Image from the Pajama Program

When librarians think of picture books, the first thing that comes to mind is of story time and lots of children. Picture books have long been associated with  early literacy and encouraging young children to fall in love with reading. Not to mention, the countless memories created stories before bed or reading to a newborn. However, picture books aren’t JUST for children, but for teens as well. While it’s essential that children have access to picture books, teens need them to whether they admit it or not. In fact, authors like Dr. Seuss, Patricia Polacco, Chris Van Allsburg, David Wiesner, and Walter Dean Myers have been writing books for elementary school aged children without realizing that these stories have the power to connect with teens as well .  While most picture books are marketed to specific age groups, or reading levels, many picture books go above and beyond to draw in a wider audience. Here are a few of my favorites:

All Walk of Life: Diversity in Children’s Picturebooks

  • Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love
  • Spork by Kyo McClear
  • Tar Beach by Faith Ringold
  • The Ugly Vegetables by Grace Lin
  • Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto

Celebration of Life: Walking Thru Time with Books

  • The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore by William Joyce
  • Grandpa Green by Lane Smith
  • Love You Forever by Robert Munsch
  • Whoever You Are by Mem Fox

Guaranteed Laughs with a Good Moral: Dealing with Assumptions, Jealousy, and Decisions

  • The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton
  • I Want My Hat Back by John Klassan
  • That is Not a Good Idea by Mo Willems
  • Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great by Bob Shea

Leaning into Discomfort: Discussing the Harder Side of Life

  • Mr. Lincoln’s Way by Patricia Polacco
  • Music for Alice by Allen Say
  • The Two of them by Aliki
  • The Wall by Eve Bunting

 Silly, but Educational: Learning with Books

  • Chicken Cheeks by Ian Michael Black
  • Math Curse by Jon Sciezka & Lane Smith
  • Rhyming Dust Bunnies by Jan Thomas
  • Parts by Ted Arnold

What connects picture books perfectly with teens is that they provide a fun way to address all sorts of ideas issues in a creative and innovative way. While picture books are marketed to children, and teens may roll their eyes when you tell them you want to read them a story, today’s picture books are sophisticated enough to draw in the attentions of older audiences. For example: Chicken Cheeks by Michael Ian Black. Yes…this book is about butts. However, this book provides readers with the various nicknames, or colloquialisms, for the rear end that teens may have never heard of. If a teen is not a native English speaker, or at a lower reading level, this story is not only enjoyable, but provides lots of synonyms for the Gluteus Maximus to build vocabulary. In addition to introducing new words, and language, picture books can teach concrete topics such as math and science that can help not only help non-native speakers, but teens with neurological disorders and adult learners.

Picture books can also tackle popular topics such as jealousy, misunderstandings, and even provide cautionary advice. With Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great, teens, especially tweens, will have a great time with this book as it requires a sophisticated sense of humor and the ability to understand, and dish, sarcasm. This book also sprinkles in fun facts about goat physiology and the super hero ending will leave readers in stitches. This particular title is also a good for teens who have younger siblings where they can read together before bed or to spend quality time with together.  I have actually read this book to myself, and staff, and giggled incessantly many times that it’s widely known (even among teens) how much I love this book.

In addition to making reading fun, the artwork can transform the reader into another time, or place, where life isn’t always fun. With Grandpa Green, Lane Smith celebrates the life of Grandpa Green told through his favorite pastime: gardening. While Grandpa’s life has been filled with love and happiness, it also talk about his trials and tribulations such as growing up on a farm, coming down with chicken pox, and his time as a soldier. Picture books can discuss complex issues such as racism which can be found in Mr. Lincoln’s Way and The Butterfly by Patricia Polacco. Polacco has an innate gift for storytelling that allows her to demonstrate to readers how racism and hatred not only affects the characters, but the readers as well. Picture books can also shed light on historical events that are often overlooked such as the Japanese Internment (Music for Alice) or the aftermath of the Vietnam War (The Wall). Lastly, picture books can even bring solace to a teen who lost a loved one or need something to relate to such as The Two of Them by Aliki.

So much can be found in these books if teens are aware. There are actually quite a few things you can do to share picture books with teens even if it’s only as a means to get their attention. Here are some great resource to explore to incorporate picture books into your programming:

About Deborah Takahashi

Deborah Takahashi is a Senior Librarian for the Monterey Park Bruggemeyer Library. Deborah has been working with teens and children for seventeen years and loves every minute. Deborah is also the author of "Serving Teens with Mental Illness at the Library: A Practical Guide."

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