Picture Books for Middle and High School? Are You Kidding?

Picture Books for Middle and High School? Are You Kidding?

Poignant, sobering, and informative, picture books are short enough to illustrate a point and entertaining enough to drive a message home; they can be used at any academic level, most surprisingly, they are very effective in grades 5-12!

In Picture Books for Middle and High School? Are You Kidding?, Liz Knowles, EdD, uses her 45 years as a teacher, professor, and school administrator, with graduate degrees in reading and curriculum development, to review over 525 titles categorized by subject: science, history, language arts, math, the arts, and character.

Picture Books for Middle and High School? Are You Kidding? is a reference book perfect for teachers of students in grades 5–12, college professors who teach teachers, librarians (school, public, and university), parents and parents who homeschool, reading specialists, and child psychologists.

So many wonderful picture books are suitable for use with 5th – 12th grade and even college students!

This book reviews over 525 titles categorized by subject: science, history, language arts, math, the arts, and character.

Poignant, sobering, & informative – picture books can be used:

  • To introduce a topic
  • For discussion starters
  • For creative writing ideas
  • To engage readers of all backgrounds
  • For discovering writers craft

A comprehensive list of many possible uses is included – they are short enough to become part of any lesson – picture books are just plain entertaining


Picture Books for Teens…Wait, What?

Liz Knowles, Ed.D.

Picture books have always been my favorites. I must admit that my collection of picture books is out of control and continues to grow! 

Most middle school and high school teachers think of picture books as strictly for toddlers and most certainly for preschool and early elementary students. Well, that is the case in many instances, yet it is surprising to learn how many picture books are actually suitable and appropriate for the older students.

When providing professional development for the faculty of an International Baccalaureate private school with students from pre-K3 to12th grade – I was asked to review two of my books: Character Builders: Books and Activities for Character Education and Understanding Diversity through Novels and Picture Books.  Both of these books are essentially bibliographies providing annotations and lists of titles from picture books through young adult.

For the most part, middle school and high school in the International Baccalaureate program are overwhelmed with curriculum in order to prepare for very challenging exams. I know this for a fact because I had previously served as the Head of Studies in this school.

Therefore, I felt that it would be more engaging to use picture books as examples of the various topics in the books.  During my presentations, I had actual copies of picture books – some to read aloud but all to pass around to the faculty. Many of the elementary school teachers knew of the titles but most of the upper elementary through high school faculty had not heard of them. The result was surprise and rapt attention and amazement as to how sophisticated and poignant the picture books were.

By the end of the presentation I actually had some high school teachers share a topic they were currently doing in class to see if I could provide them with a list of supportive picture book titles.

The biggest thing was the fact that they are short, direct and poignant and thought-provoking. They are great for discussion starters especially in the high school grade levels.

Picture books contain an average of 32 to 40 pages with pictures appearing on every page or every two-page spread. They can contain no words at all to as many as several thousand words. 

Publishers usually like to have a picture book author create the text and submit it.  Then an agent reads the text and matches it with an illustrator. Sometimes the author and illustrator never discuss the completed work! Sometimes there is minor conversation between the two but only through the publisher’s agent.  Very rarely is there collaboration.

So – that shows how very important the text of a picture book really is. With a minimal number of words, it must tell a very complete and clear story in order for the illustrator to “get it right.” 

It is important to highlight the artwork in picture books – much of which is art gallery quality. Sometimes it is very apparent from the cover art who the illustrator is – as the artistic work is very unique. There are picture books that are written without texts and it goes without saying that some of those even with text the illustrations are paramount to the story. A successful picture book in all likelihood could be viewed just through the illustrations and still the story would be apparent.

Picture book reviewers often talk about the symbiotic relationship between words and illustrations.  One can see, perhaps, why Caldecott winners seem to be those where there is a collaboration between author and illustrator!

Awards Given to Picture Book Authors and Illustrators

The most important picture book award is the Randolph Caldecott that is given annually.  Other awards often presented to picture books are:

  • Jane Addams – given annually for a book advancing the cause of peace
  • Robert F. Sibert – awarded annually for an informational ok Orbis Pictus – nonfiction book
  • Pura Belpre – a book depicting the Latino cultural experience
  • Coretta Scott King – given annually to book depicting African American culture
  • Charlotte Zolotow Award – awarded for outstanding writing in a picture book
  • Ezra Jack Keats Award – for new authors and illustrators

And some of the others:

Horn Book, School Library Journal, American Library Association, New York Times, Junior Library Guild, Bank Street, Kirkus Reviews, etc.

