Newbery’s Nod to Picture Books!

37820-2Picture books are for all ages. However, there is great debate among educators about the role of picture books in the classroom, especially in upper elementary grades, middle school and high school.

This year’s Newbery committee confirmed what many of us believe and have been talking about on social media and at professional development conferences- picture books are for everyone- readers of all ages. This year’s Newbery winner, Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, reaffirms our belief that picture books are outstanding forms of literature for all ages and should be read in all classrooms- elementary, middle, and high school.

Matt de la Peña is the first Hispanic author to receive the Newbery award and the second author to receive the award for a picture book. In a Publishers Weekly article, de la Peña describes the 4:30 am phone call when he heard the great news:

“At 4:30, the phone rings, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, maybe it got the Caldecott Honor or something,’ ” he recalled. The book was, in fact, named a Caldecott Honor for Robinson’s artwork, but this particular phone call was not de la Peña’s agent, but someone else. “The guy on the phone said he was the chair of the Newbery Committee, and I thought he messed up and said the wrong word.” But when committee chair Ernie J. Cox delivered the news, “I just literally could not comprehend it,” de la Peña said. “To tell you the truth, I still can’t believe it. I threatened to kiss him and everyone on the committee when I see them. It was a huge, huge shock.” ~ Publishers Weekly Article

Like de la Peña, when the Newbery was first announced, my students were shocked. “A picture book?” they cried. “Can a picture book win the Newbery?” This news rattled our class and our Mock Newbery club. Surely the Newbery couldn’t go to a picture book, my students cried. “Isn’t it only for chapter books?”

I smiled. This was a terrific upset! It was going to change the way my students viewed the books we were reading. After a terrific discussion and some debating, we talked about the many ways that this year’s award is ground breaking. We discussed the important role of picture books in our classroom. We decided that our picture books are the heartbeat of our classroom library. They are the stories that bond us together like a family.

This year’s award affirms the belief that picture books are for all ages and readers. Thank you Newbery committee for helping students, teachers, parents, and administrators understand that the best literature for elementary, middle, and high school students doesn’t need to be a chapter book. It can be any form- picture books, graphic novels, poetry, verse books, etc. This year’s award opens doors for readers and writers.



Originally from Pennsylvania, Dana Johansen is hoping that Punxsutawney Phil will not see his shadow on Feb. 2nd and there will be an early spring. In the meantime, she spends her time teaching fifth grade in wintery Connecticut, sitting with her yellow lab on the couch reading YA Lit, and watching the tv show, The Big Bang Theory. She has taught elementary and middle school for fourteen years. Dana is a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University where she studies blended learning in reading and writing workshop. She is the co-author of the books Teaching Interpretation and Flip Your Writing Workshop. 



National Picture Book Month

Recently, I moved from teaching 5th grade middle-school students in a self-contained classroom to teaching 6th grade middle-school students in an 80-minute English Language Arts block. What I miss most is watching my students sprawled across our large classroom carpet reading picture books displayed around our classroom.

While I continue to display these works of arts in my new classroom, the experience is not the same. As a self-contained classroom teacher, there was a certain comfort in knowing I’d see my students for almost the entire day. I had time! Now, I’m consistently surprised by just how little time I have with my students. We still read picture books, but, I must 90th stadmit, these readings are geared more for a particular purpose, rather than simply for the pleasure of reading them.

November is national picture book month! I’m planning to seize this opportunity to reintroduce my middle-school students to the joys of reading picture books. While they may not be able to sprawl across a large carpet, I do have a cozy reading nook that several students can occupy. I’ve asked my students to bring in beach towels so we can create comfortable reading areas in other places in our classroom. I’m excited about taking advantage of this month by picking a picture book to read aloud each day and then inviting my students to select a book to read themselves or with a partner. We plan to keep track of the titles, authors/illustrators, and the number of books we read and to post this information proudly.

Stay tuned for updates about our readings and please share some of your favorites! My first pick will be Nothing Ever Happens on 90th Street by Roni Schotter. It’s about a topic that many of my students can typically relate to: The challenge of generating topics to write about.

90th st 3For more information about National Picture Book Month visit:

Importance of Picture Books in Middle School Reader’s Workshop

Picture books are essential in the middle school classroom. Each is a short story that has a heartbeat that Theme Chartmurmurs gently, waiting to be heard. My students sit in rapture listening, smiling, giggling, and nodding as they allow the words and illustrations of picture books to whisk them away to another place. Part nostalgic, part thought provoking, these texts teach in a way that can only be described as captivating.

Some say middle school students are too old to hear and read picture books. I say no one is ever too old.

Often time teachers, including myself, steer students toward chapter books during reader’s workshop, instead of encouraging picture book reading. Of course, this is so students can build their fluency and stamina by delving into plots that unfold over many pages. We may hear ourselves saying, “You must read a chapter book. No picture books.” I have often wondered if other teachers have felt the way I have after saying these words. I feel a twang of pain and there is a small voice inside my head whispering that students should always choose what they want to read, no matter the length of the book. After all, aren’t picture books just short stories? Aren’t they the texts we use to model reading strategies, locating literary elements, and building schema? Why would I steer my students away from them during reader’s workshop? It just didn’t make sense. I knew I needed to incorporate picture books into my reader’s workshop in a new way.

A week later, I had a plan. I decided that we would dive head first into a world of reading picture books.

When I told my students that they were going to read only picture books for a week straight, cheers erupted. They shouted with joy, saying they couldn’t wait to reread childhood favorites and books by beloved authors. Sprawled out on the floor, bins overflowing with picture books from my collection and the school library, my students read voraciously.

We called it the “25 Picture Book Challenge,” and each student set a goal of reading 25 pictures in a week. Even as we set the goal, I knew it might be impossible. But I couldn’t help myself. My heart beat quickly with the hope that each student would have 25 short stories in their repertoire of texts. I couldn’t help but feel giddy thinking about all the possible text-to-text connections students could make and all the plots, characters, and settings they would read about.

Delighted squeals of “I read 5 books today!” was music to my ears each day. Enthusiasm soared as the humming heartbeats of the picture books echoed throughout my classroom. Both my avid and reluctant readers enjoyed recording their book titles on their reading logs. Everyone was reading. The joy for reading was palpable, and my students and I looked forward to reader’s workshop each day.

My minilessons could have been about many different topics- fix-it-up strategies for comprehension, Themesgetting to know characters, thinking about conflicts and solutions. However, I chose to focus my minilessons on theme. I wanted my students to think about the big ideas in each book- focus on the central messages of the stories they were reading. Exploring theme with picture books was very satisfying. My students blanketed classroom charts with sticky notes about themes. We sorted their themes based on frequency, commonalities, and uniqueness. We categorized some themes, such as family, as “Broad Themes” and webbed them to brainstorm other themes such as “sibling rivalry,” “family traditions,” and “conflicts between generations.” My students made lists of book titles that related to common themes, and we noticed how different books had similar themes across different genres. It was the type of learning that I always hope to have in my classroom.

In the end, we toppled our goal. Our total reached over 2,500 reads at the end of one week. I rejoiced in my decision to incorporate picture books into my reader’s workshop. I knew I would never look down upon picture book reading in middle school reader’s workshop again.