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Picture Books are for Everyone

Published onDec 27, 2023
Picture Books are for Everyone

Picture books are not baby food that we give to kids before they can chew real food, and they are not just for young children.

Most Teacher-Librarians (T-Ls) have encountered the following scenario when doing book talks or library lessons with groups of students in grades 4-12.  The T-L pulls out a picture book, the audience gives a collective eye roll, and there is a chorus of “A baby book!” “Are you really going to make us read a baby book? “Are you serious? We don’t read those.” “Who do you think we are, 1st graders?” Then there is the one T-Ls really listen for: “Hey, can we sit on the floor?” (Here’s a secret: most students love to be read aloud to despite their vocal protestation.)

The reply is, “Sure—IF you listen to the story and participate.” The story is read. Questions are asked:  “What can you see on this page?”; “What information does this illustration give you that isn’t in the text?” Observations are made about what the students see, hear, infer, and feel. The students might experience something profound. The story touches their lives in some way, and their world expands. At the end, when the T-L asks, “Do you still think this is a baby book?” The answer is something like, “No way, little kids wouldn’t get this stuff.” 

I am a fan of the idea that we all are all responsible for contributing to the care and raising of the children in our community. I also subscribe to the notion that our children can find great value in a variety of teachers, inside and outside formal school and family structures; books, especially picture books, are wonderful teachers. Picture books are not baby food that we give to kids before they can chew real food, and they are not just for young children. 

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, Professor Emerita of Education at The Ohio State University says, “Books can be windows to another world, sliding glass doors to let our imaginations step through and experience a new world, and mirrors to see ourselves reflected in new places and places.”1 

Picture books are perfect companions for teaching key reading skills including fluency, sequencing, cause and effect, point of view/perspective, drawing inferences, compare/contrast, separating fact from opinion, and understanding literary devices. They provide models or inspiration for students’ writing. They foster creative thinking, they motivate reluctant readers and build classroom community, and they help students develop a growth mindset and practice metacognition, which has become a staple life skill in the classroom.

Informational picture books help students experience the world, the past, they introduce cultures that students don’t live in, they provide background knowledge and scaffolding before reading more complex text, they help students understand abstract concepts, and spark dialogue about issues like racism, stereotypes, and democracy. They humanize historical figures and jump-start debate or research. They support English language learners, inspire vocabulary development and teach (sneakily or overtly) grammar and mechanics. 

Picture books can present deep, complex, and mature ideas with concision and precision, so picture books are a great introduction to a topic, even for adults.

Chuck Sambuchino, a freelance editor and writer for Writer’s Digest, states that picture books may be the most important literary form that we have. In his article “Picture Books Are Not Just for Children: 10 Reasons Why,” Sambuchino lists:

1. Picture books turn children into lifetime readers.

2. Picture book language is more sophisticated than early chapter books.

3. Picture books are the most flexible of all literary formats.

4. Picture books are all about interaction between the reader, the text and the illustrations, and support visual intelligence.

5. Picture books are a great resource for art education.

6. Picture books stimulate the auditory, visual, physical/kinesthetic centers of the brain.

7. Picture books deliver powerful messages that cannot be misunderstood

8. Picture books create connections, bonding readers to others and to places.

9. Picture books have the broadest of all audience ranges, a four-year-old probably won’t read a novel, but lots of grandparents enjoy a good picture book.

10. A picture book is short and “can fit into the nooks and crannies of our lives.2

Picture books, even wordless picture books, provide ways for all of us to connect, create memories, broaden our worlds, enhance our social and emotional growth, and foster and sustain a love of reading and learning.

This raises the question: how can I find and curate a list of quality picture books?  

Answer: Easy! The reader-reviewers of Puget Sound Council for the Review of Children’s and Young Adult Literature (PSC) have been doing that very thing for over 30 years and we suggest that you: Read, Share, and Enjoy These Picture Books


Cover of Emperor of the Ice picture book features a painterly illustration of emperor penguins with three small youngling at the front. Title and author text is orange.

