There is a perception that illustrated books are only for young children, but many authors create picture books for older readers too. Teach your middle and high schoolers literacy elements or introduce classroom topics with these fantastic picture books suited to the unique needs of older readers.
Why Use Picture Books for Older Readers?
Picture books often conjure up images of stories for young children, but their power, creativity and beauty can be just as captivating for 4th graders and beyond! As readers grow older, picture books can be a great way to creatively explore personal and classroom topics and be an empowering tool to explore complex issues.
Picture books are not written to teach reading.
“Sharing picture books with children leads to amazing conversations. In the best picture books there is a gap between the pictures and the words, a gap that is filled by the child's imagination.” —ANTHONY BROWNE, CHILDREN'S LAUREATE 2009–2011
There is a perception that picture books are only for young children. Yet, many authors create picture books for older readers. These books offer different levels of understanding with a more sophisticated message.
Consider the benefits of reading picture books for middle school students when introducing complex topics. All students, no matter their reading ability or comprehension, will be on a level playing field.
Picture books are unique, powerful tools to engage, educate, and defy the expectations of older students. They break down complex topics into digestible and inspirational stories while introducing students to critical thinking skills.
The pictures make it easier to see what is happening and remember information. Illustrations and text lead to more complex analyses, and reading between the lines provides opportunities for different interpretations. It also encourages them to think critically and draw connections between what they are reading and seeing in the images.
Selecting and Using Picture Books for Older Readers
When choosing picture books for older readers, have a clear purpose.
- Is it for a lesson, casual reading, or introducing a specific topic?
- Explore the book before reading to ensure it has deeper meanings that lead to discussion and discovery.
- Check for opportunities to predict, infer, hypothesise and the development of opinions as the story progresses.
- Does the book promote discussion of plot, characters, theme and story structure?
- Will the illustrations engage your students to stay focused?
Sharing a book on an interactive whiteboard allows your students to engage with the book in their own way. Displaying the illustrations gives students time to confirm their ideas and predictions. Illustrations are an excellent way for students of varying abilities to engage at their level.
Listening to a picture book read-aloud also supports comprehension, inference and prediction while you carry the reading load.
You can browse the following websites of shortlisted and award-winning picture books for recommendations.
- CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Children’s Book Awards
- The Coretta Scott King Book Awards
- Newbery Medal
- Caldecott Medal
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Recommended Picture Books for Older Readers
These picture books introduce more complex themes and are wonderful ways to start meaningful discussions. Many recommendations are by authors whose other picture books are also suitable for older students.
These picture books are also great examples of picture books for middle school and high school students.
Alte Zachen: Old Things by Ziggy Hanaor
Benji and his grandmother, Bubbe Rosa, walk around New York shopping for Shabbat. Bubbe Rosa is old, irritable, and a little confused. She thinks of good and bad memories from her childhood in Germany. Surprisingly, this past appears in front of her while shopping with Benji.
Promotes discussions on intergenerational relationships, identity, and religious and cultural traditions.
The Antlered Ship by Dashka Slater
A curious fox, Marco, wants to answer an important question, “What’s the best way to find a friend you can talk to?” When he steps aboard a magnificent ship adorned with antlers, he is filled with answers.
Read to discuss questioning, curiosity, overcoming fears, and making friends.
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
This wordless picture book tells the story of an immigrant who moves with his family to a strange and bewildering city. He is helped along the way by kind and empathetic strangers.https://geni.us/Be9AE7
The Barnabus Project by Terry Fan
Strange animals kept in glass bell jars in a mysterious laboratory are failed attempts to make the perfect pets. Destined to be recycled, Barnabus, half mouse, half elephant, takes action to reach his goal of freedom. Through teamwork with his fellow captives, he does what it takes to reach the outside world.
Use to discuss self-acceptance, cooperation, courage, following your dreams, friendship and embracing imperfections.
The Bird In Me Flies by Sara Lundberg
Berta Hansson grew up on a Swedish farm and dreamed of being an artist. With her frail mother ill in bed with tuberculosis, she had to take on extra responsibilities. Her childhood builds a determination to follow her dreams to be an artist… “Because I have a bird inside me that must fly where it will…”
This translated biography prompts discussions on believing in yourself, following your dreams, courage, and determination.
