In the spirit of Peter Johnston’s work, we round out the week with a list of our top ten picture books that illustrate dynamic ways to think about and approach learning. Some of these books offer metaphors that can saturate your classroom and make it easier to communicate the ways your students are in charge of their learning. These titles can lend your students some agency, whether tackling complex texts or working to change the world.
10. Something Beautiful written by Sharon Dennis Wyeth, illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet
The main character in this story learns the word beautiful in school and decides to try and find “something beautiful.” Her inner city neighborhood is filled with litter, graffiti, and boarded up buildings, so she asks people she knows if they have something beautiful. Each person tells her what their “something beautiful” is: a jump rope, a new baby, a smooth stone. With each, she expands her definition of beautiful. In the end, she feels “powerful” and finds the agency to clean up parts of her neighborhood. Read to find out what her “something beautiful” is.
9. Brave Irene by William Steig
Irene’s mother has made a dress for the duchess to wear at a ball that night. Irene pledges to deliver it safely, despite the impending snowstorm. Her tenacity and creativity as the storm worsens provide a marvelous illustration of the idea that problems are opportunities for creative thinking. Irene gets to attend the ball in her ordinary dress and looks “radiant.”
8. Pete the Cat written by Eric Litwin, illustrated by James Dean
Pete has new, sparkling white shoes and steps in one thing after another. With each new stain to his shoes, Pete changes his language to reframe the experience, saying “It’s all good.” He starts out singing, “I love my white shoes.” When he steps in mud, he changes his song to, “I love my brown shoes.” Pete’s shoes make optimism concrete and “It’s all good” can become part of the classroom vernacular around mistakes or unexpected events.
7. I Know Here by Laurel Croza and Matt James
This wonderful story of place and identity is narrated by a little girl who is preparing to move from her home in Northeastern Saskatchewan to Toronto. The story chronicles her exploration of her feelings and her effort to find a way to take the place she knows with her. This book is a wonderful mentor text for supporting students as they explore the places with which they identify. It also illustrates the ways that the places we love become a part of us, even when we leave them.
6. Tillie and the Wall by Leo Lionni
As a metaphor for moving beyond fixed ideas about ourselves, Tillie is an inspiration. Tillie is determined to find out what is on the other side of a huge wall, which has been there as long as the mice in her community can remember. She enlists her friends to try various strategies, none of which work. Finally, she is inspired by a worm and digs underneath the wall. Once on the other side, Tillie finds other mice who become her new friends. Use Tillie’s wall as a metaphor for trying to figure out a puzzling problem. “This must be your wall,” is language that can imply that, as Tillie explained, figuring out the right strategy “…is only a question of patience.”
5. In English, Of Course by Josephine Nobisso
When her family immigrates to New York from Italy, the only English Josephine knows is the names of farm animals, which she learned from her baby brother’s English board book. When her teacher sends her to the front of the room to tell the class about herself, “In English, of course,” they think she lived on a farm. Josephine is undeterred by their perceptions that she is not smart, instead she shows her smarts by employing pantomime to communicate. This book is graced with lovely multimedia illustrations, which parallel the bilingual theme in the story.
4. Mr. George Baker by Amy Hest, illustrated by Jon Muth
Even though George Baker is 100 years old, he teaches that it is never too late to learn something new. Although George doesn’t know how to read, yet, this book shows us, through George’s dancing and music, that he is a lifelong learner with a solid self-identity. The little boy next door, Harry, is learning to read alongside George, and they ride the school bus together each morning. This is a rich story of risk, growth, and friendship.
3. The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco
We didn’t think that Patricia Palacco could write anything better than Thank You, Mr. Falker, but The Junkyard Wonders is a serious rival for its beloved prequel. In this second narrative of Palacco’s school experience, students refer to the special education classroom as the “junkyard.” In this true story, Palacco’s clever teacher takes the special education students to a real junkyard where they find treasures and imagine what they can be. There is substance and depth to this story, and a joyful addendum that describes all the wonders that the special education students, Polacco’s classmates, grew up to accomplish in their lives.
2. -ish by Peter H. Reynolds
Ramon loves to draw, until his brother laughs at one of his attempts. After that, nothing Ramon draws looks “right” to him. So, after wadding up many efforts he feels failed, he quits. He discovers that his sister has been un-wadding his pictures and hanging them in his room. When he explains that her favorite picture was supposed to be a vase, she says it is “vase-ish.” The idea of -ishness gives Ramon a new way to look at his artwork and gives him license to take different risks: -ish poems, -ish paintings … . Bring a little -ishness into your classroom and you can normalize, even celebrate, approximations, giving students permission to try things they aren’t good at, yet.
1. That Book Woman written by Heather Henson, illustrated by David Small
This is our favorite agentive book, which includes a character who is sure he can’t learn to read, but finally decides to risk his pride and try. Set in the Appalachian Mountains, where a Pack Horse Librarian delivers books to homes every two weeks, this story of identity, pride, risk, and growth is breathtaking. It is a must for every teacher’s bookshelf, as it captures the ways we can count on the power of books to lure students into the hard work of learning to read.