5 New, High-Quality Picture Books to Help You Teach

My Cybils reading has begun! Allow me to share with you 5 high quality nonfiction picture books published in the last 12 months. All of these are suitable for use in the classroom (or home classroom) and I'm happy to tell you why.

The Next President: The Unexpected Beginnings and Unwritten Future of America's Presidents by Kate Messner & Adam Rex

When I brought home a huge stack of new non-fiction, this was the first book I saw any of my kids reading. It was Levi (age 10), and he was reading it on the floor in the middle of the walkway. He couldn't even make it to the nearby chair. The book didn't even make it to the nearby shelf. So, I chalked a point up for kid appeal on this one. (The two criteria on which Cybils books are evaluated are kid appeal and literary merit). Plus, with a title like "The Next President," and such gorgeous cover design, and less than a month until the next presidential election . . . I mean who could resist? 

This book was great. It takes a unique look at past presidents, offering info about all the presidents who were alive in a given year and what they were up to. Like a big fascinating timeline in full color, that you don't have to walk around to read, this book was informative and fresh. Which future presidents were alive on the day that George Washington took office? And what were they up to? The books conversational tone also drew me in. 

Adam Rex's realistic illustrations make it easy to recognize those presidents whose faces are familiar. The sense of motion and action he conveys is phenomenal. And occasionally the timeline is interrupted for a "snapshot" of a president at some  point in their life before their presidency. The book concludes with a thought-provoking paragraph about all the future presidents of the United States of America that are likely alive today. The Next President also has substantial backmatter, including a cool map that shows where past presidents have been born, lays out the requirements for those who want to hold the office of the president, and suggests further reading.

I can see this book being a great fit for ages 7 and up. Levi's in 5th grade right now and it made good independent reading for him. I could see it working as low as 2nd grade, with an adult reading it and aiding comprehension. How high could you go? The sky is the limit on this one. I think middle grades, high schoolers and adults would all find it interesting. I did! 

Nesting by Henry Cole

This is the book that Jubilee cracked open first. Illustrated in black micron pen with a little bit of blue acrylic wash now and then, the exquisitely detailed drawings really make this book stand out. The text is uncomplicated, and suitable for reading aloud to all ages. Nesting tells the story of a family of robins over the course of one year. A lone robin calls a mate. She builds a nest, lays eggs, and together they feed the chicks and defend them from danger. They teach them to fly, and the whole family prepares for winter. 

I particularly loved the detail that Cole added to the story, by way of the author's note. It answered several of the questions I had, and if I were teaching a third grade class I wouldn't hesitate to completely incorporate the author's note into my reading. If I were teaching an art class, I'm sure I could talk about composition and focus. These drawings are photorealistic, and I doubt a photo could be better. You could spend years trying to get some of these shots, and here they are: composed in the mind and rendered perfectly. If I were teaching an "Up in the Sky" Kindermusik class (ahem, which I have, recently) I would love to use this book as a read aloud for the preschoolers and parents. 

On a Snow-Melting Day: Seeking Signs of Spring by Buffy Silverman

Speaking of Kindermusik, On a Snow-Melting Day struck me as a perfect read aloud for a unit that talks about weather. The rhyme and rhythm of this book, combined with big, bold photo illustrations just seems like it would be a real winner with the preschool crowd. I can see it going over very well with elementary school children, too. Can't wait to read this one to Sam (age 3). 

On a Snow Melting Day uses rhyming couplets of just two words each to tell about all the things you might see on an early spring day: "Icicles drip. Chickadees Sip." All of the photos and words point to nature signs until the very end when we read "Blackbirds sing. Kids swing. Welcome, spring!" This book would be a nice introduction to onomatopoeia, with lines like "On a plink-plonking, marsh-mucking, duck-dabbling day..."

I confess I was a little bit disappointed that the one photo that shows a child's face in the book is a photo of a white male. Sigh. Especially since, judging by the photo credits in the backmatter, the photos were all selected from photo publishing resources online. It's a great picture of a dad pushing his son on the swing. But, I think it would not have been difficult to find a great picture of a child of color. Who can say? All I know is that I was a little bit disappointed there. 

The backmatter in this book is robust. We get a glossary, further reading suggestions, and a two-page spread that gives a paragraph of details about each couplet shared in the main body of the book. I've seen nonfiction books do this both ways -- some put the paragraph directly in the main body, others save it for the backmatter. The books that leave details for the backmatter, like this one, have a lot of flexibility and make for good read-alouds. Plus then as an adult reading to a child, I get to model how reading nonfiction texts is the same (read straight through) and different (flip back and forth to revisit the picture and read the paragraph that goes with it). For that reason, this book would be a good introduction to nonfiction for a child who enjoys fiction picture books.

Numenia and the Hurricane: Inspired by a True Migration Story by Fiona Halliday

This gorgeously illustrated poem tells the story of a young whimbrel (a migrating bird) who gets separated from and eventually reunited with her group. 

