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Books Teachers Love

One thing we know is that teachers love picture books. They use them to explain difficult ideas, introduce information, add depth to nonfiction studies, and simply entertain students. Teachers especially love when a book can be used as a model for writing or when it suggests writing assignments that fit in with curriculum. I know that some of my favorite second-grade writing assignments were inspired by picture books, and I am always on the lookout.

Two books getting a lot of support from our readership will be embraced by teachers, even if the committee does not recognize them.

Day the Crayons Quit, TheFirst, The Day the Crayons Quit is getting all sorts of love from teachers. It’s got cute crayons and letters. Teachers love letters. We have to teach letter-writing skills every damn year and are always happy to find a book that models letter-writing but still shows a sense of humor. You have probably seen this one: the crayons rage against the unfairness of their pointy little lives — Duncan colors outside the lines, only uses purple for wizard hats, overuses gray for elephants, etc. (If you want to see an online discussion jump the shark, look here for a many-month discussion of this book.)

As a book for the classroom, this is one teachers love. I have seen one third-grade class adapt it as a dandy play. The crayons are arguing their respective cases, and we teachers love a good persuasive essay, so I know that students of all age levels will enjoy reading this book for inspiration. I can definitely imagine a debate team debating the virtues of yellow and orange as sun colors.

Though Oliver Jeffers’s style is perfect for this story, and the illustrations definitely extend Drew Daywalt’s text, I am not seeing this as a Caldecott contender — and not because of the concerns brought up in the argument at Elizabeth Bird’s blog. (Well, actually, I  do agree that the lack of a brown crayon is a strange omission because the crayon sets in my classroom all have brown, even the box of 8.) No, the reason I don’t think it’s a Caldecott contender is that I see this as an illustrated book and not a picture book. There is not much of an arc to the story and, frankly, for all the kvetching by the crayons about wanting to be creative, I was surprised over and over again by their insistence that Duncan color inside the lines. They were, except green, a tad whiny.

Matchbox DiaryA second book, The Matchbox Diary, is quietly being touted by a number of teachers and librarians as a Caldecott contender. This one has more of a chance, at least in my eyes. Illustrator Bagram Ibatoulline teams up with Newbery winner Paul Fleischman in this European immigration story told through the story of everyday objects. I must confess that I had a typical teacher’s reaction to this book when I first saw it — I just could not wait to read it and have my kids tell their own stories through one object. I love little boxes and was pretty excited to see that my local grocery carried matches in teeny boxes. I read the book to my mesmerized students around the time of our Grandparents’ Day. After discussion about the book, I posed the question, “Do you have something that could fit in a little box that would tell something important about you?” They could hardly wait to get started.

I sent each child home with a matchbox and waited to see what they would come up with. They told their stories aloud, recorded them on their tablets, and then wrote up their stories. I was able to tape each little box to the story and hang them in the hallway at a height that kids walking by could read. It was fun watching other children find the treasures and read the stories. It was one of the best writing projects my students wrote all year. (I wrote about my dog tags, one boy drew a picture of a music note and wrote about his love of music, another wrote about losing her first tooth. We also had tiny beads, broken necklaces, bit of an “invention,” and a Lego.)

It’s easy to see curricular connections here: personal narratives, immigration, history. High school teachers will be able to read this book aloud and make connections just as easily as I can in second grade.

But, will the committee find it distinguished? The illustrations are as detailed as photographs, with delicious sepia tones showing long-ago times. I love the tiny items — a macaroni, a bottle cap, a folded picture, an olive pit — and love how they are drawn with such detail and love. Current times are depicted in rich colors, especially the rich red of the great-grandfather’s vest matching his great-granddaughter’s sweater.

The more I look at this, the more I love it. It might not get a nod from the committee (or maybe it WILL get a nod), but I hope a lot of teachers embrace this one.

What other new picture books will teachers embrace? And what do you think of these two picture books’ chances?

Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.



  1. I hope teachers are out there using Joan Holub’s LITTLE RED WRITING, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (whom I know you’ve already covered this year in another post). Would be so fun when teaching writing in the elementary grades.

  2. Smacking my head!
    You are right, Jules–I have already shared this with the fourth grade team and then use it in writing workshop–especially the part about staying on the path of the story!
    Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Deborah Taylor says:

    Wonderful article. One I’ll be sharing with the teachers in our partnership schools.

  4. LITTLE RED WRITING was also the first one that came to mind for me – so many opportunities and examples packed in there. One of the schools in my district highlights a different “character trait” each month to encourage their students to model good character. I sent their librarian a list of my favorite picture book biographies this year, including THE BOY WHO LOVED MATH, ON A BEAM OF LIGHT, or WHEN STRAVINSKY MET NAJINSKY.

  5. Very interesting. Thank you. I love both books. I have only read Crayons to my library classes so can’t comment on Matchbox. One of our third grade teachers still thanks me every time she sees me for introducing her to Crayons. The students LOVED it, laughing out loud and wanting to discuss each color and its gripes and/or joys. Matchbox is a beautiful book. My son loved it, I loved it. I don’t know where I’m going with this, so I’ll end by saying I can’t tell just where these books stand in Caldecott terms, but I do think Elizabeth Bird’s article is over the top (except for the missing brown).

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