Even though I am a middle school teacher, I use picture/trade books in my classroom as often as I possibly can. In regard to these books, Vardell writes, "many are...not afraid to tackle challenging topics" (46). This past spring, my seventh and eighth grade AVID classes examined and analyzed controversial/banned children's books for an inquiry lesson. My students and I were able to engage in some difficult conversations involving gender, sexuality, and immigration, for example, all from picture books. I had never done this before and had no idea how young teenagers would react, but it turned out to be pretty remarkable.
As I was reading the chapter, I was checking off all of the picture books I have read, and I was pretty impressed that I have read a significant number, aside from alphabet books. Part of this is due to my participation in the #bookaday on Twitter, created by Donalyn Miller. Through this process, I discovered that many picture books are not really written for young children and that there is a lot that can be learned from these reads. I believe there are stereotypes about all picture books being elementary in nature, but many are rich in vocabulary, complex sentence structures, and information.
There were a few surprises for me within the reading:
- One topic addressed in the chapter is awards for picture books. I had no idea that the Caldecott award had been around since the 1930s (39). The first book I shared with my students for the above mentioned lesson was Strega Nona, a Caldecott winner from 1976. I thought the award from 1976 was a long time ago - and I was alive at that time. I do not think I have ever really considered that children's books have been around for quite some time now.
- Vardell writes, "that no one artistic style is preferred by kids, and that judgment is rather individual" (40). This is simply something I have never thought about, but it struck me as funny. I started imagining a toddler running around the library, looking at books, grimacing, "No, not that one, Mother. The artistry is not to my liking."
- Most picture books are 32-pages in length (45). I was so intrigued by this that I tweeted about it and started counting the pages in some of the books I have sitting in my house right now. 32 pages, indeed!
- Children's picture books do not have to have a theme or lesson . Having taught middle school English for so long and theme being such a challenging TEK, this made me feel better about sharing picture books with my students for reasons other than an overall "moral of the story". The controversial books I used certainly have messages to convey, but like Vardell says, "Deeper meanings are gleaned subtly, implicitly, through understanding how the world words, how people behave, and how stories reveal those truths" (60). My students worked collaboratively to delve into those deeper meanings without my having to spoon-feed any information.
Some of my favorite picture books: