June 23, 2016

Our Top Ten Fiction Books for Teaching….EVERYTHING!

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When we visit the children’s section of Barnes and Noble or when we hear one of our favorite authors is coming out with a new book, we get giddy. We love rich illustrations and precise language and children’s books are often filled with both.  We appreciate that children’s literature serves so many purposes–from helping to make our big, confusing world accessible to children to supporting us in our efforts to teach children the habits and skills of proficient readers. Our list today focuses on the latter and features our top ten fiction choices (in no particular order–that was too hard to decide!) along with a brief description about how we use them.

1. Come On, Rain! by Karen Hesse

Come on rain


Come On, Rain! is the quintessential picture book, marrying story and illustration so that they support each other. This book is fabulous for teaching voice, character development, narrative story structure, and vocabulary. Karen Hess is to words as Jon J Muth is to illustration; as a pair they are unsurpassed. Come On, Rain! has an obvious, simple story but, if students read closely and think deeply, they can see the ways the main character creates the situation she wants.

2. That Book Woman by Heather Henson

That book woman


We love this book for lots of reasons, but mostly because it is a beautiful story about a determined woman who braves the elements and harsh landscape of West Virginia to make sure that boys like Cal have books in their home.  At first, Cal doesn’t see the point; however, he begins to realize that there might be a reason she goes to such trouble. We use this book in many ways, among them we use it to show students the transformative power of reading, how mindset can affect growth and improvement, as well as how to identify and work through dialect when it appears in text.

3. Ish by Peter Reynolds


In this book we meet Ramon, who loves to draw, but is frustrated by his brother’s criticism of one of his drawings.  His sister Marisol, who unbeknownst to him is his greatest fan, helps him see the value and beauty of imperfect work.  We love this book for its simplicity.  We love to share it at the beginning of the year to prime students’ understanding of mindset and how trying and not trying can affect how we improve.  In addition, we revisit to study character development and look at how characters can change from the beginning of a story to the end.

4. Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox

Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge offers students a study in contrast. The story is unexpected, from the plot line to the relationship between the characters. We love this book for teaching inference, for prediction, and for making connections. We also love it for its service to a classroom community, as an anchor text for discussions about shared memories (and memorabilia) from classroom experiences.

5. Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes

Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse

Lilly is enamored with her teacher Mr. Slinger–that is until he reprimands her for impulsively sharing the news about her new movie star sunglasses, shiny quarters, and purple plastic purse. Angry, Lilly does the unthinkable and writes a nasty note to Mr. Slinger.  Overcome with remorse, Lilly apologizes as she learns an important childhood lesson about the consequences of our actions. This book is especially good for helping students understand character development. Throughout the book, Kevin Henkes strategically repeats the line, “Wow, that was just about all she could say, wow.” which invites students to read closely and carefully and consider how word choices convey important meaning about plot and character.

6. Roller Coaster by Marla Frazee

Roller Coaster

This is the story of a little girl who is nervous about riding a roller coaster for the first time. Wonderfully written, the real charm of this book are the illustrations which reveal to readers that it’s not just little girls who feel a mixed bag of emotions about doing scary things like riding giant roller coasters.  This book is fantastic for close reading and teaching students to notice the details that contribute to deep understandings of text.

7. Hey World, Here I Am! by Jean Little

Hey World Here I Am

The only non-picture book included in our list, Hey World, Here I Am! is a book of vignettes about a girl struggling with many of the family and friend issues that commonly complicate adolescence and pre-adolescence. The stories in this book are short yet poignant and are perfect for helping children use details to reach logical inferences.  It can be read in pieces or as a whole and both approaches offer readers endless possibilities for practicing close reading and mining text for its deepest meaning.

8. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce

The fantastic flying books of mr morris lessmore

In this book, Morris Lessmore is trying to write the story of his life but realizes that it just isn’t very colorful.  A tale about a man who learns a new meaning of “living” this books celebrates the transformative power of reading as well as offers endless possibilities for examining literary devices such as metaphor. This book cannot be understood with just one read and children adore revisiting this text to notice the many subtleties layered into the text and illustrations of this book.

9.  Waiting for Winter by Sebastian Meschenmoser


Waiting for Winter is subtle, but profound. The illustrations of the animal characters as they wait for winter (instead of hibernating) are whimsical and captivating. As if that isn’t enough, this book is hilarious. We have yet to share it with teachers or students without them falling in love with it. In terms of instructional value (beyond that of helping readers fall in love with books), it is great for teaching the relationship between the illustrations and the words, because the pictures carry a completely different story. This is also a great book for launching a conversation about truly understanding the meaning of something vs. hearing about it second-hand.

10.  Every Single Elephant and Piggie Book by Mo Willems

Are you ready to play outside

Nobody writes for young children like Mo Willems! We love the entire Elephant and Piggie series mostly because nothing is more joyful than reading these books aloud to children.  The laughter these books evoke is contagious and nothing motivates a kid to want to read more than joy. That alone would make these books achieve top ten status.  However, the writing and illustrations in these books offer children wonderful opportunities to explore how to look past the obvious to see more meaning layered into text. Elephant and Piggie are great for teaching inferring, reading with expression, and noticing how character change throughout a story.

On Thursday, we’ll share our top ten nonfiction picks and, in the meantime, we hope that in the comment section below you will share your favorite fiction titles, why you love them, and how you use them!


  1. Dottie Tingen says:

    I hope everyone realizes that picture books teach all grade levels through HS. Easy, quick, effective reading and writing strategies for mini lessons, think alouds, modeling strategies etc. LOVE Cynthia Rylant’s The Relatives Came and When I Was Young in the Mountains, or Carol Lexa Schaefer’s The Squiggle, and Patricia MacLachlan’s All the Places to Love and What You Know First. I teach middle schooler with these and more. They love it and learn a lot,

    • Jan Burkins & Kim Yaris says:

      A couple of days after we posted this, we were going through our books and had a moment where we said, “Oh no! We didn’t include anything by Cynthia Rylant, Mem Fox, or Patricia MacLachlan!” We don’t know how we put this list together without them!

  2. Excellent selections. I plan to share this post with my staff.

    I think there are limitless teaching points in the fiction titles Owl Moon (Yolen), Each Kindness (Woodsen), and Hatchet (Paulsen).

    • Jan Burkins & Kim Yaris says:

      Yes to Owl Moon and Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet! And thank you for Each Kindness–don’t know that one and will most definitely check it out!

  3. I’m so excited that I don’t know many of these! I love, love, love the ones I know–Come On Rain, Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse and Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge. Actually, I would definitely add any and all books by Kevin Henkes and Mem Fox (I know you were trying to stick to ten). I’m psyched to look at the others. Thanks!

    • Jan Burkins & Kim Yaris says:

      Two favorites by Mem Fox that we use ALL the time: Tough Boris and Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild!

  4. What is even better than reading Elephant and Piggie to first graders? Listening to first graders partner read those books to each other! I can’t help stopping to listen and laugh with them.

  5. I love all Beverly clearly books for kids of 2 nd and 3 grade ,those are really fantastic books ,they tell kids so many things in single books and that too in fun way .few books which my daughter read were beezus and Ramona ,it is story about two sisters ,the other book is The mouse and the motorcycle it is about a mouse and young kid and the story that happens in the hotel.
    I recommend this book to all kids and their moms to read them

  6. Mirna Jope says:

    I couldn’t teach primary without “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein. So many life lessons available in that book!

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