The Christmas Truce by Carol Ann Duffy
This poem celebrates the Christmas truce between the British and German soldiers, enemies during World War I. Amidst the horrors of the trenches, there was an unexpected truce. The soldiers met in No Man's Land and sang songs, shared girls and played a game of football during the temporary ceased fire.
Read The Christmas Truce to promote discussions on conflicts, compromise, similarities, compassion, peace, poetry and points of view.
The Dam by David Almond
Kielder, in Northumberland, is rich in legend and folk music. The village is abandoned to make way for a new reservoir. Before the water fills the valley, a father and daughter return. The girl plays her fiddle in each of the empty homes to honour the music that once filled the village. Based on a true story, the villagers chose to sing and dance in memory of their home that would end up beneath the water.
Read The Dam to promote discussions on change, music and musicians, loss and memories.
Dreamers by Yuyi Morales
Yuyi Morales recalls her own experiences of migrating from Mexico to America with her young son. They face many cultural challenges, including learning a new language and customs. Her local library offers an opportunity to learn about this strange, new country and find a new career.
Read to discuss determination, resilience, independence, courage and hope.
The Eleventh Hour by Jacques Goldstyn
Childhood friends were born just two minutes apart. When they fight in World War I, Jim and Jules are sent out of the trenches to fight. Jim, who was always first, is shot and dies two minutes before the Armistice takes effect.
Faithful Elephants: A True Story of Animals, People, and War by Yukio Tsuchiya
A zookeeper describes the heartbreaking decision to starve three elephants to death so they wouldn't roam free in Tokyo if the zoo were bombed during World War II. This true story promotes themes of conflict and perspective.
Flood by Alvaro F. Villa
A wordless book about surviving a natural disaster. A family rides out an oncoming storm but flees when it gets too bad. The returning family find their home in ruins, which they decide to rebuild.
The Garden of Inside-Outside by Chiara Mezzalama
In 1981, Chiara moved to Tehran to be with her father, the Italian ambassador to Iran. She discovers a neglected, walled garden that seems a world away from the war going on in the city. A boy, Massoud, climbs over the wall and drops into the garden. Despite their lack of a common language, they make friends, and Chiara’s life changes.
This book, translated from French, supports discussions on conflict, asking questions, nature and communication.
I Get Loud by David Ouimet
The protagonist from I Go Quiet has grown self-confidence and found her voice. Alone in a new city, she makes a connection with a stranger. When they are evacuated from their home, they are separated during a journey to a new land. The girl worried her voice was too quiet to find her new friend, but they found each other again in their new home, having found an inner strength.
Read to discuss self-confidence, immigration, overcoming adversity, and making connections
Girl from the Sea by Margaret Wild
The first of two picture books for older readers by Margaret Wild. A young girl longs to belong and yearns to be part of the family who lives in a seaside cottage. The girl is a ghost and watches the family's every move, hoping they will invite her to join them. This book, perfect for older readers, leaves the interpretation to the reader through the illustrations and text.
Promotes discussions on inference, belonging, perspectives, and asking questions.
The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers
Unsure of how to cope with her grandfather's death, a girl puts her heart in a bottle. She loses all her curiosity and wonders until she meets a small child filled with the wonder she once had. She returns her heart, rediscovering her curiosity and love of the world.
Reinforces themes of well-being, grief and reflection.
The House on the Mountain by Ella Holcombe
Based on the experience of the author. A family loses their home in the Black Saturday bushfires. They experience a range of emotions, including loss, grief, anger and despair. Lose and damage surround them, but they see hope rising from the ashes as they rebuild their lives.
Use to discuss natural disasters, overcoming adversity and hope.
The Journey by Francesca Sanna
A mother makes the unimaginable decision to escape the war with her two children. They travel by car, truck, foot and boat for their gruelling journey to safety.
Reinforces themes of conflict, immigration, compassion, independence and courage.
Kamishibai Man by Allen Say
The Kamishibai man is a storyteller who sells candy, but fewer children have come to listen over the years. Many years later, he makes one more batch of candy and decides to tell his own story. He is delighted to be surrounded by familiar faces, all grown up, who come to listen.
