It was a crisp day in Niwot. The wind blew papery leaves along the ground as attendees gathered inside the warmth of The Wandering Jellyfish Bookshop. They sat on chairs and velvety purple couches arranged to face the panel of award-winning picture book authors Beth Anderson, Andrea Wang, and Dow Phumiruk, there to talk about the power of picture books as an invaluable educational tool. The panel was the brainchild of Beth Anderson, a retired educator and non-fiction picture book author with seven books under her belt, including her most recent picture book releasing on November 15th, 2022, Cloaked in Courage: Uncovering Deborah Sampson, Patriot Soldier. Pre-order a signed copy today!
After some brief introductions (none of these authors needed much introduction), author Andrea Wang began by speaking on how teachers and parents can use picture books to promote social-emotional learning.
“I think we all know that picture books inspire and model empathy for kids,” said Wang as she spoke about how the universality of some of the topics explored in her books helps children relate and empathize with others.
“My books are all about Asians and Asian Americans…crossing cultures is a part of the experience of reading these books . . . I’m hopeful that they aren’t just mirrors but that they are sliding glass doors for readers to walk through and experience what these characters–who might be very different from them–are experiencing.”
Wang used her most recent picture book, Luli and the Language of Tea, as an example. “Through reading Luli and the Language of Tea, I think readers can see how to build those connections and how to build those bridges across cultures and across languages. Using social-emotional learning books promotes a culture of acceptance and admiration.”
Beth Anderson took up the topic by referencing her picture book, Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle. “Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle is really Tad’s Social and Emotional Learning because he is a child who had learning differences . . . for teachers, this [book] actually models the I do, we do, you do, progression of a lesson where you show it, you do it together, and a child does it themselves.”
She used one of her other picture books, Lizzie Demands a Seat, as an example of how picture books can tackle challenging subjects in a safe but relatable way. “Lizzie Demands a Seat is about social justice . . . it’s a very difficult topic to talk about with kids . . . racism, bullying, and inequality, but one of the things I love about history is that when you have something that has that huge distance, and you can discuss it. It’s not personal to the child in this time and place . . . but it’s accessible, and it also helps kids understand where we were and where we’re going.”
Author-Illustrator Dow Phumiruk added that her main SEL book, Husby, teaches children by example. “Hugsby’s owner is so insecure about her pet who doesn’t have any fancy tricks, but [Hugsby] teaches her, by being the best pet for her, that it’s okay to not have everything everybody else does. Definitely an important topic in picture books.”
The authors moved on to using picture books as an academic tool. “The reason I write what I write is because of my experience in the classroom . . . I [write about] people who see possibility because I want kids to see possibility in their lives,” said Anderson.
Anderson referenced her newest picture book, Cloaked in Courage, “. . . it goes to deeper levels . . . a lot of these books that are basically biographies . . . they’re great for any age kids because they don’t talk down to them… it’s not a little kid’s story even though it is a picture book.”
She gave examples of how Language Arts teachers can utilize picture books in their classrooms. She suggested using picture books in class to teach story elements such as characterization, setting, plot, and theme. Anderson flipped to the back of the book and held it up for attendees to show off the abundant back matter, which can be used in classrooms for additional activities and lessons on how to conduct research by finding and using primary and secondary sources, as well as researching settings.
“Back matter isn’t just for non-fiction books," added Wang. "Luli’s totally fictional, but the back matter has maps of all of the countries . . . I also include at the top of every continent the number of immigrants from that continent living in the united states, so I’m hoping to add to the social studies curriculum . . . there are lots of layers you can add to the back matter that support social studies curriculums and other curriculums as well.”
Anderson suggested teachers consider using picture books to teach sentence structure. “One of the things I loved as a teacher was mentor sentences. They are a miraculous tool in a classroom. You can take one sentence in a book that is particularly interesting . . . take that sentence and pull out some of those words that are particular to the story and have kids build their own [sentence] using that frame.”
Continuing on the theme of using picture books as educational tools, Phumiruk added, “My take on the academic issue is that we can talk about anything in picture books . . . and the breadth of the topics has changed so much recently in that we can talk about serious things too . . . in my book, An Equal Shot, it talks about Title IX, and this is a really accessible way for a child to read about something that sounds kind of boring . . . I think that adding art to it and making it a little fantastical in places is a way to get their attention.”
Wang pointed out the usefulness of picture books in teaching about different languages. “Luli also shows different language scripts, which I think can be helpful. You see the Hindi. You see the Farsi. The Arabic, There’s Russian and Turkish. Just to have that conversation in the classroom about how not everything is the Roman alphabet and widen their view of the world . . . we have all of these other language systems and they’re all equally valid.”
Phumiruk then talked about picture book art and how it can add layers to the text. “. . . the art makes it dynamic,” she said about the picture book she most recently illustrated, A Life of Service: The Story of Senator Tammy Duckworth. “I like to add details that are not in the text,” she held up a spread showing a young Tammy Duckworth sitting on a roof with her dad. “Tammy really looked up to her dad. [In the illustration] Her shadow is looking at the dad’s shadow instead of facing forward like they’re sitting.” She added that images are an adjunct to the reading. Children can learn new words by connecting the text with pictures.
And touching on the topic of trauma and traumatic events in picture books, she said, “I always try to make my work age appropriate…I can show the kids what [Tammy Duckworth] had to go through, all the hardships she faced to recover, so they can see her strength and how she fought and got stronger from all of it. We focus on the recovery so that kids can see that you can fall down, but you can get back up again.”
A retired pediatrician, Phumiruk spoke about the role of picture books in a child’s developmental process. “The way I look at developmental milestones,” she held up three fingers. “Walkin, talkin, and interacting. This is what I teach my medical students too." Phumiruk described the three main developmental milestones and how those milestones can be encouraged and achieved using books. A child can develop their fine motor skills by learning to turn the pages, or cognitive learning skills by using a book interactively. "You can hold a book and say, what do you think is gonna happen next? It gets their critical thinking skills going . . . they learn to pay attention, and they learn to have patience, and they learn to listen.”
So much more was discussed during the panel, but throughout the discussion, one thing was clear: These authors are passionate about what they do and what they put out into the world. They genuinely believe that books are a safe space for children to learn and experience situations and ideas which may be harder for them to learn and experience in real life, especially if they haven’t been exposed to some aspect of it in a book first.
We at The Wandering Jellyfish Bookshop want to thank these tremendous authors for their time, for sharing their passion and expertise with us, and with all the children and families who are fortunate enough to discover their books or stumble upon this blog post. To learn more about these authors and their work or to find out about their other events and speaking engagements, you can visit their websites below: