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Using picture books to teach adolescents about genre

I teach a course every spring about methods in teaching writing, and one topic we learn about is teaching genre. Adolescents need a fairly broad understanding of a variety of genres, both reading and writing them, though often English classrooms focus heavily on reading novels and writing analytical essays.

So every year, I make the case we should do genre studies of a few key genres, and one I love to focus on is biography and autobiography. But, doing a genre study involves immersing in the focal genre and seeing how a variety of authors tackle the writing of stories of lives. And by far, the most common complaint I get is that the curriculum does not have enough time and space to explore a genre thoroughly. Teachers often  feel as though it would just take too much time for students to read several full length biographies.

My usual response to this is to consider how shorter texts might similarly expose students to the traditions of a genre. Shorter texts can help students begin to get the feel for a genre without such extended time commitment. So one of my favorite ways to immerse in biographies is to read a few picture books. Picture book biographies contain the same structural components as their adult counterparts: tables of contents, chronological presentation of events, visual supports to illustrate narrative, indexes of research resources, and the list goes on and on.

what to do about alice     Separate Is Never Equal

Books like What to Do About Alice? about Alice Roosevelt or Separate is Never Equal about Sylvia Mendez (full titles below) are wonderful stories, that can help students understand how authors manipulate the biography genre in creative ways. My students can explore a large number of these biographies because they are not each hundreds of pages long. Given the incredible quality and range of picture book biographies out there, my students often discover not only how the genre works, but they also discover a wide range of interesting people. And we have lots of fun doing it!

What To Do About Alice? How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy! by Barbara Kerley, illus. Edwin Fotheringham (Scholastic, 2008)

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh (Abrams, 2014)


Christina Dobbs About Christina Dobbs

Christina Dobbs is an assistant professor of English Education at Boston University. She is a former high school teacher, literacy coach, and reading specialist, and she studied adolescent literacy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.



  1. ‘The Little Refugee’ is a great autobiographical picture book by Ahn Do ????

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