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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Picture Book by Any Other Name

A workshop attendee caught me after one of my sessions, and her comment was all too familiar: "I love picture books and I use them all the time, but I can't convince my school or district to switch over to real literature."

My response? "Stop calling them picture books." I could see she looked hurt (I have a way with people; just ask my wife), so I quickly added, "You and I both know how awesome picture books can be when used effectively, but when others hear 'picture books' they immediately think Clifford the Big Red Dog and Goodnight Moon. There's nothing wrong with those books, but in the upper grades we're talking about another whole realm of books, so we simply have to change our language."

Is there something wrong with calling them picture books? Absolutely not, but I'll argue that there are two good reasons to call them by other names. Number one, the terms you use in your classroom to describe selected picture books help you and your students to understand how and why you're reading these texts. Number two, those same terms help other stakeholders (parents, colleagues, board members, administrators, grant funders) understand why you need picture books in your curriculum.

At first glance, reason number two seems superficial, but it's actually quite practical. As a classroom teacher, I wrote numerous grants and curriculum plans which involved getting picture books into students' hands (our students were reading adaptations of classics such as Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters in their basals, but they're weren't seeing all of the illustrations which accompanied the text). Yet I wasn't foolish enough to call them picture books. I knew that those who held the purse strings and the pens of approval were unlikely to release funds for picture books. I was correct in my thinking, and never failed to secure funding for classroom library or grade level sets of books. Was I deliberately deceitful in my wording? Absolutely not. I named the books according to their purposes, and the books in turn helped us to achieve our literary objectives.

Below I've provided some terms to use in place of "picture books." I think as you read through the list you'll begin to understand that what you call them determines and clarifies the goals you have in mind for their use.

Trade Books

Trade Book is perhaps the most widely used and recognized terminology for both picture books and chapter books, differentiating them from anthologies and basal readers.

The term trade books is not only familiar, but highly respected. Booksource, for example, offers a free booklet (available as a pdf download), The Impact of Trade Books and Reading Achievement, that outlines recent research on trade books in classroom libraries and demonstrates the importance of making these resources readily available to students. From that source:
Given the high relationship consistently documented between time spent reading and reading achievement, increased effort needs to be made to motivate students to do more reading. Almost 40 years ago, Daniel Fader, author of Hooked on Books: Program and Proof (1968), found that the way to help his students improve their reading ability was to have them read trade books. He determined his students read more when they had access to trade books because trade books were both interesting and meaningful to them. More recently, Gambrell (2001) has used the phrase “blessing a book” to encourage teachers and parents to understand their role as “purveyors of pleasure.”
If you're a grant seeker, this booklet provides all the theory and research you could possibly need to make a case for your funding request.

Wisdom Books

Wisdom Books are those picture books which are used to teach a lesson, most often about character. I've searched the Internet in an attempt to discover who first used this terminology, but it remains a mystery.

Wisdom Books definitely have their place in the classroom as teachers struggle to help students understand (and incorporate) the very abstract notions of responsibility, determination, integrity, cooperation, respect, loyalty, and empathy. Students can draw their own conclusion for what's to be gleaned from books such as Enemy Pie, The Empty Pot, and The Honest to Goodness Truth.

I've personally used these books in teaching character education to my classes, and I've even integrated them into summer camp and Sunday School settings where a good example is worth more than a thousand lectures. For teachers seeking to introduce a character education emphasis, Wisdom Books would be a good moniker to remember.

Theme Books

I'm a huge believer in teaching with themes, even now (especially now!) that I teach sixth grade. A familiar title such as Charlotte's Web is more than the story of friendship between a pig and a spider; instead, it's a tale of acceptance, devotion, loyalty, loss, loneliness, reciprocity, respect, survival, self-awareness, sacrifice, cycles, community, and kindness.

Regardless of the book you choose and its innate merits, you must ask yourself, “What makes this story accessible to everyone? For the student who couldn’t care less about spiders and pigs, what does this story say to him about experiences which we all share in common?” That’s getting to the theme, or the universality, of the book.

Instead of a topic study such as rain forest or penguins, "theme thinking" allows you to expand your thinking to wider concepts of interdependence, balance, and cycles. Why are themes better than topics? They can be studied across the curriculum.