Lillian's Right to Vote by Jonah Winter
Lillian, a one-hundred-year-old African American woman, is determined to walk up the steep hill to her polling station to make her voice heard. During her journey, she remembers the difficult voting history of her family. After the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment, her great-grandfather voted for the first time, she witnessed her parents registering to vote, and she marched from Selma to Montgomery.
Maia and What Matters by Tine Mortier
Told from Maia’s perspective, the reader explores her special relationship with her grandmother. After her grandmother falls from a stroke, the adults around Maia sugarcoat the situation to protect her. Maia tells us how she copes with the changes as her grandmother’s health declines.
Use this translated book to discuss intergenerational relationships, illness, compassion, empathy and social awareness.
Migrants by Issa Watanabe
A group of animals are leaving an unknown situation. Exhausted during the journey through a forest, they are unaware they are being followed by death. They travel in a crowded boat to a new home where life seems a little brighter, but it is not without loss.
Use this wordless book in the classroom to discuss loss, immigration, and hope.
Non Stop by Tomi Ungerer
Vasco is alone in a desolate landscape, with only his shadow for company. Shadow guides Vasco through his dangerous surroundings and to a new companion, Poco. Having someone to care for gives Vasco the determination to cope with his circumstances, leading to a sense of hope and trust.
Promotes discussions for older readers on friendships, loneliness, resilience, perseverance, hope and endurance.
One Small Island by Alison Lester
Remote Macquarie Island is a World Heritage site and home to a unique ecosystem. Human impact has seriously damaged its environment since its discovery in 1810.
Read One Small Island to start discussions on conservation, pollution, and environmental responsibility.
A Page in the Wind by José Sanabria
A newspaper travels on a gust of wind with pages flying in different directions. Each page has an adventure and provides different uses for the people they meet. The final page brings unexplained joy to the life of a disgruntled man. Promotes a life’s purpose and communication.
Paradise Sands: A Story of Enchantment by Levi Pinfold
While travelling to visit their mother, a girl and her three brothers step into the mysterious Paradise Sands hotel. Inside, the brothers fall under the spell of the Teller. The girl is cautious and makes a deal with the Teller to set her brothers free. It is a deal that comes at a price, but a deal she is willing to follow through.
Read Paradise Sands to promote discussions on decoding illustrations, love, selflessness, determination, responsible decision-making, word choice, character traits, prediction, and inference.
Razia's Ray of Hope by Elizabeth Suneby
A young girl and her fox friend have to leave their home. They travel through powerful storms, rough seas and over hazardous mountains. Their long journey ends in a new land where darkness turns to light, and they meet new friends.
Promotes perseverance, hope and optimism.
The Red Piano by André Leblanc
A young girl is removed from her family and sent to a labour camp during China's Cultural Revolution. All music is forbidden, but the girl risks her life to sneak out of the camp to practice the piano secretly. The life of international concert pianist Zhu Xiao-Mei inspired this story.
Read The Red Piano to promote discussions on perseverance, historical events, fear, oppression, the importance of music, risk-taking, and courage.
Smoky Night by Eve Bunting
Daniel and his mother watch the LA riots happening in their neighbourhood. After going to bed, they learn their building is on fire. Daniel hesitates as they evacuate because he cannot find his cat, but a firefighter later finds it.
Use to discuss racism, communities, conflict, synthesising, inferring and perspectives.
Sonam and the Silence by Eddie Ayres
Sonam lives in Kabul, where the Taliban banned music. One day, she follows the sound of music and finds an old man playing a rubab. She returns daily and is filled with joy when she hears the music. The man gives Sonam a rubab, but she doesn't play because of the ban, and soon her world is filled with the sounds of war. Depressed, she returns to the old man's home and realises the music is within her.
Read Sonam and the Silence to promote discussions on courage, curiosity, repression, joy and the effects of music.
Song for Jimi: The Story of Guitar Legend Jimi Hendrix by Charles R. Smith Jr
Read about the early life of Jimi Hendrix and how he became a legendary performer and musician. Learn how he overcame a challenging childhood, persisted in creating music and played epic performances at Monterey and Woodstock festivals. The book also includes a timeline, references and discography.
Read this book, written in verse, to promote discussions on overcoming adversity, determination, and persistence.
