Saturday, August 10, 2013

August 10 for 10: my favorite picture books to use with middle school students

This is the first year I'm participating in August 10 for 10 but I'm so excited to be a part of such a great sharing experience. This feature is hosted by Cathy Mere and Mandy Robeck. Follow the hashtag on Twitter: #pb10for10

So many people think that picture books are just for little kids. I'm here to tell you they're not. As a middle school teacher, I use picture books all the time. Here are my top ten favorite picture books to use with middle schoolers.


 Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? and Teach Your Buffalo to Play Drums by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Daniel Jennewein

Now what on earth is a middle school teacher doing with a book about kindergarten? I'll tell you what: This book is hilarious and has quite a sassy humor about it that middle schoolers love. So much so that they created their own picture books inspired by Vernick's Buffalo book. Some of theirs included:

Is Your Chicken Ready to Cross the Road?
Is Your Iguana Ready for Space Travel?
Is Your Alien Ready to Abduct Humans?
Is Your Hippo Ready for Ballet?
Is Your Monkey Ready for Spanish Class?
Teach Your Giraffe to Drive
Teach Your Pig to Fly

Each one just as hilarious as the original. 


Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It: False Apology Poems by Gail Carson Levine, illustrated by Matthew Cordell
Have you ever noticed that William Carlos Williams' poem "This is Just to Say" is apologizing something that he's not really sorry for? He confesses to his crime, explains why it was wrong, and then gives a very insincere apology for eating the plums that "you" were probably saving for breakfast.

Gail Carson Levine ran with this idea and created a whole book of false apology poems. After showing students the skeleton of the poem and some examples from the book, I have them create some of their own false apologies and they are nothing short of brilliant. In fact, I'm going to use that as a segue into the next picture book by sharing this poem that one of my students, Maria, created this past year:


This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

OK, so even before I heard Jon Klassen's Caldecott speech where he said his inspiration for writing This is Not My Hat was "The Telltale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe (what?), I knew this book was perfect for middle schoolers because there are some complex issues you must tackle in this short little story: stealing and vengeance being two issues right there. Once you think about it that way, it's no wonder Poe inspired Klassen!

But my favorite moment from reading this story to my students came from one of my 8th graders, Zoe, who was very upset at the big fish in the book and decided she had a score to settle with him:

Dear Big Fish from This is Not My Hat,

You are a mean-spirited and evil fish! The little fish did you a favor buddy. The hat you were wearing was way too small for you. How could you be so mean to Little Fish after you saw how cute he swam? He was adorable and you, I can't even talk to you right now...

You ate Little Fish! Have you no soul man! All Little Fish wanted to do was to look snazzy with a hat (that fit properly). Yes, I'll admit it was wrong of Little Fish to steal it, but it was worse of you to eat him! Now Big Fish, you sit down and think about what you have done.

Please don't get me started about that crab...

- Zoe E.


The Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Renata Liwska

This gentle little picture book inspired me to have my students create their own LOUD Book, and wouldn't you know it, a year later, Deborah Underwood did too.


We are in a Book by Mo Willems

Middle schoolers absolutely LOVE Elephant and Piggie. Every time I would bring in a new book and put it on the whiteboard ledge, it would get passed around the entire day. So don't tell me these books are just for little kids. It's all about creating a culture in the classroom that celebrates ALL books.


The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers

On the surface, this book appears quite simple in nature, but is hugely symbolic and would be fabulous to discuss in any classroom - all the way up to college.

In fact, the story is so symbolic, it reads like a free-verse poem. There is so much hidden meaning within its sparse words.


It's a Book by Lane Smith

Any book where one of the main characters is a jackass is bound to be more apropos for older than younger readers, am I right? In fact, when my 8th graders last year were trying to stall for time because they didn't want to have to do an assignment I was going to give them, they asked me to read  It's a Book to them again because they remembered me reading it to them in 6th grade. 


The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis

Read this book and then tell me all picture books are for little kids. Go ahead. I dare you. Because I'm thinking this one would be better suited for a high school history class.

Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson

Kadir Nelson captures the human spirit like no other artist I've ever seen . And this book is probably his most stunning to date. How can you not stare in awe at that beautiful cover? Students feel the same way too. 


One by Kathryn Otoshi

A book about bullying that empowers the bystander. The last line will resonate with kids and can easily inject itself into discussions for well after it's been read to the class.


  1. Thanks for sharing Beth. I can't believe I don't know "Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It: False Apology Poems" Will be finding that one soon.

  2. Great list, Beth! I love talking about theme in multi-layered picture books with older kids, books which makes for perfect mini-lessons. Sometimes these layers are found in the illustrations, too--Patricia Polacco's Chicken Sunday is one, with the elderly man's arm tattooed with a string of numbers.

    Thanks for sharing this list!

  3. What a great list! I agree picture books are great for all ages and middle school students have the sense of humor to "get" the funny and serious ones.

  4. Love seeing how these picture books have inspired your students to write! Thanks so much for sharing. Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten cracks me up every time I read it, and I had no idea there was a sequel!

  5. I very much wanted to add "We Are in a Book" to my list! Love Mo!

  6. Fantastic list Beth! Go Zoe! This letter of hers made my morning. The Heart in the Bottle is such a special title. It makes me teary just thinking about it.

  7. I love your list! I have We are in a Book on my list also. :)

  8. I'm very honored that you included THE QUIET BOOK! And Maria's false apology poem is fabulous. It's so heartening to hear that you're using pbs with older kids--thank you!

  9. So many good ones. I love The Heart and the Bottle. So much to talk about.

  10. Great list Beth! It's a Book made my list also! I love using Forgive me Please as a mentor text with my 5th graders!

    Thanks for sharing!

  11. Thank you Beth for introducing me to The Heart and the Bottle. I am adding it to my list.

  12. I love so many of these books. It's a Book is a favorite with my fourth graders as well. Forgive Me Please jumped from student to student last year. I've reserved a few titles that I didn't know and I'm anxious to read them. It's nice to see you using picture books with older students.

  13. I love It's a Book as well, you can pair it with It's a Little Book. Thank you for sharing your use of picture books with middle schoolers. I love it as well.

  14. So many great book suggestions! I will have to find and read these books this year!

  15. These are terrific choices, Beth! The Buffalo books and The Heart and the Bottle are new to me. Even though they're very different, they sound perfect for middle school. Have you seen Joyce Sidman's book, This Is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness. It's also modeled after Williams' poem, but adds poems of forgiveness. Love Zoe's poem! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Great books and lovely ideas for writing prompts.

  16. "This is NOT My Hat" and "It's a Book" are actually much better for middle school than preschool. Great list.

  17. "This is NOT My Hat" and "It's a Book" are actually better choices for middle school than preschool. Great ideas!