Teachers of upper grades can use picture books to establish theme and foundational knowledge for a novel. Teachers whose curriculum includes titles such as Number the Stars, Devil's Arithmetic, or Night might use a series of picture books to establish a common culture of literacy regarding the events surrounding the Holocaust. In my own classroom I've used Terrible Things: An Allegory Of The Holocaust, The Yellow Star: The Legend Of King Christian X Of Denmark, The Butterfly, and Anne Frank (a wonderful picture book version written by Josephine Poole).

I've met teachers at conferences who've expressed difficulty with teaching Holocaust novels. When I asked what they did to prepare their students for that experience, I often get a blank look. I think if teachers approached it thematically, their results would be much improved.

Mentor Texts

What does a mentor do? A mentor teaches and guides through example. Mentor texts, in the same way, are books which provide students with models for their own writing in the areas of ideas, structure, and craft.

Writing Fix, a site maintained by the Northern Nevada Writing Project, regularly updates its Mentor Texts: Picture Book-Inspired Writing Lessons. Teachers asking themselves, "How do I teach writing?" or those who are seeking to create a repertoire of mini-lessons will find fantastic inspirations here, using such favorites as Grandpa's Teeth, Brave Margaret, and Take Me Out of the Bathtub.

Craft Models

Craft Models are those mentor texts specifically used to help students improve their writing craft.

If you're looking for the very best books in developing writing craft, I can recommend none more highly than Craft Lessons and Nonfiction Craft Lessons: Teaching Information Writing K-8 by Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi. Many book distributors such as Booksource carry hand-picked collections of high-interest titles to support the lessons in those books.


I first heard Ralph Fletcher use this term when I caught him live at a workshop on writing with kids. By micro-text he meant a book which focused upon one certain skill we'd like children to incorporate in their own writing.

When we ask our students to "write a story," we rarely mean a story with chapters. Why, then, should we have students read only those types of books? Picture books provide succinct models for student writing. Nonfiction picture books also exemplify brevity versus exposition in presenting the facts that the reader needs.
Ralph illustrated that very idea by pointing out that in first grade, children write what they are reading: few words with many pictures. This changes as they move up in grades, however, until by fourth grade students are reading novels that they couldn't ever hope to write, given their existing skills. In other words, (mine, not his), children who have little or no access to micro-texts are being denied accurate, realistic models for their own writing.

As an example, Ralph shared his wonderful picture book Grandpa Never Lies. He then recounted a classroom lesson he had observed about that very book, and how the teacher had used the analogy of a snowball rolling downhill, growing ever larger as it progressed. The recurring line of the book acted in much the same way, growing with importance each time it was repeated.

Such a concept is easy to study in the context of a picture book; so much harder to extrapolate from the noise and confusion of a novel.

Touchstone Texts

Deb Renner Smith talks about Touchstone Texts at her Writing Every Day Works blog, and provides a number of professional reading recommendations for those who'd like to learn more about them. Some great resources there!

Content Area Reference Books

When tackling research projects in the elementary and middle grades, students can find a wealth of information in content area reference books, aka nonfiction picture books. Why tempt students to simply cut and paste online when nonfiction picture books provide so many organizational conventions which they'll need for success with texts in the upper grades? Good content area reference books contain a table of contents, an index, a glossary, headings, captions, illustrations, margin notes, and graphic aids such as tables, charts, and time lines. Familiarity with these text attributes will definitely transfer over to comprehending textbooks later on.

What's also nice about picture books is that the same topic can be accessed on so many different reading levels. Beginning readers will appreciate Usborne Beginners simple Knights while more advanced readers would enjoy The Usborne Book of Castles, complete with all the standard nonfiction conventions listed above, plus Internet links, maps, cut-away diagrams, and a gazetteer.

In Conclusion

If you're writing or mapping curriculum, communicating with parents or administration, or seeking a grant, I hope this list of picture book euphemisms will prove helpful.

Have another I don't know? Leave a comment below.


Kevin Hodgson said...

Illustrated books?
I agree that the term 'picture books' brings to mind a certain audience (non-readers), even though it shouldn't.
I often have the same problem with graphic novels ... what better name is there?

Keith Schoch said...

Even when you say graphic novels, too often people retort, "You mean comic books, right?" I say, whatever gets them reading, it's authentic, and should be celebrated. For me, it was reading about snakes in field guides, for my daughter it was reading corny jokes from kids meals. At some point, kids find something they "need" to read, and then it happens for them. Thanks for checking in!