Emperor of the ice: How a changing climate affects a penguin colony by Nicola Davies, Illustrated by Catherine Rayner

Grade Level: All

Rating: Recommended

ISBN:  9781536228397

Reviewer: Tanya Kamila, Teacher-Librarian, Stevens Elementary 

Paired with bold, icy illustrations, Emperor of the Ice: How A Changing Climate Affects a Penguin Colony explores the needs and yearly cycle of an emperor penguin colony in Antarctica. The telling includes uncommon knowledge, such as the precise needs the penguins have regarding ice (its thickness, consistency, longevity) in order to successfully lay their eggs. The author gently includes the dismal effects of climate change on these penguins, not shying away from the harsh reality that Halley Bay, once home to one of the world's largest emperor penguin colonies, is no longer a viable location due to climate change. Notes at the end of the book provide additional information for those wanting more. The natural curiosity children display towards penguins will lead them to this book. 

Also Recommended:

Back House, Frances, Grizzly bears: guardians of the wilderness, Orca Books, ISBN: 978145988544

Collard, Sneed B.,  Border Crossings, Charlesbridge Publishing, ISBN: 9781623542382

Eszterhas, Suzi, Operation pangolin: Saving the world's only scaled mammal, Millbrook Press, ISBN 9781728442952

Pringle Lawrence, Elephants! : Strange and wonderful, Boyds Mills Press, ISBN 9781635924794. 


A graphic-style illustration of Shirley Chisholm, a powerful Black woman holding a microphone is depicted on the right. On the left, the title is in yellow. The background of this book cover has a quilt of blue rectangles.

Not done yet: Shirley Chisholm's fight for change by Tameka Brown Fryer, Illustrated by Nina Crews

Grade Level: All

Rating:  Recommended

ISBN: 9781728420080

Reviewer: Stacy Wright, Teacher-Librarian, Alderwood Middle School

Not Done Yet is a must-have nonfiction picture book for any library. Shirley Chisholm is someone every child should learn about. The biography describes Chisholm’s early years as well as her many firsts – she was the first Black woman elected to Congress, and she was the first Black person and first woman to make a serious run for President of the United States. The illustrations are bold and bright, like Chisholm’s life. Additional information in the back of the book explains what inspired the author and illustrator to tell this story. Chisholm, who believed she was the best person to run for office and to make change, spoke louder when she was told to be quiet. This book will inspire readers to fight for everyone’s rights.

This book cover features a portrait of a Native man and young woman touching foreheads. The background is a wave of water and the title and author text is in white.

Autumn Peltier, water warrior by Carole Lindstrom, Illustrated by Bridget George

Grade Level: All

Rating: Highly Recommended

ISBN:  9781250795274

Reviewer: Anne Dame, Teacher-Librarian Einstein Middle School

Autumn Peltier is an Anishinaabe author and activist. She was inspired by her great-aunt Josephine, who was a water warrior. Autumn and Josephine come from a long line of Indigenous women who know the value and necessity of clean water. They believe in protecting it for the 7th generation. This beautifully illustrated book is a great follow-up and companion to We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom and is sure to inspire change.  The back matter provides more complete biographies of Autumn and Josephine, including information about their walk around Lake Superior to raise awareness. Also includes a glossary and recommendations for further reading.

Also Recommended:

Newman, Patricia, Illustrated by Natasha Donovan, A river's gifts: The mighty Elwha River reborn, Millbrook Press, ISBN: 9781541598706

Staaf, Danna, The lady and the octopus: How Jeanne Villepreux-Power invented aquariums and revolutionized marine biology, Carolrhoda: ISBN: 9781728415772

Weatherford, Carole Boston, illustrated by McCray, Byron, A song for the unsung: Bayard Rustin, the man behind the 1963 March on Washington, Henry Holt & Company, ISBN: 9781250779502 

Folk Tales

This book cover features a group of dancing people wearing traditional African garb. A sun sets in the background, with silhouettes of trees and birds. The title is in blue and the author and subtitle is in white.

