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Not Just for the Pre-K Crowd: Picture Books To Share with Tweens and Teens

Though picture books are often thought of as most appropriate for the youngest of readers and prereaders, many of these titles feature a wealth of subject areas, sophisticated vocabulary, and timely themes.

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Middle and high school librarians are likely familiar with student requests for readalikes. But rather than responding by reaching for a comparable YA or middle grade novel, educators should consider recommending picture books.

Though picture books are often thought of as most appropriate for the youngest of readers and prereaders—and there is certainly an excellent variety of titles for little ones, as so many library storytime programs demonstrate—they are not just for the toddler and preschool crowd. Indeed, many of these books feature a wealth of subject areas, sophisticated vocabulary, and timely themes.

Picture books can be an appealing option when students have exhausted the graphic novel section, need a quick pick in between classes, are looking to orient themselves on an unfamiliar topic before diving into a deeper research project, or have just finished a beloved series and don’t know what to read next.

The following titles are loaded with themes and visuals that will pique tweens’ and teens’ curiosity—and each serves as a reminder that picture books aren’t just for little kids anymore.


 

BOZZI, Riccardo. The Forest. illus. by Violeta Lópiz & Valerio Vidali. Enchanted Lion. 2018. ISBN 9781592702183.
Gr 5 Up –An “enormous, ancient forest that has not yet been fully explored” symbolizes the world and our journey through it. Featuring graceful, verdant art, the book, with its onionskin jacket and double-thick, embossed, and die-cut pages, has the look and feel of a sketchbook.

DE FOMBELLE, Timothée. Captain Rosalie. tr. from French by Sam Gordon. illus. by Isabelle Arsenault. Candlewick. 2019. ISBN 9781536205206.
Gr 5 Up –Part mystery, part personal narrative, this exquisite story centers on five-year-old Rosalie, whose father is off fighting in World War I and whose mother is working in a munitions factory. Meanwhile, Rosalie sits quietly in the back of a one-room schoolhouse. But she has a secret—she is a soldier on a mission of her own. Offer a tissue with this poignant tale.

GOLDSTYN, Jacques. The Eleventh Hour. illus. by author. Owlkids. 2018. ISBN 9781771473484.
Gr 5-9 –Goldstyn’s cartoon illustrations soften the intensity of this account of lifelong Canadian friends who fight on the front lines of World War I. The emotional ending is made even more powerful by the inclusion of a portrait of George Lawrence Price, recognized as the last soldier of the British Empire to die in the war.

JEFFERS, Oliver. The Fate of Fausto: A Painted Fable. illus. by author. Philomel. 2019. ISBN 9780593115015.
Gr 5-8 –Arrogant Fausto lays claim to everything he sees—a flower, a sheep, a field, a mountain—but he meets his match when he attempts to conquer the sea. Jeffers brings this cautionary tale of greed to a tragic but satisfying ­conclusion. Minimalist page layouts with ample white space reinforce the idea that sometimes less is more.

KUHLMANN, Torben. Armstrong: The Adventurous Journey of a Mouse to the Moon. illus. by author. NorthSouth. 2019. ISBN 9780735843783.
Gr 5-8 –Kuhlmann’s copiously illustrated science fiction tribute to space exploration follows Armstrong on his quest to be the first mouse on the moon. This special edition celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing with an introduction by the author and an extended “Short History of Space Travel.”Have Lindbergh: The Tale of a Flying Mouse and Edison: The Mystery of the Missing Mouse Treasure on hand for Armstrong fans.

OUIMET, David. I Go Quiet. illus. by author. Norton. Mar. 2020. ISBN 9781324004431.
Gr 5-9 –A young girl moves through an ominous world, hiding beneath her hoodie, singing “silence as loud as I can.” Fueled by her imagination and by books, she escapes her oppressive existence by imagining the day “I will make a shimmering noise.” This affecting ode to introverts will inspire students to reconsider their quiet classmates and will bolster those who see themselves depicted here.

RADEVA, Sabina. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. retold & illus. by author. Crown. 2019. ISBN 9781984894915.
Gr 5-9 –This engrossing introduction to Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking text will appeal to budding scientists and artists alike. Combining quotes from On the Origin of Species with bite-size pieces of information and stylized graphics, Radeva celebrates the intersection of art and science. The author ends the volume with equally inviting back matter, including a section on misconceptions and an appendix that provides essential updates to this work.

SMITH, Heather. The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden. illus. by Rachel Wada. Orca. 2019. ISBN 9781459821033.
Gr 5-9 –After Makio’s father dies in the tsunami, the boy watches his neighbor Mr. Hirota build a telephone booth, which he uses to communicate with the daughter he lost to the disaster. It’s not long before the other villagers are calling their own loved ones. Inspired by the true story of Japanese artist Itaru Sasaki’s response to grief following the 2011 tsunami, Smith weaves a beautiful tale about how we heal in unexpected ways. While a phone booth might be unfamiliar to students, the experience of loss is universal—this book will speak to many.


 

TECKENTRUP, Britta. My Little Book of Big Questions. illus. by author. Prestel Junior. 2019. ISBN 9783791373768.
Gr 5 Up –The heft of this volume matches the weight of the dozens of questions posed within: “Why am I afraid of what I don’t know?” “Don’t we all aim high?” “If I could fly, would the birds think I am one of them?” Supported by woodblock print illustrations, this is a book for curious and probing minds.

THERMES, Jennifer. Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island. illus. by author. Abrams. 2019. ISBN 9781419736551.
Gr 5-9 –Thermes looks at the people and events that have transformed the island of Manhattan over the past 400 years. The full-page, cartoon-style illustrations, done in ink, watercolor, and colored pencil, make the substantial history exceptionally accessible, aided by hand-drawn maps and sidebars.

WILD, Margaret. The Feather. illus. by Freya Blackwood. Little Hare. 2019. ISBN 9781760124212.
Gr 5-8 –Nico and Maria live in a world of shadows and ruin. One day, a large white feather floats into their yard, reminding them of the olden days and hinting at happier times to come. But when the elders attempt to lock up this symbol of hope, it becomes heavy and dull, until the children nurse it back to health and set it free. The symbolism of this ambiguous tale gives readers plenty to contemplate.

WITTENSTEIN, Barry. A Place To Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation. illus. by Jerry Pinkney. Holiday House/Neal Porter Bks. 2019. ISBN 9780823443314.
Gr 5-8 –Wittenstein details the genesis of Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington speech, including the advisers who worked with him the night before and the inspiration he gleaned from ­fellow victims of discrimination and champions of equality. Pinkney’s expressive illustrations convey the impact of this iconic speech; mature readers will appreciate the back matter ­profiles of more than two dozen civil rights activists.


Lynn Van Auken is a teacher librarian at Oak Bluffs School, MA.

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