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E Is for Everybody: Picture Books for Older Readers 2017

Written by Deborah B. Ford

December 13, 2017

ManjhiI’m rarely speechless, but at a recent event, I found myself with my mouth open and little oxygen pumping to my brain. I met a media specialist who told me why she didn’t choose to attend my What’s New in Children’s Books workshop. “I work with fifth- and sixth-grade students,” she said. “I don’t really care about picture books.” And she walked away.

When I could finally breathe again, I called after her. “But what about Manjhi? He moved a mountain—by himself. What about the dazzle ships? What about Caroline Herschel? She was the first paid female astronomer. What about Kate Warne? She solved the embezzlement case that made the reputation of the Pinkerton Agency. Do your kids know these things? Don’t they deserve to know these things?”

Publishers usually recommend a picture book for grades kindergarten through three. This standard practice is all about marketing. Who will buy this book? Traditionally we move kids from board books to picture books to beginning reader chapter books and finally to novels. Primary teachers buy picture books, so that’s where advertising directs its marketing.

Since the mid-’80s, I’ve been using picture books with middle and high school. Today’s picture books are uncovering amazing stories about real people, historical events, and exciting discoveries. Why shouldn’t older kids learn through any possible medium?

If we want our readers to develop language skills with a respect for diversity, read a wide variety of literature, apply a wide range of strategies in research and writing, and conduct research on a plethora of subjects, why not use picture books to accomplish the task? The art and writing style continues to astound notable book committees, causing great discussion on which titles are the best. From themes of war to science discoveries, today’s picture books deliver content in a concise package.

Here are ten must-have picture book titles for your library—regardless of the age of your readers. And be sure to check out our PBOR Pinterest board for more titles.

2017 Picture Books

Dazzle Ships

Barton, Chris. Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion. illus. by Victo Ngai. 36p. Millbrook. 2017. ISBN 9781512410143. JLG Category: Nonfiction Elementary Plus

During World War I, British and American ships were painted with bold colors and crazy patterns from bow to stern. Why would anyone put such eye-catching designs on ships?

Desperate to protect ships from German torpedo attacks, British lieutenant-commander Norman Wilkinson proposed what became known as “dazzle.” These stunning patterns and colors were meant to confuse the enemy about a ship’s speed and direction. By the end of the war, more than four thousand ships had been painted with these mesmerizing designs.



Churnin, Nancy. Manjhi Moves a Mountain. illus. by Danny Popovici. 32p. Creston. 2017. ISBN 9781939547347. JLG Category:  Character Building Elementary

Dashrath Manjhi used a hammer and chisel, grit, determination, and twenty years to carve a path through the mountain separating his poor village from the nearby village with schools, markets, and a hospital. Manjhi Moves a Mountain shows how everyone can make a difference if their heart is big enough.

Lighter than air

Clark, Matthew Smith. Lighter Than Air: Sophie Blanchard, the First Woman Pilot. illus. by Matt Tavares. 32p. Candlewick. 2017. ISBN 9780763677329. JLG Category: Biography Elementary Plus

Behold the story of Sophie Blanchard, an extraordinary woman who is largely forgotten despite her claim to being the very first female pilot in history. In eighteenth-century France, “balloonomania” has fiercely gripped the nation…but all of the pioneering aeronauts are men. The job of shattering that myth falls to a most unlikely figure: a shy girl from a seaside village, entirely devoted to her dream of flight. Sophie is not the first woman to ascend in a balloon, nor the first woman to accompany an aeronaut on a trip, but she will become the first woman to climb to the clouds and steer her own course.

Caroline's Comets

McCully, Emily Arnold. Caroline’s Comets: A True Story. illus. by author. 40p. Holiday House. 2017. ISBN 9780823436644. JLG Category: Biography Elementary Plus

Caroline Herschel (1750–1848) was not only one of the greatest astronomers who ever lived but also the first woman to be paid for her scientific work.

Born the youngest daughter of a poor family in Hanover, Germany, Caroline was scarred from smallpox, stunted from typhus and used by her parents as a scullery maid. But when her favorite brother, William, left for England, he took her with him. The siblings shared a passion for stars, and together they built the greatest telescope of their age, working tirelessly on star charts. Using their telescope, Caroline discovered fourteen nebulae and two galaxies, was the first woman to discover a comet, and became the first woman officially employed as a scientist—by no less than the King of England! The information from the Herschels’ star catalogs is still used by space agencies today.

Kate Warne

Moss, Marissa. Kate Warne: Pinkerton Detective. illus. by April Chu. 44p. Creston. 2017. ISBN 9781939547330. JLG Category:  Mystery/Adventure Elementary

When Kate Warne applied for a job with the Pinkerton Agency, Pinkerton assumed she wanted to cook or clean, but he agreed to try her out as an agent. Assigned to a tough case with high stakes, Warne went undercover and not only found the stolen money, she got almost all of it returned. The Adams Express Case made the reputation of the fledgling Pinkerton Agency, turning it into the biggest, most prestigious detective company in the world.

