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Two picture books

arrival       sis_tree of life

The Arrival by Shaun Tan (Scholastic, 2007)
The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin by Peter Sís (Farrar, 2003)

Illustrated books can be easily overlooked for and by adolescents, who may see picture books as the domain of small children only. Sophisticated titles such as Shaun Tan’s The Arrival or elaborate, finely detailed works from Peter Sís offer rich rewards for older readers. (Sís’s The Wall elucidated Soviet censorship of art for my 10th graders while reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.)

How might you use these books in the middle or high school classroom? Would those students be amenable/open to illustrated books? What do pictures offer that text alone does not?


Lauren Adams About Lauren Adams

Lauren Adams teaches English and ELL at Natick High School and adolescent literature at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Formerly a Senior Editor for The Horn Book Magazine, she regularly contributes book reviews.



  1. Nicole Shelpman says:

    I think that The Arrival could be very interesting to use in a classroom because so much of the story is left up to the reader’s interpretation. This element of the book might make some readers a bit resistant at first, but I think that having very explicit instructions about how to read this book would help reduce any resistance. In any story, readers’ interpretations may differ, but a book without words and without any indication of an exact location or time period really allows readers to bring their personal experiences into their reading. I might ask students to respond to the text through a creative writing prompt – possibly putting a scene into words or writing a letter from one of the character’s perspectives. Having students’ compare their responses could lead to a fascinating discussion about how different people interpret stories differently and would require students to look back at the pictures in the story to support their interpretations, which would be good practice for close-reading skills (except with images).

    I enjoyed reading The Tree of Life, but I didn’t realize how much I learned from it until shortly after when I started reading a biography about Charles Darwin for my bibliography. Many of the events, names, and relationships in the biography were already very familiar to me even though I had read through The Tree of Life rather quickly. For this reason, I think that a picture book like the Tree of Life could be an excellent way to help students become familiar with a person, time period, or event before diving into a longer text. For reluctant readers or students who are just not as interested in their English classes, it is helpful to include texts in a variety of formats. When reading The Tree of Life, I felt that I was exploring Darwin’s life rather than reading facts, and I think that the novelty of reading an illustrated book, especially in high school when students are not necessarily expecting a book like that, can improve students’ engagement.

  2. Liz Goodenough says:

    Illustrated books offer readers a different experience and alternate ways to explore content than traditional books. Through illustrations, authors can convey feelings, plot, setting, and background content in vastly different ways than traditional prose. Picture books offer readers access to the world of a story in a different ways than just words can. I think picture books could be used either as supplemental texts (or reading Meredith and Nicole’s conversation about graphic novels) core texts in a middle or high school classrooms. For example, if a social studies class is learning about the immigrant experience in a book like The Arrival could either be used to supplement primary sources or other readings, or a teacher could use the arrival to anchor instruction. Through illustrations, The Arrival allows readers to empathize with characters and experience the life of an immigrant in different and perhaps more accessible ways than traditional texts might allow.

    In secondary classrooms, picture books allow readers to discuss the author’s intentions, references, stylistic choices in much more advanced ways than elementary students could. To invest students in picture books as well as to help them navigate through their experience reading, giving the rationale and preparing students to make connections to course content and other pieces of literature are necessary. Without context, The Arrival or The Tree of Life might seem silly or out of place. To make texts like these part of student learning, kids must be prepared to analyze the content and style while reading and make connections between the book and course content.

  3. Nicole Eslinger says:

    As Liz mentioned, picture books allow readers to access material in a different way. Especially for students who are less interested in reading, I think that these books would be a great way to draw those adolescents into a text.

    Although I have never been a teacher, I would imagine that students might be resistant to these books initially. As I read through The Arrival, I was at first quite confused as to what it was about. The author does a really wonderful job of conveying the immigrant experience through use of fantasy-type illustrations. However, I think that middle school students especially might find this experience frustrating. I feel that for adolescents to be invested in a book such as this one, it would be really important to include context for them. Perhaps to allow them the experience of interpreting for themselves, it may be useful to read the book in parts and hold discussions after each. If they work together to figure out what is going on, the experience may seem less frustrating and more engaging.

