A reader asked me for a list of picture books appropriate for 4th and 5th grade. I wasn’t sure myself. Sure, there are advanced picture books but does the list have to hit the Core Curriculum agenda? Don’t 4th and 5th graders want to read solely chapter books, having left picture books behind in 1st or 2nd grade?
So I searched the internet. I found teachers in 4th and 5th grade sharing their favorite picture books and this gave me the courage to add to their list with my own. I do think picture books are for everyone. And my final observation is how my middle school-aged daughters will sidle into my bedroom when I’m reading a picture book to my 3rd grader (who only will read picture books when I force him to or when he’s left his chapter book at school mistakenly) and everyone will enjoy the story. Even if you have to use stealth to get picture books in front of older kids, it’s well worth it!
My list is a little heavy on Patricia Polacco and Jacqueline Woodson, but they are birds of a feather. Each shares their personal stories that resonate to include all of us. Eve Bunting has the gift of telling other people’s stories with great sensitivity as if they were her own history. Emily Arnold McCully tells stories that quietly inspire.
What is your favorite picture books for 5th Grade or 4th grade? Please share and I’ll add to the list!
Holocaust Picture Books for Kids
The Cats of Krasinski Square by Karen Hesse
Can cats outsmart the Gestapo? In Warsaw during WWII, the Gestapo have forced all Jewish men, women, and children into a ghetto where they are being ravished through disease and starvation. Those who can escape and pass for Aryan must use their ingenuity to find a way to bring food to their friends. The cats of Krasinski Square can help outfox the Gestapo. In this story of courage amid horrific inhumanity, Hesse celebrates the Jewish Resistance and the cats who helped as well.
The Yellow Star: The Legend of King Christian X of Denmark by Carmen Agra Deedy
If you want to learn more about the Danish king who saved his people from the death camps, this picture book is the perfect (gentle) place to start.
Picture Books That Teach Empathy for Classmates
The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco
When Patricia decides to spend the school year with her father in Michigan, she hopes that now that she’s overcome her dyslexia that she will no longer be labeled as “dumb.” But when she starts her new school, she finds she’s in a special needs class labeled as “The Junkyard.” Her remarkable teacher Mrs. Peterson inspires them to reach for the moon.
And they do … through a class project turning junkyard parts into something else and by reaching the fullest potential. In this true story, Patricia actually reaches the moon by way of a treasured photograph sent to the moon via Apollo 11 because it turns out that each child in that Junkyard classroom was very special indeed!
Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco
When my oldest was in 5th grade, her teacher read them Thank You, Mr. Falker. I was surprised that her teacher read picture books to them but delighted as well that picture books have a place in all classrooms! Now, I notice them in my kids’ middle school classrooms too. It was even more remarkable to me that many of her friends told me that Thank You, Mr. Falker was their favorite picture book and I could tell that it moved them to be a kinder person.
Patricia Polacco, in her autobiographical picture book, has dyslexia and she can’t read until her remarkable teacher 5th grade teacher Mr. Falker finds a way to teach her. Polacco has many wonderful picture books that draw on her own life celebrating teachers and educators.
We also like The Art of Miss Chew — a high school art teacher that helps her become an artist — and Mr. Lincoln’s Way — her principal who finds a way to connect and reform a school bully.
Picture Books to Understand What Others Are Going Through
… An Absent Parent
Visiting Day by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by James E. Ransome
On visiting day, a little girl and her grandmother get up early to prepare for a long bus ride to visit her father in jail. It’s a bittersweet visit. As wonderful it is to see her daddy, she starts to miss him as soon as the day is over.
It’s interesting to note in the author’s note that Jacqueline Woodson remembers visiting her uncle in jail and communicates both the warm memories and the sadness. But she had no idea that illustrator James E. Ransome also had a brother who was incarcerated as well — a well-kept family secret. He says, “They say that the right stories often find you, and this is an example of how one story found me.”
Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me by Daniel Beaty, illustrated by Bryan Collier
When parents are in jail, the children suffer the most. In Knock Knock, Daniel Beaty is still working through the trauma he suffered as a result of his father’s imprisonment. They had always played a wake-up game of Knock Knock and now that his father is gone, he feels lost.
