You can connect with her on Twitter at @zeppahaywood.