Picture books in the secondary classroom?

In my previous life as a secondary English teacher, I would never have thought of reading a picture book to any of my classes. I had a pretty limited view of what a picture book was and who its readers were likely to be. As it turns out, I was missing out hugely by not investigating a form which can immerse readers of all ages.

For every picture book aimed at wee ones, you can also find one which will challenge older readers. For every whimsical, light-hearted cautionary tale, you can find a picture book whose atmosphere is dark and menacing. Picture books can be earnest expressions of human sentiment, or they can be parody. And they can be an exciting form for older children to write in: if you’ve got kids who have switched off from reading or writing, this could be a way back in.

Two picture book writers that have challenged me are Shaun Tan and Armin Greder. Tan is an Australian writer and illustrator whose wordless picture book The Arrival is a touching exploration of the experience of immigrants in a fictional, surreal country. Greder is primarily an illustrator but has written some powerful stuff: The Island is the story of an island community that struggles to deal with the arrival of a stranger on their shores. The illustrations are jarring and the book’s portrayal of human weakness is pretty stark: check out this review for a better idea.

To involve older children with picture books, you don’t have to look for titles aimed at their age range. I’ve been amazed at the effect of shared reading in schools, where older pupils will read picture books to younger ones. Sure, it’s great to see the younger kids discovering and enjoying picture books with older pupils, and forming relationships with these pupils, but this is only half the story. For the older ones, the experience can give them the chance to assume responsibility for a child’s enjoyment of a book, the chance to be a role model, and can help them learn questioning skills. And for sure, it can improve their talking and listening, too. But most importantly, the experience can re-connect them to a time in their life where reading was an enjoyable thing to do.

Writing a picture book can be a hugely enjoyable challenge, and I was delighted to see the Reading Zone’s competition for picture book writing open up earlier this year. I still tutor pupils, and recently set one of them the task of writing a picture book for the competition. The potential for learning is huge. The freedom of choice is huge, and your pupils need to narrow it down. Look at the range of examples out there: do you write in rhyme, like Julia Donaldson? Do you write a book within a book, like Emily Gravett’s Wolves? Do you make the physical book itself part of the story, like Catherine Rayner’s Ernest? There are a whole host of creative decisions to make.

I strongly urge you to give picture books a go with older kids. Check out our book list for some good places to start!