BookChook said...

Good to see you back, Keith! I know you're right about adult attitudes to picture books, and think your euphemisms are great. I've also seen kids curl their lip about picture books, only to quickly change their minds when I've "hand-sold" them.

Keith Schoch said...

Can't say I blame kids when it comes to that. Much more dignified and sophisticated to call them mentor texts or even trade books rather than picture books. When I taught fourth grade I really loved calling them Wisdom Books, but not every picture book is necessarily about "wisdom." And thanks, it's good to be back after six months!

Christie Wright Wild said...

I LOVE this post! Thanks so much! How about calling them "storybooks?" Of course there's nonfiction too, though. And then they're just called nonfiction, even though it is still a picture book.

Keith Schoch said...

Storybooks? That's crazy enough to work! Kind of funny how I mised the obvious ones!

Kelly said...

I've been wanting to incorporate more of these wonderful texts w/ my older readers. This posting is excellent and will help me choose my words carefully when I booktalk these and/or use them in lessons! Do you know of any blogs or wikis you like that recommend picture books for older readers?

Keith Schoch said...

Well, this blog, for sure! But specifically, check out this post on Ten Not-to-be-Missed Sites: and also Corbett Harrison's mentor text page at his site: Also, you might find a good resource at ReadKiddoRead, which is part website/part Ning, all interesting: Good luck with the search, and let me lnow if you find some other good stuff!

Kelly (She Wears a Red Sox Cap) said...

Such a good point, so much of it is spinning things in our favor huh? But I mean, it's worth it in the end when the kids have picture books in their hands :)

Dawn Morris said...

What a fantastic idea to call them something other than picture or children's books! I love it.

I too found that children's literature was an underutilized and unappreciated resource in elementary schools, when I immersed myself in various local public school districts to obtain my graduate degree. As a parent who had witnessed the sheer power and potential of picture books with my own children, it was extremely disturbing to see such a lack of them in elementary school classrooms.

The testing culture has sucked the life out of reading for pleasure in our classrooms. And yet, children need read alouds and books like the food they eat (although many do not realize it). To teach without real books is like trying breath without oxygen, at least to me.

So, I love this post and want to thank you for sharing your insight. It inspires me that you incorporate so much literature into your curriculum. Many teachers (and I suspect most secondary ones) are not willing or able to take time out to incorporate it into their curriculum. So, thanks for getting the conversation going!

And I just HAVE to ask, as I so strongly believe in using literature across the curriculum as well:

Do the other subject area teachers in your school use picture books regularly too? Do you collaborate on book choices and themes?

How does the school librarian fit into the process?

Again, thanks for sharing so much valuable information and for inspiring other educators to move beyond a textbook/basal reader based curriculum.

Keith Schoch said...

I regret that I'm one of the few teachers in my school in the upper elementary or middle grades that uses picture books. It's a hard sell to get teachers to understand their value, although most teachers will buy in after they've seen a successful lesson or attended a workshop. Unfortunately, our education system rarely encourages teachers to learn from each other by observing classroom lessons (I might get some angry emails for that one). As far as librarians are concerned, they can play a huge role in the implementation of picture books. One librarian I worked with, for example, knew that our grades were teaching thematically (using themes such as Identity, Determination, Perspectives, Growth, etc.). She made an ongoing effort to familiarize herself with our curriculum, and to offer picture books for incorporation. My present librarian likewise will help me find the right books for any application, even if it means getting them elsewhere (she keeps a list of books we've needed to borrow from elsewhere, and purchases them the following year). I think if every teacher tried reaching out to their school librarian as a resource person, they'd be amazed what is available in the area of picture books for teaching their topics, themes, and concepts. How do we make this happen? Teachers themselves need to be educated about the approaches. Very few college professors (here comes the hate mail again!) model for teachers the exact process of using literature well, especially in the case of picture books. And few college teachers preach the importance of using a resource person such as the library/media resource center specialist. A fantastic way to introduce ideas would be for media specialists to have the opportunities to visit classrooms for the purpose of enriching lessons. Unfortunately, media specialists are more and more being viewed as "expendable luxuries." Given their rigid class assignments and set curriculum, they have no time to be individually presenting such lessons. Staff development in this area would be key to helping teachers make picture book instruction happen.

Thanks for the thought provoking comments and questions!