Poetry and Picture Books (for big kids – and grownups, too!)

My beat this year is about taking care of the grownups, and well, this year that’s turning out to be even more of a monumental task than I could have imagined it would be. It doesn’t feel like there’s a lot that I can say about professional learning that would even scratch the surface of what teachers need right now, so in this month’s post, instead I’m going to focus on taking care of the grownups in a different way: through sharing good things to read. The idea came to me after some of my colleagues and I finished up a 6-part professional learning series on Young Adult Literature. The teachers who attended (virtually) chose to come and spend time with us after their already exhausting days to talk about great YA Literature, and session after session, so many of us marveled at how good it felt to talk about good books. 

So, today, that’s what this post will do: talk about good books – specifically good books that bring together two of my favorite genres: poetry and picture books. In perhaps the most exhausting and unstable year, short texts make sense right now. And I don’t know about you, but for me, poetry and picture books are two places I can count on to feed my soul, to restore me when I need it most. Plus, we’re heading into April, which is National Poetry Month (though I suspect Moving Writers readers won’t need an excuse to dig into some good poems any time of the year).

This is not an exhaustive list of all of the good picture books or poetry that I like or that I’ve used in teaching. Instead, I want to shine a light on some that are newer or that may not be fully on your radar that might lend themselves particularly well to shared text study for older kids.  

Though I contend that there are many ways to bring many picture books into middle and high school classrooms, I find that these picture books particularly lend themselves to older students. And studying picture books might just be what kids and grownups need right now because, through them, we can share reading aloud, be in community with the class, and visit and revisit the texts’ complexity and beauty without the need to catch-up or “get to” the next chapter.

In pulling together the books that I wanted to share in this post, I was also mindful of bringing together stories told by authors whose identities and perspectives need to be heard, valued, and centered in our classrooms. It’s impossible to put into any one list every perspective that should be included, and this list doesn’t even come close to attempting to do so, but it’s what I prioritized in deciding on titles. I also firmly believe that, in centering a diverse range of texts, we should honor and celebrate the culture and perspectives within those texts, and we should also study these texts for their literary merit – not just to fulfil a diversity requirement or to offer a pairing to another more traditional text. So, for each book, I’ll share a little bit about why I love it and some potential teaching connections (standards, lesson and unit ideas, etc.). I hope this list is a starting point for you to continue adding wonderful poetry and picture books to your classroom and to take care of your own teacher heart.  

A Different Pond written by Bao Phi and illustrated by Thi Bui 

Why I Love It: This past summer, I read The Best We Could Do, a graphic novel memoir by Thi Bui, and since this is illustrated by her, I was immediately drawn to check it out. And I’m so glad I did. When I stumbled across this book while researching a project I’m working on, I felt like I’d won the lottery. This picture book is a short memoir by poet Bao Phi. Paired with Thi Bui’s illustrations, laid out on the page in panels like a graphic novel, Bao Phi’s crisp verse examines his memory of going fishing with his father in the predawn hours. The memory elegantly weaves together themes of identity, family, and responsibility, and Bao Phi leaves just enough poetically unspoken to make this a text that has plenty of sophistication to study with older students. 

Teaching Connections: If you teach other memoirs with similar themes (the picture book Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and the short story “Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan both come to mind as particularly strong pairings), adding this book to your study is a beautiful way to include more perspectives on a theme, to study tone, and to analyze the impact of the graphic novel form in this genre. For example, a middle school standard asks students to compare how texts in different genres treat similar themes, and other standards ask students to analyze how point of view is developed. This text helps bring those standards into authentic spaces for analysis and offers multiple mentor text opportunities: memoir, poetry, and graphic storytelling! 

Firebird written by Misty Copeland and illustrated by Christopher Myers

Why I love it: I’ll be honest, I usually treat books written by “celebrities” with a whole lot of skepticism. Fair or not, I sometimes wonder if the writing quality alone would have warranted a book deal without the author’s famous name. In this book’s case, I don’t wonder that for a second. Written by ballerina Misty Copeland, it is wildly obvious that her artistic talent does not stop on the stage. She deftly defies conventions and poetically switches between speakers to allow an experienced ballerina (herself?) give advice to a young dancer. 

Teaching Connections:  From word choice to simile and metaphor and the concept of speakers, this book easily has standalone power for poetry analysis. It also provides a beautiful mentor text opportunity for students to write in dual voices: one doubtful, one assured. Though this book’s take on the theme of empowerment is ballet, students could bring their own passions to the page: writing, skateboarding, cooking, drawing, using this as a beautifully-crafted mentor text. 

Fry Bread written by Kevin Noble Maillard and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal

Why I love it: For starters, this book taught me about a food that is a staple to the Native American culture. I love that it helped me to learn more about not only the bread itself, but of the rich cultures that cherish it. From the darling illustrations to the simply-constructed stanzas, this book feels like a hug. It’s meant for sharing, rereading, and lingering over the pages. 

Teaching connections: Food offers us a beautiful, celebratory invitation into reflecting on our identities and cultures. Karla Hilliard has written before about food memory narratives, and this book offers a beautiful mentor text for a poetic approach. Using Kevin Noble Maillard’s structure as a framework, students could write about foods that are important to their family or their cultures through its history, their memories of it, descriptions of it, and ways in which it connects them to others. Following the poem that makes up the main text of the book is a recipe and a detailed author’s note, both of which offer additional mentor text opportunities for a multigenre extension. 

Milo Imagines the World written by Matt de la Pena and illustrated by Christian Robinson 

Why I love it: True to earlier work from this author/illustrator team (Last Stop on Market Street, Carmela Full of Wishes), this book’s playful illustrations and light tone gently invite readers into sophisticated themes and situations. I could just as easily see myself reading it with my own small children as I could see sharing and analyzing it with teenagers. 

Teaching connections: Middle school literature standards ask students to take on increasing levels of understanding around point of view, and this book offers a beautiful opportunity to do just that. Because the book’s theme that you can’t really know someone else’s story is directly tied to the concept of point of view, Milo Imagines the World is the perfect conduit for point of view analysis: the difference between first and third person limited point of view, the role of illustrations in developing a point of view, and an increasing awareness of missing perspectives. 

What picture books are feeding your heart right now? Why do you love them and how are you bringing them into your secondary classrooms? Let’s keep the joy flowing. Add to this list by commenting below or finding me on Twitter @megankortlandt

– Megan 

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