  4. Emma Roose says:

    I think that as teachers we need to be cognizant of the fact that there are so many different learning styles in the classroom, and unfortunately we often put too much emphasis or praise on one kind and disregard or look down upon others. For example, and English or a History class might be downright awful for a kid who doesn’t process information easily through reading and this might discourage the student from enjoying any kind of literature all together. I think these graphic novels are a really great way to garner interest in reading and self-confidence from students who consider themselves visual learners (or any other kind of non-verbal learner). Even if the illustrations are accompanied by words, such as in the case of The Tree of Life and Yummy, the pictures on the page act as a supplemental reference for better understanding the text, which, again, could build up the confidence of the student as a reader.

    Additionally, the three books this week show that graphic novels can be a legitimate form of literature and have interesting and academic topics. Students can actually learn from these books because they are not just mere forms of entertainment as many may think. The more we recognize the power of art and visualization in learning, the more we can EMpower the students whose interests and talents lie within that realm and show them that they a rightful place in humanities classrooms.

  5. Sophie Barnes says:

    I agree with Nicole that The Arrival allows for a degree of individual interpretation that would allow students to craft their own meaning and personally relate to the story. Conversely, a class could discuss and construct meaning as a class. The book is open-ended and universal, but also focused on a specific theme, allowing it to serve as both a window and mirror in classrooms. It is a welcome combination of history, the universal theme of belonging, and open-ended spaces for readers to fill in their own experiences and histories. The pictures take the reader on an engaging, exciting, and powerful visual journey.

    Using The Arrival in a classroom could also help students alter and expand their perceptions of books, and may especially appeal to a different audience in the classroom. The Arrival provides a new and needed way to discuss immigration that could bring discussions in the classroom to life. I agree with many of the above posts that when discussing this book, context is important, but also think that this book could be relevant across many contexts. I absorbed the material in a different, fun way and The Arrival could be a unique but successful way to diversify a curriculum and provide a break from text-dense novels. I enjoyed The Arrival and think it would be a great addition to many classrooms.

  6. Kara Brennan says:

    Speaking as a non-teacher, I think that using picture books in the classroom is a fantastic way to get kids interested in reading who might struggle with traditional text, or who like storytelling but are not strong writers. I know one child in particular who struggles with dyslexia, and graphic novels opened up a whole new world to him because they took away the stress of having to read black and white text left to right. And similarly to watching a movie or seeing a play, picture books and graphic novels can allow kids to experience storytelling in a different way. The Arrival, for example, would be an amazing addition to a unit on immigration that would be a great gateway to discussion, since kids would probably bring their own families’ background stories to it. It’s also a great way to learn to appreciate the power of art, and how it can be used to tell a story without writing a single word.

  7. Rachel Lacks says:

    I really enjoyed the wordless format of The Arrival. I am not sure if I would have appreciated this presentation of literature as much as an adolescent, but perhaps would have been better able to interpret and understand this stylistic choice if it were taught in an English class and facilitated by the teacher. Reading it at this age, however, I found this to be an appropriate and interesting medium through which to convey the story of immigration. Normally, when we read a book with text, it is left up to us as readers to paint the imagery and imagine the characters and the setting in our own ways, based off of the descriptions the author provides us with. In The Arrival, however, the reverse was true in the sense that the author provided us with the actual images, and it was our job to fill in the story lines based off of the plot lines that were provided to us visually. I found immigration to be an interesting and fitting topic for this presentation because of the basic concepts inherent in immigration: some feelings of sense of belonging, fear, doubt, and adjustment seem to be common threads to all immigrants’ tales. The actual specific details of the stories, however, are what differentiates every immigrants’ story (location, time period, reasons for leaving, experiences in the homeland and in the new area). I therefore found myself filling in multiple different possibilities of stories when I interpreted the images in The Arrival, to account for the wide range of experiences that are possible in the typical immigrant story. I therefore greatly appreciated the way this book forced me to actively think, as opposed to letting me just passively accept a specific story that was being presented to me.

  8. The formatting on some pages of The Tree of Life was interesting and I think it could be fun for younger readers. Other pages seemed somewhat disjointed and confusing, like the two-page spread with the text curving around the illustrations. I sort of see how that could be more fun for a young reader, but I could also see children without as much reading facility being put off by it. And some of the pages seem really busy, with information presented in small text, like the diary pages. Overall I think it’s done well, but there are some design choices that I don’t really like.

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