How I've used picture books for older children in the classroom

In our first teacher interview of 2017, Janice Paterson of Wormit Primary tells us more about how she’s used picture books aimed at older pupils, and reveals how they can engage and challenge pupils of all reading abilities.

Picture books are for all ages, from little ones right up to grumpy adults!

I didn’t know this before I became a teacher. I always assumed that picture books were only aimed at very young children, and were a stepping stone to chapter books. And then one day I was given The Rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan, a jarring exploration of colonialism with stunning and disturbing visuals, and my perception changed forever.

Can you tell us some of the ways you’ve used picture books with older readers in the classroom, and about the impact these have had on pupils?

I have used picture books to illustrate and promote understanding of a topic - vivid images and short but powerful texts can really bring things to life. I often use such books to develop drama lessons too, which also helps develop understanding of a theme. I have a large coffee table style book of Norman Rockwell’s paintings that is amazing for developing discussion of emotion, reactions and situations. The book tells the story of World War 2 with no words.

Sometimes children need to see as well as to read and it doesn’t make them any less sophisticated.

Some picture books are wonderful for allowing older children to discuss issues such as loss and/or bereavement. Reading the story to older children as you would to young children gives a sense of security too. There are many picture books which have a big impact when an issue arises.

I also use picture books to develop writing: "Describe the picture but include the feelings.” Reluctant readers feel really included when picture books are the source for a class discussion and they often are exceptionally perceptive and subsequently their status and self-esteem rises and it becomes win-win and they read more. It also allows me to promote comic books, graphic novels and the Manga genre. Sometimes children need to see as well as to read and it doesn’t make them any less sophisticated.

It’s easy to imagine that some older pupils will shun picture books, seeing them as babyish simply because of the format before they find out about the content of the book. Have you ever experienced this reaction from pupils? If so, have you been able to find a way round it?

I’ve never experienced this. I always talk about my passion for children’s literature and my love of picture books with a new class and my pupils know I’ll share material with them. When a picture book comes out it is a treat and older children love the ‘childlike’ experience of having a story with pictures read so they can see as well as listen.

What are some of your favourite picture books for older readers, and why do you like them?

Reluctant readers or just children who haven’t been particularly engaged with literature can really see the value of reading when they experience the joy and subtlety of a good picture book.

  • My Father’s Arms are a Boat by Stein Erik Lunde and Oyvind Torseter because it really allows children to open up about loss.
  • The Book of Mean People by Toni and Slade Morrison and Pascal LeMaitre because of the issue it discusses and because I can point out that the author of this picture book got the Nobel Prize for Literature.
  • The Red Tree by Shaun Tan because it looks at depression - something that older children are very aware of but it is still something that people are reluctant to discuss.
  • War Game by Michael Foreman because it helps children to understand World War 1 and it is a wonderful story. I have a movie of the story which we can then watch and discuss how a book becomes a film.
  • When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs as it allows discussion of scary topics in a safe (ish) way.
  • Fungus the Bogeyman by Raymond Briggs because it is gross and funny and children love it! Also, Raymond Briggs’ illustrations are so amazing they merit discussion from an art perspective alone.
  • The Rabbit Problem by Emily Gravett because how else could you explain the Fibonacci Sequence to children?!
  • Norman Rockwell, 332 Magazine Covers by Christopher Finch because it tells a story from so many perspectives and because it makes children really look.
  • Trouble for Trumpets by Peter Cross and Peter Dallas-Smith. Die Zeit newspaper sums it up: “A treasure trove of discoveries…makes you hold your breath, is full of fun, and parodies in a very subtle way, brute power and warmongering, brilliantly drawn and told with humour.“

Do you think there’s potential for picture books to inspire older pupils to read for pleasure?

Absolutely. As I mentioned above, when it is handled well and promoted as sophisticated and meaningful, older children often start to bring in picture books they have enjoyed and also buy them as well as traditional novels. We have times in school when our older readers share their favourite picture books and other books too, with younger children and each other. This all adds to the richness and value that is placed on all literature. Sometimes a picture book can be a springboard to other books, novels and comics. We hold monthly book groups and when children bring in graphic novels to discuss there is always much enthusiasm. Reluctant readers or just children who haven’t been particularly engaged with literature can really see the value of reading when they experience the joy and subtlety of a good picture book.

Do you think picture books can be challenging to older pupils?

Yes but in a great way. They make children think and then allow us to develop the higher order thinking skills. They can present an issue to discuss in a way that is quick and meaningful. They can open up a can of worms in a safe environment. They can encourage children to write. And they are just so lovely…

Janice previously featured on our Teachers and Librarians blog with her wonderful ‘Book Reviews in a Box’ project – read the blog post here.

Looking for some picture books for adult readers? Check out this fantastic list!

Janice Paterson

Janice Paterson is a Principal Teacher at Wormit Primary School in Fife.