April 07


Top Ten Picture Books for Secondary Students by Brett Vogelsinger

Today’s Top Ten list shies away from graphic novels, as book lists on this topic have already appeared on this blog.  Instead, it explores wordless picture books, creativity manuals, engineering or nature explorations, and books that feature primarily photography. I call this shelf in my ninth-grade classroom library “Illustration, Photography, and Design.”

100 Diagrams That Changed the World by Scott Christianson

From the diagram for the first indoor toilet to the original Steve Jobs sketch of an iPod, this book shares the diagrams and sketches that changed human experience.  Each diagram has just a page of text to explain its origins and significance, making this an ideal flip-through book for your library but equally valuable as a read-through book for your budding engineers.  Some of my young male readers who claim to “hate reading” find a home in this book.


Show Me How: 500 Things You Should Know by Derek Fagerstrom, Lauren Smith, and the Show Me Team

This is basically WikiHow in a book.  Learn how to stretch before a workout, survive a shipwreck, properly mince ginger, or master simple juggling all with straightforward pictures and minimal text.  Students enjoy the randomness of this book, but at its heart, this book reminds all of us that no matter how experienced we think we are in life, there is always more to learn.  (One word of caution: the sections on “Drink” and “Love” have some PG-13 content, so I advise previewing this book to make sure it is appropriate for the students you teach.)


The Arrival by Shaun Tan

This book, the closest on the list to a graphic novel, contains only words and tells the story of an immigrant arriving in a new land.  The surrealist images and absence of words makes this book especially open to interpretation, and students who sign it out from my classroom library are always impressed with the level of challenge this wordless storytelling provides.  In the same way Chris Van Allsburg’s picture books challenge elementary students and push the bounds of reality to tell us something about ourselves, Shaun Tan’s masterpiece will engage and challenge teenagers.


The Shape of Ideas by Grant Snider

Grant Snider’s memorable comics about creativity, taken from his blog, are published here in book form.  Each comic explores one of the joys or frustrations of the creative process with both color and candor that students will enjoy.  There is a general smiling tone to this book, something students need in dark times.  Some of the comics are highly poetic, like the one below, which I have used as a Poem of the Day in my classroom.




How to Be An Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum by Keri Smith

This book is by Keri Smith, a creativity guru of Wreck This Journal fame.  This book encourages explorative messiness with headings such as “The Shapes of Stains and Splotches” and “Found Writing Utensils.”   The premise of the book is that with the right habits of mind and skills of perception, we can turn the world around us on any given day into a museum.  The black-and-white photography, handwritten fonts, and clever visual arrangements will inspire any young reader to do just that.



The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe by Theodore Gray, photographs by Theodore Gray and Nick Mann

When high school students study chemistry, they confront the periodic table of elements in the front of the classroom on a daily basis.  This book devotes two pages to each element on the periodic table, first to show what it looks like in its raw form and then to to briefly explain and show in photography how this element impacts our daily lives.  It is an excellent “flip through” book in my classroom library, but also one that students sign out and dog-ear quickly. The visuals are magnetic.


Pool by JiHyeon Lee

This wordless picture book tells the story of a boy in a crowded pool who makes a surprising discovery beneath the surface, and it works well to illustrate for secondary students how a story can operate on more than one level. In this previous post, I elaborate on how this book can be used to prompt literary discussion in English class, but even on their own, students enjoy reading it.  In a brief conference, I might ask, “How might we read this story symbolically instead of literally?” and see what they suggest.


Trees Close Up by Nancy Ross Hugo and photographs by Robert Llewellyn

This book is a collection of what the author calls “intimate tree details such as maturing acorns, unfurling beech leaves, and emerging walnut flowers.”  It encourages a “close reading” of the natural world around us, a skill parallel to the kind of detailed attention we want students to give to texts. Much like a museum, spectacular, nuanced visuals pull the reader into captions and text panels that encourage looking at nature beyond a casual glance. When students read this book in class, I invariably hear, “Hey look at this!” as they want to share what they observe and learn.


Go — A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design by Chip Kidd

Chip Kidd, the designer of iconic images such as the original Jurassic Park book cover, has crafted a visually engaging introductions to graphic design for young people, complete with ten design projects at the end of the book.  Readers will learn about scale, color theory, pattern, and juxtaposition on pages that are as visually striking as they are informative.  The book fosters a sense of fun and possibility, and the “how-to” nature of the text will inspire them to try new designs in their sketchbooks or writer’s notebooks.



Things Come Apart: A Teardown For Modern Living by Todd McLellan

Another book for the engineers and tinkerers in your class, this book disassembles common household objects and photographs their artistically arranged parts.  It also includes essays on the purpose and art of taking objects apart and what can be gained by it.  An engaging book talk for this book might include sharing one of the photographs on the screen to see whether students can guess what object has been dissected for the photograph.



Ultimately, books that feature primarily pictures may help a dormant reader reclaim a sense of wonder in their reading that they once had as a younger child when books were all about the illustration.  Or it may compel them to read more text to explain the pictures.  It may even encourage them to ask for a related book that is more text-heavy.  Try these books to expand the visual rigor and intellectual curiosity available in your classroom library.



Brett Vogelsinger teaches ninth-grade English at Holicong Middle School in Bucks County, PA.  He is the adviser of Sevenatenine, the school literary magazine, and publishes Go Poems, an annual event blog to help teachers use daily poetry during National Poetry Month.