• Ana Demitroff and Fran Seftel

What About this One? Finding the Right Picture Books by Ana Demitroff, with Fran Seftel

Updated: Sep 13, 2021

Teachers and parents face the same problem when they look for a book in English. There are so many factors to take into account: interest, language level or if the theme is suitable. Margie Marc has already dealt with this topic in Selecting Picture Books (It's a Monkey Puzzle) before describing one text that ticks all the boxes. Here we offer five further tips and many examples.

1. Be prepared for surprises.

Many of us in the classroom get our hands on what seems to be a sure hit and then, to our dismay, a book flops. Of course, as with any resource, by rethinking how we present a book, we may finally make use of something that is at first unsuccessful.

On the other hand, we sometimes come across a title that we don’t find particularly attractive but makes the children go wild. We never expected Ten Green Monsters (G. Clarke), bought second-hand, to be so popular. The reason it tickled our young learners? When the last monster is pushed off the wall, we can see its underpants. Lesson learnt: we should think like children when we choose.

Another surprise came from Press Here (H. Tullet): no bells and whistles, no flaps, no musicality and long enough to make the narrator nervous. Yet, that book, based on sequences, can even hold the attention of a two to three-year-old group at a nursery and can go right up to second of Primary.

If the story has nonsense, the unexpected, a bit of madness, and an opportunity to create their own version, the children are sure to love it! For example, There's a Wocket in my Pocket by Dr. Seuss or the song -poem There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.

After working with the stories, the children loved drawing an illustration for their own crazy sentence, each child creating a page for a collaborative class book (photos from a 2nd Grade student at Colégio do Ave, Guimaraes, Portugal).

Many of the titles our teachers use in the Primary and Secondary classrooms we serve are second-hand finds, hand-me-downs from families and material salvaged from schools and libraries. They often sit on a shelf for ages before they inspire one staff member or another. After that, we wonder how we had done without it.

One such sleeper, in all senses of the word, was Slow Loris. He shows how we cannot judge a book by its cover. Who would have guessed that a book with flaps would appeal to mid and older Primary, even younger Secondary?

That's not to say that a beautifook doesn't catch our eye and heart in a book shop or on-line, but they have to really stand out or come with a recommendation from another colleague.

2. Pre-schoolers are attracted by catchy rhythms and a memorable detail.

Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb (A. Perkins) has both features, an irresistible musicality and one very fat primate who takes centre stage. One three-year-old shouted to me in Galician, the language of this region in NW Spain “That monkey’s really fat, like my dad”. Needless to say, that comment stayed in the classroom.

3. Be careful of irony.

Younger children may not pick up a twist in the ending and then the story line stays flat. For example, in Bark, George (J. Feiffer) a puppy meows and moos instead of barks because of- we learn later- what’s inside his belly. It goes over smaller children’s heads, especially when George says hello, but it delights early and mid-Primary.

The same can be said of Peace at Last (J. Murphy). The illustrations may make one think it is better for Pre-Primary; however, it works better for later ages up to third.

Papa Bear is disturbed by different noises all night and when he finally gets to sleep...rrring! This detail sometimes isn’t picked up by younger children.

4. What’s appealing to children in other countries usually works with their peers in a non-English speaking setting.

Indeed, young learners can enjoy a story even if some of the vocabulary goes slightly over their heads. They can get the gist and glean meaning from context and gesture. For example, the song-stories of Barefoot Books always work a treat and lend themselves well to fold-up paper craft, suggested.

We All Go Travelling By is suitable for Pre- to fourth of Primary and Farmyard Jamboree goes up to Sixth.

5. Picture books can be used with older children and even adults.

A book like Zoom (I. Banyai), which actually has no text, is thought provoking in that it plays with perspective. The teacher can adjust her questioning to the language level of her learners and they in turn can hypothesise about the strange images.

To find out about more titles that have been tried and tested with children and teens, consult Sandie Mourão's acclaimed blog, Picture Books in ELT. Sandie has been responsible for making teachers appreciate the value of this resource across the world.

Also recommended is PEPELT, another picture book project to which Sandie contributes.

Sandie has dedicated years to finding the best books, inspiring many of us to do the same. What are your favourites? Let us know! And happy hunting!

By Ana Demitroff

Bio: Ana has been in the classroom longer than she cares to admit, but she still gets a kick from the experience and continues to learn from her colleagues and students at the You First Language Centre.

And Fran Seftel

Bio: Fran has many years of experience at all levels and is fascinated by teaching kindergarten and primary school children through a holistic approach which integrates English into a range of interconnected areas, like Social and Natural Science, Maths, Art, Music, Drama, PE and play routines.