He asks, “Papa come home, ’cause there are things I don’t know and when I get older I thought you could teach me how to dribble a ball, how to shave … how to drive, how to fix the car.”
And his father answers him in a letter:
“Dribble the page with the brilliance of your ballpoint pen…
Knock Knock down the doors that I could not,
Knock Knock to open new doors to your dreams.
Knock Knock for me, for as long as you become your best, the best of me still lives in you.”
Daniel Beaty says that “as an educator of small children, I discovered how many of my students were also dealing with the loss of a father from incarceration, divorce or sometimes even death. This experience prompted me to tell the story of this loss from a child’s perspective and also to offer hope that every fatherless child can still create the most beautiful life possible.”
Our Gracie Aunt by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Jon Muth
Because their mother disappears for days on end, Johnson and his sister are taken by Miss Roy, a social worker, to live with their Gracie Aunt. She’s their mother’s sister but they don’t know her because their mother and aunt had a falling out a long time ago.
Living with Gracie Aunt is so different than their life at home. They get tucked into bed here and there’s always something to eat at her house (this part breaks my heart.) When they finally see their mother (who appears to be in rehab), they return home to their Grace Aunt and realize, finally, that she’s family too.
Coming on Home Soon by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E. B. Lewis
The year is unclear but the men are fighting the war, so Ada Ruth’s mom sets off for Chicago to find work because they are hiring colored women there. Mama is gone a long time and life is tough at home with not much food to speak of, just “cornbread and clabber* milk for morning meal and supper.” A lost kitten shows up and Grandma warns that they can’t feed another mouth. Day after day, Ada Ruth waits to hear from her mama. Finally, after a day hunting for possum and rabbit with Grandma, the postman shows up. And they learn mama is coming home soon.
Tell Ada Ruth I’ll be coming home soon — like a song you want to sing over and over.
It’s the same for books by Jacqueline Woodson!
*Clabber is a food produced by allowing unpasteurized milk to turn sour at a specific humidity and temperature. Over time, the milk thickens or curdles into a yogurt-like substance with a strong, sour flavor. In rural areas of the Southern United States, it was commonly eaten for breakfast with brown sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, or molasses added.
… A Blended Family
Oh, Brother! by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Mike Benny
Xavier’s new stepbrother acts so perfect and now it seems like he’s trying to steal Mami by making him look bad in comparison. As the layers of the onion are peeled away, Xavier learns why Chris tries so hard and this opens his heart to let Chris in. Told in a series of twenty rhyming poems, this is a poetry book that will appeal to all children, even those who don’t think they like it.
Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting
My dad and I live in an airport. That’s because we don’t have a home and the airport is better than the streets. We are careful not to get caught.
So begins Fly Away Home which tells the story of Andrew and his dad with detailed honesty of what life is like to be homeless and living in an airport. Eve Bunting is always careful to leave a window of hope open in all of her books. Andrew spots a bird stuck in the airport and wills it to escape.
When Andrew gets upset about not having a home, he remembers the bird.
It took a while, but a door opened. And when the bird left, when it flew free, I know it was singing.
… An Immigrant’s Journey
Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say
Maybe it’s because Allen Say’s immigration journey mimics my own that I find his gorgeous watercolor picture books so compelling. Like Say, I am also half Japanese and half Chinese. His grandfather was an intrepid fellow who traversed borders with an open and curious eye. His life spanned from Shogunate Japan to WWII and Allen picks up where his grandfather left off; traveling back and forth from California to Japan.
Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Hudson Talbott
I was blown away by Show Way, Woodson’s family history that also tells the story of the African American experience from slavery, to the Civil Rights Movement, to current times with quilting as a running theme connecting the generations of her family. A quilt was, at one point, a map to lead slaves to freedom. It evolved into a memory keeper, a talisman against racism, and a visual poem. As the generations progressed, Jacqueline’s could focus on telling stories using words. And that is just what she does so well. Just like her ancestors. This wonderful picture book won a Newbery Honor Medal.
