Adorable picture books to make children think deeply about author’s message — and themselves — a great combo

As a teacher of gifted children, I loved using picture books to teach my students to think about authors’ messages and about what, in addition to the cute story, the book makes them wonder. Really good picture books have important messages to share, and this collection is perfect for making students think. What do the characters learn over the course of the story? What do we learn? And in some instances, what do we know that the main character doesn’t?

Just opening the cover of “The Bruce Swap” and viewing the endpapers gives readers an opportunity to meet Bruce. If they haven’t already, Bruce’s attitude is clear to see. He’s putting up signs that all begin with the word “no” and end with words like “bird watching,” “swimming,” “talking,” and even “playing.” Everyone can see that Bruce is no fun. And when a letter arrives at the house Bruce shares with assorted other creatures who have become his family, we see that his address is 13 Go Away Lane. My grandson thought that was pretty funny. But he thought that the gosling eating the letter was even more humorous. Of course, we got to see the contents of the letter, but no one else does. We know that Bruce’s super fun cousin Kevin is coming for a visit. But no one else does. The mice wish Bruce was more fun. But when Bruce goes fishing for a day and leaves a note, things get interesting. No one sees Bruce’s note either, telling everyone he’ll be gone for the day. Goslings really like eating notes and letters. And Bruce’s cousin Kevin arrives, but everyone thinks it’s Bruce because they look alike. But this is a FUN Bruce. So, the important question becomes how much fun is too much fun? And what is a doppelgänger? Or, as one of the mice puts it, a “dingle pooper”? On the surface, the action and the dialogue are side-splittingly funny. Higgins’ sense of humor is unbeatable. But the message is also important, and once the laughter dies down, have a real discussion about this. People who never have fun. People who only want to have fun. Which would YOU want to live with? (Disney-Hyperion)

“Is Was” by celebrated author Deborah Freedman is a study in nature and color. The yellow bird from “Shy” is featured in this beautiful art-filled book, and the simple, spare prose makes the reader figure out the story. The sky is the same sky that was blue but is now a double page spread of blues and purple rain. And then the next page is the after, with a chipmunk and the yellow bird sipping at the puddles left from the rain that was there. Other creatures make appearances: a fox, a bumblebee, a hungry hawk, and a girl on a swing. Reminiscent of “Carl and the Meaning of Life,” she writes, “But listen…the Earth’s heart beats…” And soon the day that changed from rain to sun to evening is over. The colors and the illustrations are stunning. This is a book to read to students during a quiet time, a time for reflection, a time for thinking about our connection with nature. There’s not a lot of text because we fill in much of the meaning. I’d love to hear the discussions about what is and what was and how was changes to is. It would also be a great writing activity for children to write their own “Is Was” book. (Atheneum Books for Young Readers)

“Norman Didn’t Do It!” but as we know from the cover, he really did. And thus begins Ryan Higgins’ new picture book about a porcupine whose best friend is Mildred. Mildred is a tree. They are best friends and do everything together. We see Norman throwing a ball toward the tree, and Norman playing “tree” with Mildred. They read “together” and Norman is extremely happy with his best friend. So when a new young tree pops up next to Mildred, Norman is shocked, then worried, then jealous. Norman can’t take anyone or anything coming between him and Mildred. So he does something bad; something he comes to regret. And we can discuss with children what our conscience is, and how doing the wrong thing is something we often come to regret. The kids will love Norman’s story and learn a lot about friendship and doing the right thing. All with Higgins’ hilarious dialogue. Norman is sure to be a new favorite character. (Disney-Hyperion)

Clovis is literally the bull in the china shop in “Clovis Keeps His Cool” by Katelyn Aronson and illustrated by Eve Farb. We quickly learn that Clovis has a temper, but that since he took over his late grandmother’s china shop, he’s been good at controlling it. When bullies come to taunt him for taking care of a china shop, he breathes in and out and counts to ten. He is determined to not lose his cool. He tries yoga, he drinks tea, and then… finally, he loses his cool. So when they come into his shop and throw his granny’s tea cup and it breaks, he’s done with calm. Clovis sees red, and instead of grace, which Granny had advised, Clovis chooses chase. But just as he’s about to do harm, a reminder of Granny stops him. And he remembers her words, “What is broken can be replaced.” Granny’s gentle words calm Clovis down and he reaches out instead of acting out. And the results are fabulous and heartwarming. The story, the illustrations, the extra-thick, rich feeling paper, it all makes this a special book to have in the classroom or school library. It’s a book that parents and teachers will want to discuss with students to show them that acting out doesn’t work as well as reaching out. (Page Street Kids)

“Way Past Jealous” is an important book because it can open the way to a frank discussion about jealousy and how destructive it can be—and yet the fact remains that it’s kind of a universal feeling. There is a time when we’ve all felt jealous of someone else, and Hallee Adelman’s text helps us understand that we aren’t the only ones to feel that way. The illustrations by Karen Wall show the main character and how unhappy she is when acting on her jealousy causes problems with her best friend. The first person narration makes it clear how the narrator feels, and her regret at her actions stemming from her jealousy will make a great springboard for a group discussion. I can see teachers (or parents) sharing a time that they felt jealous of someone else and then asking the children to share also. It would be a wonderful time for problem-solving how the main character could have acted differently, and what her actions did result in when she tried to make things better. It’s a wonderful picture book about feelings, and social workers and school psychologists might also want this on their bookshelf. (Albert Whitman & Company)

Please note: These reviews are based on the final, hardcover books provided by the publishers for review purposes.