African proverbs for all ages, by Johnnetta B. Cole, Illustrated by Nelda LaTeef

Grade Level: All

Rating:  Highly Recommended

ISBN: 9781250756060

Reviewer: Teresa Bateman, Author and Retired Teacher-Librarian

Extraordinary acrylic, ink, and collage illustrations, reflecting African culture and heritage, fill double-page spreads with color and delight. That alone would be enough to merit purchasing this book. What really puts this book over the top is the carefully selected collection of African proverbs at the top and bottom of each picture. The book begins with a brief explanation of proverbs, then invites readers to wander in and savor the pithy sayings and to consider their relationship to the illustration. These are wonderful: "One who is carried on another's back does not appreciate how far off the town is." "The same sun that melts the wax hardens the clay." "If you think you are too small to make a difference, you haven't spent a night with a mosquito." Each leaves you pondering the deeper meaning. End pages include a map of Africa and the country of origin for each saying, if known. This is a treasure that merits a place in any library.

This book cover features a depiction of a young, bald person holding a torch and running with two red birds alongside. The title text is in black and the subtitle and author text is in white.

Dan Auta by Jose Ortega, Illustrated by Piet Grobler

Grade Level: All

Rating:  Recommended

ISBN: 9781771647717

Reviewer: Craig Seasholes, Retired Teacher-Librarian

Independent and beloved but naughty children like Dan Auta can teach us all a lesson in determination and curiosity. It was over a hundred years ago that this Hausa story of a mischievous little boy and his doting sister Sarra was told in the Sahel region of West Africa. It was translated first into a German story collection and later republished in Spain by the philosopher Ortega y Gasset. Now that his story has been translated into English and illustrated by Piet Grobler's mixed media, comic-style charm, North American readers have the chance to meet this boy-hero, who may be impulsive to a fault, but who is the only person brave enough to face a terrifying monster. Canadian publisher Greystone Kids has done the world a favor in this retelling of this African folktale. Dan Auta encourages us all to suspend judgment over youthful foibles and allow childlike interest to let us see how the story turns out, in the end. Too much adulthood too soon can squash our sense of wonder into sensible, prohibitive advice, like "Just hold it until we get to a better place!" or "Don't play with fire!" or what's worse, "Don't let children read books like that!"

Also Recommended:

Kimmel, Eric A. Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, Hershel and the Hanukkah goblins, Holiday House, ISBN 9780823431649

Poonman, Mistry. How the stars came to be, Tate Publishing, ISBN 9781849767880

History/Current Events

Image of a book cover featuring a young person cleaning a blackboard, where the clean spots are white. The title text is in white on black and the subtitle is in yellow.

Different : A story of the Spanish Civil War by Monica Montes, Illustrated by Eva Sanchez Gomez

Grade Level: All

Rating: Highly Recommended

ISBN: 9780802855985

Reviewer: Craig Seasholes, Retired Teacher-Librarian

Venezuelan author Mónica Montañés draws on her own family history in this middle grade story told from the perspective of a brother and sister during the Spanish Civil War; these children’s lives are forever changed when their father is forced to flee Francisco Franco's fascist persecution. Beautiful oil pastel illustrations by Eva Sánchez Gómez complement this moving middle grade story, which serves as an important "window" (per Rudine Sims Bishop) onto lives disrupted by political repression. Different is a middle grade historical fiction book that we recommend highly for all library collections – and it is a great story for #FReadomFighters everywhere. 

This book cover features a depiction of two young people wearing animal masks behind a fence. The title text is in black against a white background. Details are in pink, yellow, and orange.

