How to Use Picture Books with Tweens and Teens: Q&A with Literacy Experts

In March 2021, we hosted the webinar Not Just for Kids: How to use Picture Books with Tweens and Teens with powerhouse panelists Betsy Bird, Collection Development Manager of Evanston (IL) Public Library (@FuseEight); Cicely Lewis, Media Specialist, Meadowcreek High School, Norcross, GA (@CicelyTheGreat); and Susannah Richards, Associate Professor, Eastern Connecticut State University, Willimantic, CT (@SussingOutBooks). The literacy experts weighed in on questions from viewers that we didn’t have time to address during the session.

What literacy statistics/sources support the use of picture books (or other visually rich books, like graphic novels) with older readers?

Susannah: Although this study focused on younger audiences, the implications are relevant to any age listener. The Words Children Hear: Picture Books and the Statistics for Language Learning, Jessica L. Montag, Michael N. Jones, and Linda B. Smith. Psychological Science 0956797615594361, August 4, 2015.

Cicely: Rereading the same story increases vocabulary by 12% ( Students who are reading graphic novels interpret art and read at a higher level.

According to an article in The Washington Post, graphic novels “offer all readers a way to practice important reading skills such as building vocabulary, understanding a sequence of events, discerning the plot of a story and making inferences. And comics give young readers training in visual literacy — helping them read and interpret images — an essential skill in our highly visual world.” (

The article Sequential Art, Graphic Novels, and Comics by Brian Kelley discusses many benefits of using graphic novels in the classroom. “Graphic novels help students learn to speculate about images, an advantageous skill linked not only to imagination but also rhetoric. Students who learn to analyze images are capable of enhancing their skills of argumentation. Students learn to discuss elements of illustrations, images, and visual art in order to develop their opinions and points of argument.” (

What selection criteria should you use to evaluate a picture book and find the right fit? What qualities of a picture book are most important for tweens/teens? What should you look for in the artwork—is it different than for younger kids?

Betsy: So much of selection is going to depend on the level of sophistication in the book. Does the book have a juvenile sense of humor or are there some erudite jokes in there for the adults that tween and teens will also get? What’s the quality of the art? Honestly, the better the art, the more older kids will appreciate it. You need to give them picture books then can pick apart, examine, re-examine, and study intently. Dark and moody fare is always good, but not necessary. Look for picture books that make you, the adult, stop and pause and consider at length. What works for the goose works for the gander.

Cicely: Beautiful artwork is beautiful artwork, and it can be appreciated by all. The same little kids who love Hair Love because of the artwork have parents who love the artwork too. So I don’t really have a separate criterion. I think picture books with more words work better for older students. But for the most part, I simply use my Read Woke criteria, looking for picture books that:

  • Amplify the voices of people of the global majority (people who are of African, Arab, Asian, and Latin American descent and identify as not white)
  • Provide information about groups that have been disenfranchised
  • Share perspectives of people who have been underrepresented or oppressed
  • Challenge social norms and disrupt the status quo
  • Encourage readers to take action in their community

Susannah: Picture books are ideal for helping students to analyze and consider race, sexism and gender. The Council for Interracial Books for Children produced a list of evaluation criteria that has evolved over time but the original list is an insightful list of evaluation criteria to use with students:

As with choosing and recommending any text, there are a lot of variables but no one right answer. Think about the purpose for the book. I like to say that “A book/text is not the destination but it is a vehicle to a destination unknown.” The picture book is an ideal short text to use to introduce a complex idea, model how to tell a story, model language use, and/or to stimulate connections between ideas. In that consider the audience and apply the same criteria you would for a longer text that you might share or teach with tweens and teens.

  • Is the book well written?
  • Does the story add value? This may be for informational or entertainment.
  • Is the story comprehensible?
  • After students read/hear the story, is there something to discuss?
  • Does the book expand the world knowledge of the students?
  • Does it provide a window, mirror, and/or sliding glass door (Sims-Bishop, 1990)?
  • Does the book provide a survey of information on a topic to invite readers to investigate more?

How do you shelve/label picture books in MS/HS libraries or teen sections so that students will check them out? Do you mix them into a subject area or keep them in their own section?

Susannah: The key question is what works for your population? Given the wide range of reading levels for picture books, there is evidence to shelve them with similar topics versus formats. The move towards genrifying libraries supports this approach. Setting up a Did You Know? board with facts from picture books is fun, providing a quick read on a subject area.

Cicely: I currently have picture books in a section together. I don’t mix them. But I do include them when I make displays. They are labeled E, so I printed a sign that says “Rated E for Everyone.”

See examples of Cicely’s displays below!

During a read-aloud to a large group, what’s the most effective way to share the book’s pictures?

Betsy: There’s no wrong way. It just depends on the size of the group. I’ve presented picture books to hundreds of kids in bleachers, just jumping around the room. But I’ve also seen people present to tiny Kindergarten classes with overhead projectors. The trick is in determining how much you need the listeners to see. If you have a wordless picture book, for example, then getting the visuals out to the audience will prove imperative. Consider making a slideshow of the interior images and reading the book that way. Not only does it work for large groups but also virtual programming.

Cicely: Pre-Covid I would have them gather around and hold the book up. I made sure to use a microphone too so that everyone can hear. Now I use an IPEVO document camera and display them on a Smart TV, or I work with our TV broadcasting station to film them.

Susannah: First and foremost, the audience needs to see the pictures and there are lots of ways to do this in person and virtually that include but are not limited to:

  • Holding the book face out. I recommend holding it with your dominant hand from the bottom of the spine
  • Putting it on a projector
  • Using an easel or a stand of some sort. Cookbook stands work well
  • IF you are lucky to have two copies of the book, have a student assist you holding up a second copy in the front of the room and follow along, so that more students may see the details.

What are some good ways to use wordless picture books with tweens/teens?

Cicely: I think the best way to use them is as writing prompts and for research projects. People think that research has to always include a paper, but research can be a collection of pictures that are cited properly as well that support a thesis. You can teach the same skills and you will get better results. I also use picture books to get my high school students acclimated with our online databases. I use centered based learning to have them read the picture book and then research an issue from the book and find 3 sources from the databases. They must cite the sources, summarize the sources, and tell how they connect to the book.

Susannah: There are so many ways to use wordless picture books with tween and teens. These include but are not limited to:

  • As a stimulus for writing a sequential story
  • As a creative writing prompt
  • To think about plot
  • To identify cause and effect
  • To explore character motivations
  • To develop and improve both literal and inferential comprehension
  • To explore story pacing

Looking for additional info? Check out our Using Picture Books with Older Readers post to watch the webinar and browse additional resources!

One thought on “How to Use Picture Books with Tweens and Teens: Q&A with Literacy Experts

  1. Carolee Dean (@CaroleeJDean)

    I love this topic! Thanks for sharing. I recently wrote a post about connecting one specific picture book, WATERCRESS by Andrea Wang, to the Common Core State Standards for grades 3-8. Her picture book not only won the Caldecott, but was also a Newbery Honor selection, an award typically given to books for older students. The blog post is at

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