Who creates picture books?

Author/illustrator – Same Person:

  • Patricia Palacco
  • David Wiesner
  • Jane Yolen
  • Ed Young
  • Lane Smith
  • Mo Wilems
  • Dave Eggers
  • Kadir Nelson
  • Duncan Tonatiuth
  • Brian Floca
  • David Macaulay

Author/Illustrator Teams:

  • Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith
  • Leo and Diane Dillon
  • Walter Dean and Christopher Myers
  • Andrea and Brain Pinkney
  • Pam Munoz Ryan and Brian Selznick

Picture books are for all ages and for all subjects! I have reviewed over 529 picture books and organized the titles by seven subject areas: science, math, history, language arts, the arts, character, and miscellaneous. Some categories have sub categories for further clarification.

Many well-known authors of books and programs regarding the teaching of reading and writing use picture books as mentor texts. It is easier to pick out examples of writers’ craft in a picture book because there is much less text and there are major clues within the illustrations. This also can generate more discussions because of easier understanding. Since they are short and appealing and can be read in one sitting – they are easy to incorporate into any lesson.

Picture books are especially useful as models for writing. A wordless picture book can be used for individual students to create their own stories. The writing style used for the text can become a formula to help students develop a written story. The unusual perceptions and illustrations can spark ideas for creative writing. The illustrations are often of art gallery quality. Visual literacy – the ability to interpret, negotiate, and make meaning from information presented in the form of an image – is enhanced through the vibrant illustrations in picture books.

These particular books, that I have identified and listed, are really not suitable for preschool – elementary school students but are more appropriate for middle and high school students. The point that is often overlooked – because it is generally unknown – is the sophistication, viewpoints, and perspectives of these picture books. There are those that detail the suffering of war, slavery, civil rights, immigration, poverty, homelessness, bullying, and mental illness. 

Many of the picture books are old standbys and are part of library collections and personal collections because they have endured over time. There are also new authors and illustrators of picture books who write about timely events and issues. Therefore, there is a huge range of history covered in picture books from the beginning of time to present.

Picture books can be used to:

  • start a discussion about historical events
  • give background information on the discovery of inventions
  • give insight to famous people
  • provide a better understanding of geographical locations
  • develop character traits
  • highlight math concepts
  • embellish and enhance grammar lessons
  • feature poetry styles
  • bring new clarity to concerning issues
  • model various types of writing
  • generate ideas for creative writing
  • introduce sophisticated concepts and ideas
  • demonstrate succinct, rich language
  • demonstrate writers’ craft: setting, foreshadowing, characterization, theme, plot, conflict, point of view, etc. because of brief, explicit text and supportive illustrations
  • demonstrate alliteration, personification, simile, metaphor, illusion, irony, parallel structure, understatement, hyperbole, and onomatopoeia because of brief text and beautiful illustrations

Poignant, sobering, and informative – picture books can be used to introduce a topic, for discussion starters, for creative writing ideas, to engage readers of all backgrounds – a comprehensive list of many possible uses is included. The simplified text to tell the story of a picture book is useful for discovering writers craft and the illustrations are very often art gallery quality and provide an extra level of support for understanding the story.  Picture books are short enough to easily become part of any lesson. Another important feature – picture books are just plain entertaining.


Beers, Kylene & Probst, Robert E. (2013). Notice & note: strategies for close reading.  Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Cochrane, Gail. (2018, February, 5th) Picture books are relevant for students of all ages.  National Library Blog. https://natlib.govt.nz/blog/posts/picture-books-are-relevant-for-students-of-all-ages

Knowles, Elizabeth & Smith, Martha. (2007). Understanding diversity through novels and picture books. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited/Greenwood Publishing. 

Knowles, Elizabeth & Smith, Martha. (2006). Character builders: books and activities for character education. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited/Greenwood Publishing. 

Knowles, Liz. (2020). Picture books for middle and high school? Are you kidding? Denver, CO: Outskirts Press. 

Murphy, Patricia. (2009). Using picture books to engage middle school students. Middle School Journal, 20-24.

Ripp, Pernille. (2017). Using picture books in the middle school classroom. Retrieved from https://pernillesripp.com

Routman, Regie. (2003). Reading essentials: the specifics you need to teach reading well. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.