To the other side by Erika Meza, Illustrated by Erika Meza

 Grade Level:  All

Rating: Highly Recommended

ISBN:  9780063073166

Reviewer:  Tany Kamila, Stevens Elementary

An absolutely heartbreaking story about the journey of two young refugees. Telling her younger brother that they are playing a simple game, the sister cajoles her brother to keep moving through various distractions and imaginative play. As the games become even harder and more tiring, the brother realizes that, no, this is not a game, but still, they forge on. The children wear colorful masks that are juxtaposed with stunning black and white background illustrations, highlighting  the bleakness of their situation, the sparse land they must cross, and the prison-like structures erected by the destination country. Still, the vibrancy of the masks also emphasizes hope and the bravery of the older sister's attempts to keep her brother safe. Only one mask is removed briefly before the end of the story, when the little brother finally asks, "this isn't a game, is it?" This is a story for all of us based on the author's own experience and her reaction to the 2018 discovery of the US "separation policy". Younger readers will certainly need more context, but what a vehicle to promote discussion on the perils of immigration. This is an outstanding example, as well, of the power of illustrations to convey meaning and induce emotion. For all ages

Also Recommended:

Roberts, Barbara Carlos, Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline, A Rose named Peace : How Francis Meilland created a flower of hope for a world at war, Candlewick press, ISBN 9781536208436

Book cover depicts a young person and their parent jumping in puddles while wearing yellow rain jackets. The illustration is very painterly. The title text is yellow against a blue-sky background with trees framing the image.

I love you like yellow by Andrea Beaty, Illustrated by Vashti Harrison

Grade Level:  All

Rating: Highly Recommended

ISBN: 9781419748073

Reviewer:  Jennifer Altena, Syre Elementary School 

A beautifully illustrated picture book listing all the ways a child loves a parent (and vice versa). The text is simple, with a short line on each page contributing to an  A-B rhyming pattern. All sorts of parents, children, and families are shown - boys, girls, disabled children, different cultures, mothers, fathers, grandparents, and people of all shapes and sizes. Love is shown in so many ways, mainly simple everyday events like baking cookies and taking a walk in all four seasons. Would be perfect as a gift for a new family. Illustrations are by best-selling illustrator, Vashti Harrison and text is by Andrea Beaty. A definite star recommended book for all ages.

Also Recommended:

Lyon, George Ella,  illustrated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman, Time to fly, Abrams Books For Young Readers, ISBN 9781419748073

Mcclintick, Joanna, Illustrated by Juana Medina, T’was the night before Pride, Candlewick Press ISBN 9781536213430 

 --  Spanish Language version, Vispera De Orgullo, Candlewick Press ISBN 9781536223620

Songbird, Theresa Tha, Illustrated by London Ladd,  You so black, Denene Millner Books  ISBN 9781665900348

Tjonn, Brynjulf Jung, Illustrated by Oyvind Torseter, The most beautiful story, Enchanted Lion Books, ISBN  9781592703500

Veerkamp, Marc, Illustrated by Jeska Verstegen, Bear is never alone, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers , ISBN  9780802856036

Yemenici, Elif, Illustrated by Elif Yemenici, Pina, Tilbury House Publishers, ISBN 9780884489481

Music and Poetry

This book cover image depicts an old woman on the right holding a feather over a young girl in the middle. Birds of different colors fly over them. The title and author text is in black against a blue-sky background.

The woman who turned children into birds  by David Almond,  Illustrated by Laura Carlin

Grade Level: All

Rating: Highly Recommended

ISBN: 9781536219968

Reviewer: Craig Seasholes, Retired, Teacher-Librarian

Just imagine. "A woman came to town./ Her name was Nanty Solo./ She said she could turn children into birds." Acclaimed British author David Almond dares to imagine such things, despite calls from others that "It's just plain daft.? It's total trash./ It's piffle, twaddle, balderdash." But fortunately for us a wondering, wandering little Dorothy Carr, who knew that maybe she shouldn't./ But oh, she did." Thanks to lovely, childlike, quirky illustrations by the talented Laura Carlin, readers (and quite a few children and eventually adults, too) can join in a few minutes of imaginative, joyful flight. This is a hopeful reminder of the power of picture books to allow readers, teachers and librarians willing to take a chance to "Go on. Be happy” and fly. Here's hoping this book takes flight in young lives ready for a little uplift.