The Strange Birds of Flannery O'Connor: A Life by Amy Alznauer
Flannery O'Connor loved birds. She had chickens in her yard in Georgia and became famous when she taught one of them to walk backwards. She noticed that people liked unusual things – and she felt different, like a strange bird. This inspired her to draw and write about birds. Eventually, she became a very well-known American writer. The Strange Birds of Flannery O'Connor is a great way to talk about curiosity, passions, writing, and observation.
Suri’s Wall by Lucy Estela
Read about the impact of war and the separation of families. This story is relevant today but also reflects on past conflicts' effects.
Read Suri's Wall to start discussions on immigration, loneliness and conflicts.
Ten Cents a Pound by Nhung N. Tran-Davies
A daughter talks with her mother about her desire to go to school, discover the world, and how she loves her family and community. Her mother encourages her to take the brave step of journeying into the unknown to improve her opportunities in life.
Town is by the Sea by Joanne Schwartz
A young boy thinks about his father digging for coal while he listens to the sea, visits his grandfather and eats with his family. Use to teach a sense of community, first-person narration, point of view, and traditions.
The Treasure Box by Margaret Wild
The second of two picture books for older readers by Margaret Wild. The enemy bombs the city and destroys the library and all its books except one. As Peter and his father flee their home, they carry a beloved library book in a treasure box. As danger approaches, Peter hides away the box and the book. Years later, Peter returns to his former home to find the hidden treasure.
Promotes discussions on courage, determination, conflict, resilience, immigration, hope, and grief.
Tsunami!! by Kimiko Kajikawa
Ojiisan feels something coming as he watches the sea from his balcony. When he sees the water pull away from the beach, he understands a tsunami is coming. He knows the rest of the village cannot see the danger, but will Ojiisan risk everything to save them?
The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander
Kwame Alexander’s poem pays tribute to African Americans who fought against injustice by showing determination, passion, grit and courage. Search the illustrations for Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jesse Owens, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and many more.
Victor by Jacques & Lise
Victor is a hunter. After killing a cheetah, Victor dreams about cheetahs who have lost their friend because of him. He wakes up wanting to make amends for his selfish and cruel behaviour. He no longer hunts and realises the sad and lonely life he has lived.
Read Victor to promote discussions on empathy, making amends, self-reflection, using illustrations, ethics, cruelty and prediction.
Voices in the Park by Anthony Browne
Four different characters describe their visit to the same park from their personal perspective. These characters see the world differently and have their own perspectives on the same events.
Promotes different perspectives, prejudice, character traits, compare & contrast, voice, determining importance and asking questions.
The Watertower by Gary Crew
In Preston, Australia, an old rusty watertower casts a shadow over the town. When Spike and Budda climb the tower to go for a swim, strange things start to happen around the town. It is up to the reader to draw their own conclusion about what is happening.
The Widow's Broom by Chris Van Allsburg
A widow, Minna Shaw, finds an extraordinary broom after a witch falls into her garden. The broom helps with household chores. She knows the broom is harmless, but her neighbours are not so trusting. Two neighbourhood boys harass the broom, which teaches them a well-deserved lesson. But these actions provoke the neighbours to make Minna burn the broom. Will this be the end of the story?
The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman
When Lucy tells her family there are wolves within the house's walls, they don't believe her. Her belief comes true when the wolves come out, and Lucy's adventure is just beginning.
Picture books for older readers can help your students think beyond their own perspectives and gain unique insights from different points of view. A good picture book can help students explore complex topics and the world around them.
Such books foster creativity, critical thinking, and language skills, encourage discussion and debate among peers and provide visual examples of the stories they are reading.
Do you use picture books with older readers? How do you engage them in reading for pleasure?
Share your experiences using picture books for 4th graders and older in the comments below.
2 thoughts on “Unlock the Power of Using Picture Books for Older Readers”
I like your selections too and your layout – and what a unique topic to cover. As a fan of illustration and art, I say we can all enjoy picture books solely for their artwork and the copy can be an added bonus. I often think of this amazing little book I took out of the library as an adult. If I find it again, I’ll send you the link – it’s a small square book with an abstract subject – something about a shape falling from the sky or altering itself… but it’s beautifully realized and not easily forgotten.
I always love your book selections! I have a ton of books, yet I always find new ones on your site I haven’t seen before. It’s great to remember that picture books aren’t just for the younger children. As you pointed out, there is a lot they can learn from them and it helps them experience literature in a different way.