Welcome to Top Grade: CanLit for the Classroom, a blog and preview video series that features new releases from Canadian book publishers ideal for use in K-12 classrooms and school library collections. Throughout the year, we will dive into new titles, highlighting relevant curriculum links and themes.
Written by secondary school teacher Spencer Miller
You are never too old for picture books. I found a renewed interest in picture books while taking a course in children’s literature at university. As I applied what I was learning about literary theory and close reading to my study of picture books, I realized there was a depth to books for children that I had been overlooking.
The storytellers behind picture books are extremely talented. Authors learn to write with high efficiency, using fewer words to tell their stories. They develop rhythm and acoustics, utilizing sound devices to ensure books are equally enjoyable when read aloud. They work in tandem with illustrators to enhance their storytelling through visual elements. Speaking the language of children, these authors and illustrators explore complicated emotions and ideas in ways that allow even the youngest readers to learn.
Picture books are valuable resources for engaging readers of all ages. As a secondary teacher, I use picture books with my students to help them develop their close reading skills. Picture books are ripe for close reading as every word is carefully chosen. Pictures and words work together to create strong imagery and symbolism. Through the illustrations, students can see the setting and how colours and lightning contribute to mood and atmosphere.
With clear themes and purposeful messages, it’s easy to start a conversation using picture books. I use them to help students build confidence in their ability to discuss literature. I’ve noticed students who are normally hesitant to share their ideas, for fear they might be misinterpreting the reading, are often more willing to discuss the picture books we study together.
I also love pairing picture books with other texts to encourage my students to make intertextual connections. For example, when introducing a novel study on Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, an Indigenous dystopian sci-fi novel about the lasting effects of colonialism, I had my students begin by reading a series of picture books from Indigenous authors with similar themes. Using picture books, we were able to practice discussing the challenging topic of colonialism and prepared to look for related imagery and ideas in our novel study.
All in all, picture books can be powerful tools for learning and teaching among older readers and I encourage you to consider how you might teach using picture books in your classroom.
Here are some recently released picture books from Canadian publishers and more classroom ideas to get you started.
Inspired by Nhunh N. Tran-Davies own experience as a child refugee, The Doll begins with a young girl and her family as they arrive at an airport in a new country. They are refugees, who have travelled far to find safety. Greeted by a group of strangers, a young girl receives a doll as a gift helping to feel welcome. Decades later, that little girl, now grown up and at home in her adopted country has the chance to greet another group of refugees. She brings the gift of a doll along with her in order to pass on the act of kindness that made her feel welcomed as a child.
In Class: The message behind this story is that a simple act of kindness can make a lasting impact on someone’s life. As a class, brainstorm a list of ideas for students to help make refugees feel more welcome in your community. Make a plan for how you can put these ideas into action.
The author’s note at the back of the book includes more information about Tran-Davies’ background and includes a picture of the real-life doll that inspired this story. The doll is currently on display at the Canadian Museum of Immigration. Check out the educational resources for secondary students available on the Canadian Museum of Immigration’s website including online field trips, the Refugee Canada school program, and research materials.
Lisa Boivin, an interdisciplinary artist and bioethicist, tells a personal story of hope, dreams, and family in We Dream Medicine Dreams. In this picture book that often feels like a memoir, a young girl shares recollections of her dreams and recounts the interpretations of her grandfather, including explanations of traditional Dene teachings about Bear, Hawk, Caribou, and Wolf. We learn these memories are surfacing because Grampa is sick and in a coma. The little girl must lean on his teachings as she learns to say goodbye.
In Class: Lisa Boivin illustrated this story herself using digital collage. The images are layered with different colours, patterns, and textures. Ask your students how the images complement the story Boivin is telling? Students may enjoy responding to this story creatively by piecing together collages of their own to illustrate important moments from their own dreams or memories.
While most protagonists in picture books are either small children or animals, Little Wolf by Teoni Spathelfer stands out, featuring an adolescent protagonist with which secondary students will more easily relate. It is a heartfelt story about Little Wolf, a Heiltsuk girl, who struggles to fit in after moving to the big city (Vancouver) with her mother and sister and leaving their rural home. Little Wolf overcomes many challenges while adjusting to her new surroundings, including facing racism at her new school. She learns to stand up for herself and discovers confidence and belonging as she finds ways to connects to her culture and the land in an urban setting.
In Class: As this picture book combines traditional and contemporary Indigenous themes and artwork, it is an excellent way to help introduce students to the continuing challenges facing Indigenous youth and show the important role that traditional teachings have in Indigenous lives today. This picture book would pair well with Tasha Spillett’s graphic novel series, Surviving the City, which features many of the same themes.
Bring the power of poetry into your classroom with Burying the Moon, a beautifully illustrated book in verse by Andrée Poulin, illustrated by Sonali Zohra. This book is an example of how artists and poets are shining light on how a lack of access to sanitation facilities affects girls and women in many parts of the world.
In this story, young Latika is growing up in a rural Indian village with no toilets. The women have to wait until night to do their business in a field that can be full of scorpions, snakes and germs that make people sick. For Latika and other young girls in the village, no toilets also mean leaving school when they reach puberty. Latika has had enough and is willing to break the silence on this taboo subject. When a government representative visits their village, she sees her chance to make change happen.
In Class: Research what are the laws concerning sanitation products and services in your province? What changes need to be made? Changing the cycle: steps to end period poverty, a video from the CBC, explains more about the laws and systems affecting access to sanitation in Canada and around the world. Learn more about what young Canadian activists are doing to improve access to sanitary products in the article ”Girls start National Period Week to fight menstruation stigma," from CBC Kids.
You also might consider pairing your reading with Period. End of Sentence., a documentary short film about a group of Indian women who fight the stigma surrounding menstruation.
Drawing on author Naseem Hrab’s childhood memories, The Sour Cherry Tree (illustrated by Nahid Kazemi) offers a look at grief and loss through the eyes of a child. While wandering around her grandfather’s house, a young girl finds objects that remind her of her special relationship with her Grandfather, Baba Bozorg. These items include mint candies, teacups, slippers and pieces of poetry. We learn that the girl and her grandfather spoke different languages and instead connected through these shared objects.
In Class: Have students make note of each of the special objects found in the book. Why were these everyday items of Baba Bozorg so important to the young girl? Why do you think she takes the slippers home with her at the end of the book? Discuss the role that language plays in relationships. How can love “transcend language?” Students could be invited to bring in and present a significant object they own that reminds them of an important family member or friend.
Check back for a new blog post each month along with preview videos throughout the year for more recommendations for your classroom library and beyond! We would like to thank our partner 49th Teachers and our funder Ontario Creates for their support of the Top Grade project.
Spencer Miller graduated from the University of Calgary with degrees in English and Education. He participated in various projects examining the potential of children’s liter-ature in the classroom as an undergraduate researcher. He is currently a secondary school teacher in Montréal/Tiohtià:ke. You can follow more of Spencer’s passion for books on Instagram @YACanadaBooks.