How to Write a Poem book cover features the title words as graphic depictions, with the O in Poem as a spiral. A young person sits atop the spiral O and a pile of other shapes to reach a lined paper sheet they are writing on.

How  to write a poem by Kwame Alexander, Illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Grade Level: All

Rating: Highly Recommended

ISBN:  9780063060906

Reviewer: Tanya Kamila, Stevens Elementary

"Begin with a question, like an acorn waiting for spring." So begins How to Write a Poem, a beautiful directive of cleverly chosen words guiding the reader through the act of observing the natural world, a sure place to find creative inspiration. With metaphors ("the silent sea of your imagination") full of word choice sure to pique interest ("a cotton candy cavalcade of sounds") this is an excellent read-aloud with many extension possibilities: i.e., an outdoor listening exercise; a creative movement piece; an exploration of metaphors. Kwame Alexander (with co-author Deanna Nikaido) demonstrates once again through his beautiful imagery, choice and flow of words why he is one of our premier writers for all ages. Paired with a fun mix of colorful collage, this is an ode to poetry, sure to appeal to a wide audience. Do read the notes at the end of the text -- the explanation behind the illustrator's (Melissa Sweet) pictures adds to the beauty of the text. A great pairing with the team's first collaboration, How to Read a Book.

Also Recommended:

Duncan, Alice Faye, Illustrated by Chris Raschka, Yellow Dog Blues, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 9780802855534

Frost, Robert, Illustrated by P.J. Lynch, Stopping by woods on a snowy evening, Candlewick Press, ISBN 9781536229141

Scieszka, Jon, illustrated by Julia Rothman, Real Dada Mother Goose : A Treasury Of Complete Nonsense, Candlewick Press ISBN: 9780763694340


Book cover of The Moon Tonight features an orange glow image of a young person following their parent on a bicycle. A large, crescent moon over ocean waves is in the background.

The moon tonight : our moon's journey around earth by Chang-Hoon Jung / Illustrated by Ho Jang

Grade Level:  All

Rating: Recommended

ISBN: 9781737603252

Reviewer: Tanya Kamila, Stevens Elementary

Written by astronomer Jung Chang-Hoon, The Moon Tonight: Our Moon's Journey Around Earth is a concrete explanation of the moon's phases. The book incorporates relevant vocabulary with the text, using clear definitions and drawings to aid young readers’ comprehension. Why we see different parts of the moon at different times is explained and illustrated well, as is the relevance and timing of the sun on such (adults will gain new knowledge about that, as well, I'm guessing). The book also includes an easy experiment (with drawings) to encourage readers to see and understand first-hand the role of the sun's light on what portion of the moon we see during each phase. The book concludes with a note from the author containing three pages of general lunar knowledge. With whimsical yet informative drawings by Jang Ho, this is a strong selection for any collection needing updates to their lunar content.

Also Recommended:

 --  That's  fact-tastic! : mind-blowing, eye-popping, jaw-dropping stuff about our world, National Geographic for Kids, ISBN 9781426372261

Halle, Andree, Illustrated by Lisa Voisard, Arborama : the marvelous world of trees, North American Ed., Helvetiq,  ISBN 9783907293904

Jenkins, Steve, Disasters by the numbers : a book of infographics, Hmh Books For Young Readers,  ISBN  9781328569486

Metcalf, Lindsay H, ed. / Illustrated by Jeanette Bradley, No world too big : young people fighting global climate change, Charlesbridge Publishing  ISBN 9781623543136

Whitfield, Philip, Firefly encyclopedia of animals : a comprehensive look at the world of animals with hundreds of superb illustrations, Firefly Books ISBN  9781770854574

Wordless Picture Books

Cover image for Every Little Kindness picture book features a black and grey depiction of a dog park with a female-presenting owner and her dog in the foreground. Small, red flowers are drawn on either side of a sidewalk that runs back and forth from top to bottom.

