Children’s books can be deceivingly “easy” and “childish.” But upon closer observation, many children’s books contain enough complexity to make them relevant texts to use as teaching tools for literary elements, techniques, and analysis. Using shorter texts such as children’s books can make it easier to target complex skills with students across levels. Children’s books can also provide a means for spreading multicultural awareness in the classroom.
Here are TEN Children’s books to use in secondary ELA.
This book is about a man who finds a stone. Mr. Meredith finds the stone “remarkable,” but really the stone is just an ordinary stone. He uses the stone as inspiration to build bigger and bigger constructions around it. In the end, he gets so distracted with outdoing his previous construction that he completely forgets about the stone. Here are questions to discuss about this book:
Is the stone “remarkable”? Why or why not?
Why does Mr. Meredith forget about the stone?
What does the stone symbolize?
What is the theme of the book?
This story is centered upon ancient Mayan civilization about a boy named Pik who defies the odds and defeats the god of rain to avoid a drought that could have brought ruin to his people. Wisniewski brings to life the Mayan culture through his cut-paper illustration technique that explores the legends of the Mayan existence and Mexican-Mayan artistic style. Here are questions to discuss about this book:
How important are cultural beliefs?
What is the purpose of El Juego de Pelota (the ball game) in Mayan culture?
What makes a hero? What defines heroism?
How is Pik the unexpected hero of the story?
Is rebellious behavior sometimes necessary?
This book is about paying attention to the tiniest details, having grit and perseverance, and keeping a positive mindset. “Crow Boy” tells the story of Chibi who is mocked for being different but later embraced for his special gifts. Readers will be captivated by the Japanese style of artwork. Here are questions to discuss with this book:
What does the crow symbolize?
What are three adjectives to describe “Crow Boy”?
What is the theme of the book?
This book explores racial identity and introduces the hope of dissolving the racial lines that divide us. Woodson’s book tells the story of two little girls (African-American and white) who develop a friendship across the fence that divides their properties. Ultimately, the fence cannot keep them apart, and they eventually become friends. Here are questions to discuss with this book:
How do the girls get around the “rules” that divide them?
How does the author use children to comment upon racism?
What does the fence symbolize?
What is the theme of the story?
In true Tolstoy fashion, “The Three Questions” explores the meaning of happiness and the meaning of life as well as what it means to be “good.” The three key questions that the main character Nikolai wants to answer are: “What is the best time to do things?” “Who is the most important one?” “What is the right thing to do?” In searching for the answers to these questions, Nikolai discovers that the answers lie in living in the present moment. Here are questions to discuss with this story:
How does inquiry drive the story?
How does hardship serve as a teaching tool in the story?
Describe the protagonist’s journey.
What is the overarching theme of the story?
This book explores the philosophical ideas of conformity vs. individuality. The main character Mr. Plumbean lives on a street where all of the houses are the same…. except his. A bird comes by (randomly) one day with a can of paint (randomly) and drops a splot on Mr. Plumbean’s house. He faces ridicule from his neighbors but eventually learns to like a colorful house. Here are discussion questions for this book:
What does the splot symbolize?
What role does randomness play in the story?
What is the book’s message about conformity and individuality?
This story tells the journey of an apricot from a piece of fallen fruit to a sprouted tree. In order to avoid being eaten by the snails, Cybele the apricot has to convince the snails not to eat her and enchant them through an exploration of persuasion. Here are questions to discuss with this book:
How does Cybele use persuasive techniques to convince the snails not to eat her?
How would you characterize the main character Cybele?
What is the overarching theme about life & rebirth in the story?
Select two vocabulary words from the story to define.
This book is a great primer for teaching Aristotelian logic and the basic fundamentals of syllogisms with a major premise, minor premise, and conclusion. It uses different types of birds to teach about logic and classification. The logic lessons of this book can be applied to drawing conclusions and also during writing workshop to check the logic of an argument. Here are questions to discuss when reading this book:
How is it possible that certain statements about some birds are true but not true for all birds?
Identify the major and minor premises of arguments in the story and their logical conclusions.
Which characteristics of birds are definitive and which are not?
Create your own syllogisms to experiment with Aristotelian logic.
This book is a beautiful exploration of turning mistakes into something beautiful— it’s simply a matter of perspective. The stunning illustrations create a visual exploration of point of view that we are all works in progress. Here are questions to consider with this book:
This book contains few words. How does the minimalist style of storytelling make for an impactful message?
How does perspective work to create the message of the book?
What is the overall theme of the book?
This book pulls at the heartstrings by its portrayal of the fear and uncertainty of the refugee experience. As used clothes are brought to the camp, everyone rushes to find what they need. Two little girls each find a matching sandal, and they decide to share the shoes. Here are questions to discuss with this book:
What is the tone of the book towards the refugee experience?
What do the sandals symbolize?
What is the overall theme of the book?
What children’s books do you use in secondary ELA? We’d love to hear from you! Leave us a comment below.
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About the Author
Meredith is the founder and creator of TeachWriting.org and Bespoke ELA. She has taught high school English for 10+ years in Dallas, Chicago, and New York City and holds a M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University. She has always had a connection to the written word-- through songwriting, screenplay writing, and essay writing-- and she enjoys the process of teaching students how to express their ideas. An avid tea drinker and anglophile, Meredith enjoys life with her husband, daughter, and sweet pups.