I wasn't already familiar with the whimbrel when I started this book, and my main complaint about this one is that I didn't know what kind of bird I was following until I read the backmatter. We follow our bird from the time she's a fluffy chick, and I know that birds' appearance changes significantly as they mature. It was obvious that Numenia had changed, but I wasn't sure if she was fully grown. So, when her migration is briefly led by a goose, I was like "oh, is she a young goose, then?" No.  

The poem is beautifully written, and the author chose to sacrifice some things (like incorporating the words whimbrel, hurricane, and Numenia) for the sake of flow. The poem does flow beautifully and tell a moving story of growth, disaster, suspense, and ultimate triumph. The chorus of "curlee, curlee, curloo," meant to evoke the call of the whimbrel, is a nice element of repetition.

The book is beautifully illustrated, as well. So much texture! Digital and traditional mixed media bring the story to life. And, the use of color masterfully matches the mood of the poem. A red sunset at the climactic moment is highly effective in a book with lots of blues, greens and browns. The black of the city that Numenia gets lost in, the red of the wide eyes of a watching pidgeon family, and the yellow of the moon at her reunion are three other perfect touches. 

I'd recommend this one for elementary and older elementary audiences. The backmatter contains only the true story that the book is based on and a brief bibliography, so Numenia and the Hurricane would make a nice vocabulary or poetry study. It seamlessly incorporates words like askew, faltering, moor (and more!). It shows off personification of animals and elements, repetition, alliteration and assonance. 

The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read by Rita Lorraine Hubbard & Oge Mora

Such an intriguing title! Such beautiful cut paper art! This book tells about Mary Walker who was born a slave, freed by the emancipation proclamation, raised a family and worked her whole life and who, at last, learned to read.

I won't spoil for you just how old Mary Walker was before she learned to read. That fact was the most astonishing one to me, followed closely by just how long Mary Walker lived. I loved seeing the photos that decorate the endpapers of the book, and I especially loved the last line: "You're never too old to learn."  

What I wished the book had more of was HOW Mary Walker learned to read. The pacing of the book is a bit off. The book spends a lot of time on her life before she learned to read (indeed most of her life was before she learned to read!) but, somehow, that slow delivery of the title's promise, combined with the fact that nearly every illustration portraying Mary before her first reading class is one of a sad or confused Mary, made a large part of the book very sobering and sad. Then, a quick bit about her learning to read! And some ending pages about Mary's new life as a reader. I'm sure Mary found fulfillment in reading -- I certainly do. But I take a issue with a couple of lines in the book.

1. "It was the year of Chattanooga's Great Flood. The story was in all the newspapers, but Mary could only study the pictures to understand what had happened." In the backmatter the author admits that she chose to "imagine other details to fill in the blanks" of Mary's largely unrecorded life. I imagine that an illiterate person could do quite a bit to understand a situation. Not only could Mary look at pictures, but she could talk to others, perhaps even witness the effects of the flood of the town she lived in. 

2. "Mary felt complete." I don't know if this is an accurate statement or not, since the author has admitted to imagining details. I found it particularly jarring that the author implied that Mary's sadness over past losses was all smoothed over by reading. 

The book spends only 2 of its 32 pages on the hard work that Mary put in to learning to read and write. (One paragraph of text, one gorgeous illustration.) The only mention of her teacher's name is in a caption of a photo on the endpapers. The other 30 pages tell us how completely terrible and hard Mary's life was before she learned to read, and then how many presents, parties and accolades she got and how complete she felt once she was literate. I would feel much more satisfied by a book that showed evidence that the author had an idea of what happened during that "year and more" Mary spent learning to read, evidence that she had interviewed those who taught Mary, or learned with her, or just those who knew Mary (and not just knew what presents she got). 

The author's note shares a few interesting details that would have made the book more rounded and less "reading is the only important thing" preachy. Apparently Mary sewed beautiful bonnets and made amazing cakes! She could have been shown smiling with some of those, in her early, hard days, even though she wasn't literate. I'm sure that learning throughout her life prepared her to learn when she was elderly. I guess I wish the message of the book had been "Learn all you can. Learning even when your opportunities are slim will benefit you and prepare you for when your opportunities expand" rather than "Reading and literacy are the path to completeness and celebrity." A main theme in the book is Mary's love of the Bible, and how Mary's Bible waited a long time for her to be able to read it. I don't think the message I got from the pacing of the book was the message the author meant to send. I think the author meant to send the message that, as stated on the last page, "You're never too old to learn." 

The illustrations were deeply moving. The story itself is amazing! The pacing was not quite right. Still, I might use this book in a class or keep it on a shelf for kids to check out. When I asked Jubilee (age 7) which of the books above she thought she would like best, just based on the cover, she picked The Oldest Student.  

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