Every little kindness by Marta Bartolj, Illustrated by Marta Bartoli

Grade Level: All

Rating: Highly Recommended

ISBN:  9781797207926

Reviewer: Eve Datisman, Puget Sound Council Reviewer and North Olympic History Center Cataloger

Debut. A girl wakes up early and sets off on a walk through her neighborhood, posting flyers about her missing dog. At one point along the way, she gives a street musician an apple; this kindness encourages another walker to pick up litter, which in turn inspires a young child to replace a balloon for a sobbing toddler, and so on. The primary color palette keeps the impressionistic backgrounds (most of which feature the “lost dog” poster) of an idyllic, European-style city—complete with charming cafés and cobblestoned pedestrian streets—in gentle, blue-gray washes on yellow paper, with the details of each act of kindness highlighted in bright red. The sweetness of the story is palpable without being cloying, and the message of care comes through without needing to be stated explicitly. A lesson in compassion for all ages. Originally published in Slovenia in 2018, recognized as an outstanding wordless picture book at the Kristina Benkova Awards.

Cover image of Migrants picture book features a grouping of animals walking like biped humans in the dark.

Migrants by Issa Watanabe, Illustrated by Issa Watanabe

Grade Level: All

Rating: Highly Recommended

ISBN: 9781776573134

Reviewer: Elisabeth Lawson, Library Support, Dist. Office, Sequim School District

Migrants is a story told through the vibrant colors on a black background, and later the absence of colors in the illustrations. Somewhat recognizable animals litter the pages. A skeletal figure (death) clothed in a bright shawl follows a group of animals as they travel from one place to another. The animals cross through a wasteland of grey trees. The struggle to migrate for whatever reason is very clearly told here as the reader watches individuals and groups fall away on the journey. The black pages amplify the contrast of the brightness of the animals. They lose not only things, but also colors as they make their way to their final destination. It is definitely recommended for all libraries and should stimulate conversations between children and adults of all ages. Kirkus Starred Review.

Additional Resources

Luminare Press Blog. “Six Essential Elements of Children’s Picture Books,” published 4/3/20. 

Montero, Mary.  “Using Picture Books To Support at-Home Teaching”, a  PDF of how to-s and prompts, use “Picture Books” as the search term. This site also has lots of other useful downloads

National Library of New Zealand website. Picture Books page, ”What makes a good picture book” 

Panero, Jen. “Picture Books are a Medium for Learning at all ages,” published 6/9/2020, 

priceless Teaching Strategies Website.  “Teaching With Picture Books -- Effective Strategies Here For You!!” 

Snaidecki, Jennifer and Jason DeHart. “Picture Books are Perfect for Middle Schoolers,” a three-part article published on the Article 1 “Engaging Middle School Readers” published 6/15/2020, Article 2, “Making Learning Accessible” published 6/21/2020,  Article 3, “Picture Books Help with Standards and Mastery.” Published 7/19/2020,

Spinger, Sherry. “50 Ways to Use Picture Books in Secondary Classrooms” A PDF of titles and suggested areas of interest.

A female-presenting person with short, white hair and cat-eye glasses smiles with their eyes toward the camera. Eve is wearing a black-and-white knit top and poses in front of a white door in this photo.
Eve Datisman is a retired Teacher-Librarian. She volunteers at the North Olympic History Center as a cataloger and is enthusiastically digging into the stories of the people who have lived along the Strait of Juan de Fuca and on the West End. She is preparing for her first extended trip out of the US since the COVID lockdown, which lately has involved a lot of time spent practice-packing (six weeks of necessities with only a small carry-on and small backpack).
Jonathan Betz-Zall:

Thank you so much, Eve, for that story of how to engage older children with high quality picture books. Your examples are outstanding!