To Be a Drum by Evelyn Coleman, illustrated by Aminah Brendy Lynn Robinson
The drumbeat lives inside the African people as some are stolen from their homelands and brought to America as slaves. From there, they never lost their beat as they fought in wars both at home and abroad including the one for Civil Rights. The drum beats on and today it helps create musicians, artists, scientists, teachers, leaders, and entrepreneurs. Daddy Wes explains the beat of the earth to his kids, Matt and Martha. As they listen closely, they can hear it too.
Picture Books About the Civil Rights Movement
The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrations by E. B. Lewis
The fence that separates Clover’s town into a white section and a black section actually runs through her backyard. On her side, Clover plays with a bunch of her friends. On the other side of the fence, a little white girl plays alone. She asks if she can join, but Clover’s friend Sandra says no.
One day, after a lot of watching the girl, Clover leans in close to the fence to talk to her. Her name’s Annie and a friendship is born. They can’t cross the fence but the fence itself is no man’s land and made for sitting on.
That summer me and Annie sat on the fence and watched the whole wide world around us…
“Someday somebody’s going to knock that old fence down,” Annie says.
And I nodded. “Yeah,” I said. “Someday.”
White Socks Only by Evelyn Coleman, illustrated by Tyrone Geter
This picture book makes you realize how prejudice is a learned thing and something that we don’t need to pass on to our children.
In the segregated south, a young girl thinks that she can drink from a fountain marked “Whites Only” because she is wearing her white socks.
Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue
I’d pair this picture book with Lions of Little Rock or Glory Be. Glory Be also has the town pool and Freedom Fighters as the focal point around desegregation so it’s an interesting parallel with Freedom Summer. Here a friendship between a white boy and a black boy bring to focus the racial tensions in the Deep South during the Civil Rights Movement.
John Henry is Joe’s friend and his mother works for Joe’s parents as their housekeeper. Joe realizes the boundaries created by the Jim Crow laws; John Henry can’t get an ice pop with him at the general store. He’s excited when new laws are passed and he wants to show the town pool to John Henry but when they arrive, they find workers filling the pool with asphalt. The town would rather have no pool than share it with blacks.
It hits Joe like a ton of bricks (or asphalt) what his town looks like to John Henry. The movie theater, the Dairy Dip and the General Store were all off limits to John Henry. With great resolve, Joe does his part to effect change and together they step into Mr. Mason’s store so John Henry can pick out his ice pop for the very first time.
Biography Picture Books to Inspire Girls
I love books that subliminally teach girls that they can be anything they want to be. Even if your girls have no interest in leading workers to unionize or become an inventor, books like these help girls realize that, yes, girls can do that too.
Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor by Emily Arnold McCully
Margaret Knight is the most famous 19th-century woman inventor. She invented the machine that makes the square-bottom paper bags we still use today.
The Bobbin Girl by Emily Arnold McCully
We live near Lowell, MA, a birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution. 10-year-old bobbin girl Rebecca Putney works in a cotton mill to help support her family. The conditions are poor and there is a threat of a wage cut. Dare she protest the pay decrease? If she does, she will surely lose her job. In the author’s note, McCully suggests that this is a perfect classroom companion to Katherine Paterson’s Lyddie. I’d also pair it with Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909.
Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
This is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Nonfiction Picture Books of Unlikely Friendships
Owen & Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship by Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff, and Paula Kahumbu
Baby hippopotamus Owen is the lone survivor of his pod after they are washed out to sea from the 2005 Tsunami in Kenya. Rescued and put into a wild animal sanctuary, the orphan hippo befriends a the 130-year-old giant tortoise. This is remarkable because tortoises are notorious loners. Their friendship rocks the world and makes them international celebrities.
A Lion Called Christian: The True Story of the Remarkable Bond Between Two Friends and a Lion by Anthony Bourke
Christian the Lion is the true story of a lion cub, purchased from Harrods, bonds with his human parents and eventually is taught to return to the wild. He never forgets his humans though, and this story is about Christian the Lion’s enduring connection between man and beast.
p.s. A few more lists:
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