Marti's Song

Otheguy, Emma. Martí’s Song for Freedom / Martí y sus versos por la libertad. illus. by Beatriz Vidal. 32p. Children’s. 2017. ISBN 9780892393756. JLG Category:  Primary Spanish

As a boy, José Martí was inspired by the natural world. He found freedom in the river that rushed to the sea and peace in the palmas reales that swayed in the wind. Freedom, he believed, was the inherent right of all men and women. But his home island of Cuba was colonized by Spain, and some of the people were enslaved by rich landowners. Enraged, Martí took up his pen and fought against this oppression through his writings. By age seventeen, he was declared an enemy of Spain and forced to leave his beloved island.

How to be an elepant

Roy, Katherine. How to Be an Elephant: Growing Up in the African Wild. 48p. Macaulay/Roaring Brook. 2017. ISBN 9781626721784. JLG Category: Science Nonfiction Elementary Plus

The savanna is not an easy place to live, even for African elephants, the largest land animals on earth. If it’s a challenge for these 7,000-pound giants, what’s it like for their newborn babies?

An infant elephant has precious little time to learn the incredible array of skills that are necessary to keep up, from projecting her voice across a 10-octave range to using the 100,000 muscles in her trunk to stay hydrated. But this giant-to-be has the perfect classroom—a family herd made up of her mother, sisters, cousins, and aunts. With their help and protection, she’ll learn how to survive, how to thrive, and how to be an elephant.

Strong as Sandow

Tate, Don. Strong as Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became the Strongest Man on Earth. 40p. Charlesbridge. 2017. ISBN 9781580896283. JLG Category: Sports Elementary Plus

Little Friedrich Müller was a puny weakling who longed to be athletic and strong like the ancient Roman gladiators. He exercised and exercised. But to no avail.

As a young man, he found himself under the tutelage of a professional body builder. Friedrich worked and worked. He changed his name to Eugen Sandow and he got bigger and stronger. Everyone wanted to become “as strong as Sandow.”

Grace Hopper

Wallmark, Laurie. Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code. illus. by Katy Wu. 48p. Sterling. 2017. ISBN 9781454920007. JLG Category: Biography Elementary Plus

Who was Grace Hopper? A software tester, workplace jester, cherished mentor, ace inventor, avid reader, naval leader—AND rule breaker, chance taker, and troublemaker. Acclaimed picture book author Laurie Wallmark (Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine) once again tells the riveting story of a trailblazing woman. Grace Hopper coined the term “computer bug” and taught computers to “speak English.” Throughout her life, Hopper succeeded in doing what no one had ever done before. Delighting in difficult ideas and in defying expectations, the insatiably curious Hopper truly was “Amazing Grace”…and a role model for science- and math-minded girls and boys. With a wealth of witty quotes and richly detailed illustrations, this book brings Hopper’s incredible accomplishments to life.

Secret Project

Winter, Jonah. The Secret Project. illus. by Jeanette Winter. 40p. Beach Lane. 2017. ISBN 9781481469135. JLG Category: Nonfiction Elementary

At a former boys’ school in the remote desert of New Mexico, the world’s greatest scientists have gathered to work on the “Gadget,” an invention so dangerous and classified they cannot even call it by its real name. They work hard, surrounded by top security and sworn to secrecy, until finally they take their creation far out into the desert to test it, and afterward the world will never be the same.

Son-mother team Jonah and Jeanette Winter bring to life one of the most secretive scientific projects in history—the creation of the atomic bomb—in this powerful and moving picture book.

Background/Research Articles

In addition to the above, follow JLG’s Pinterest board on Picture Books for Older Readers. You’ll find new titles to use as well as support articles like the ones below.

Ammon, Bette D. and Gale W. Sherman. Worth a Thousand Words: An Annotated Guide to Picture Books for Older Readers (Libraries Unlimited, 1996).

Benedict, Susan and Lenore Carlisle, eds. Beyond Words: Picture Books for Older Readers and Writers (Heinemann, 1992).

Bloem, Patricia L. Research to Practice: Bringing Children’s Books to Adult Literacy Classrooms. Ohio Literacy Resource Center. November 04, 2015.

Carter, Betty. Field Notes: Escaping Series Mania.” The Horn Book Magazine. March/April 2016

Jacobson, Linda. Teachers Find Many Reasons to Use Picture Books with Middle and High School Students.” School Library Journal, September 9, 2015.

Neal, J. C., & Moore, K. “The Very Hungry Caterpillar meets Beowulf in Secondary Classrooms.” Journal of Reading, 35, 290-296. 1992.

Osborn, Sunya. Picture Books for Young Adult Readers.” The Alan Review. Spring/Summer 2001.

Pearson, Molly. Big Ideas in Small Packages: Using Picture Books with Older Readers. (Linworth, 2005).

Schliesman, Megan. Never Too Old: Picture Books to Share with Older Children and Teens.” Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Issue 174. 2007.




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Deborah B. Ford

Deborah B. Ford

Deborah B. Ford, JLG’s Director of Library Outreach, is an award-winning library media specialist and international speaker with almost thirty years of experience as a classroom teacher and librarian in K–12 schools. Traveling across North America, she does workshops, library coaching, and professional development for school and public libraries. Deborah is the author of JLG's Booktalks to Go @ SLJ. She also maintains an award-winning coordinating online resource at Contact her at Follow her on Twitter @jlgdeborahford.

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