Use Children’s Picture Books

Yes, Mike Mulligan dabs.


We discovered this fact during our unit on the Industrial Revolution.  Half of the students were given Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House while the other half read her Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.  Each was asked to tell us if Burton thought industrialization and development were a good thing or a bad thing.

Outcome: Little House readers overwhelming said that Burton saw development as a bad thing, while Mike Mulligan readers were split, some refusing to even come down on a side.

Before they could make their Claim, they first had to gather Evidence.  And that’s the process for any response to literature: Evidence, Analysis and then Claim.  The analogy I use is a police investigation.  When a crime is committed, the police first gather Evidence (fingerprints, witnesses, statements, etc.).  Then, they Analyze them (“We have a witness who saw Sally enter the house around the time of the crime.”  Analysis: Sally was near the crime and could have done it.).  Only then is a Claim made: Sally is the perp.

In the case of Burton’s books, I had them specifically look at the use of color, the emotional arc of the protagonist(s), and the use of proper nouns.  Not only was I leading them towards quality Evidence, but in doing so they were forced to look at text features.

This is where using children’s picture books make a difference.  Unlike text and chapter books, picture books are all text features.  With so little in the way of text, authors need to use font, visual balance, color, illustrations and more to tell their story.  Often, the stories are emotional as well as plot driven.

This is quite different from the text and chapter books offered to kids prior to their reading young adult titles.  Many students are used to series books, from The Magic Treehouse to Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  These are fine titles, but an analysis on them is often difficult for students.  Not so with picture books.

There are several blogs and books on analysis of children’s books.  I’ll pitch this Burton biographical film Virginia Lee Burton: A Sense of Place, which gives plenty to think about in terms of criticism and style.

As important, children’s books are excellent ways to teach content.  Not only are they accessible, but publishers have been attacking familiar topics in interesting ways.  We often forget this when student reading levels move far beyond these titles.  Don’t.  My Burton lesson was not the whole curriculum, nor are these two titles textbooks.  They did, though, make students think.




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