Some people mistakenly believe that picture books are only for little kids. But read the books on this list to older children and you will quickly see how misguided such a belief is. Picture books have complex vocabulary, diverse narratives, thought-provoking themes–all the qualities we want in any book we read aloud to children.
By “older children,” I am generally referring to children ages 8 and up; the age at which readers are starting to dive into chapter books for independent reading, but many of these books will appeal to young and old alike and all of them will still be enjoyed by adults. Happy reading!
Teachers have long known of the benefits of picture books for teaching upper elementary and middle schoolers, and parents will enjoy reading them at home. For this list I’ve chosen books in the following categories:
- Picture book biographies
- Historical fiction/cultural topics
- Emotions and self-reflection
Should you choose to support your local independent bookstore, you can also view this list curated at Bookshop.
Folktales and Fairytales
There is a reason folktales stand the test of time! Enjoy these books and for more folktales from around the world visit our folktale picture book list archive.
by Evan Turk
We were utterly captivated by this original folktale set in drought-stricken Morocco. A boy in search of water hears a storyteller recount wonderful tale about a djinn. He comes back the next day to hear the next layer of the story. Evan Turk nestles stories within stories in a captivating tale and the luxurious illustrations will enthrall your kids.
Feathered Serpent and the Five Suns
by Duncan Tonatiuh
Tonatiuh’s retelling of a Mesoamerican creation myth is surpassed only by his amazing illustrations. Four gods set out to create humans, but their attempts result in the humans turning first into mountains, then fish and finally, in frustration, the gods turn them into monkeys. The gods are discouraged and want to give up–except for Quetzalcóatl, the Feathered Serpent. Quetzalcóatl travels to the underworld and during his journey must undergo trials of strength and bravery. A mesmerizing story–and I’m guessing, as you are here on Earth, reading this, you can predict how it all turns out.
by Taghreed Najjar, illustrated by Hassan Manasra
A village in Arabia is quiet and peaceful except for one thing. A dreaded ghoul lives up in the mountains nearby. Hasan doesn’t understand why his friends and neighbors are afraid of something they have never seen so he sets out to find it. What happens is both quite funny and a tale of tolerance, self-acceptance and overcoming prejudices. A delightful read aloud.
Birrarung Wilam: A Story from Aboriginal Australia
by Aunty Joy Murphy and Andrew Kelly, illustrated by Lisa Kennedy
By best advice for reading Birrarung Wilam aloud is to “go with the flow.” This Australian Aboriginal #OwnVoices picture book uses words from the Woiwurrung language and you will most likely have no idea what they mean. However, reading the lyrical text out loud, first without any expectations, and then again after having looked up the words in the glossary, will delight you. The story is one of following a river through a lush landscape, and the illustrations are stupendous. You can read the book either as part of a science and nature lesson, or simply for the pure joy of the language.
Reynard the Fox
retold by by Renate Raecke, illustrated by Jonas Lauströer
Reynard the Fox first began appearing in stories in the late medieval period, although clever foxes have been around since Aesop’s Fables. This beautifully illustrated edition includes several tales of the trickster Reynard’s pranks and adventures. The story begins with the lion king assembling the other animals at court to hear their grievances against Reynard. Reynard then comes to his own defense but manages to get the best of the animals once again and we cannot help but secretly grin at his mischievous ways.
After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again
by Dan Santat
Nursery rhymes are not just for the very young! We all know the classic nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty and it’s not exactly a story of resiliency. But what if things turned out differently? Santat puts a clever spin on the story with a fun twist that will encourage your children to think outside the box!
Picture book biographies are a fantastic way to introduce older students to real life figures about whom they may wish to learn more. A good library of biographies will include stories of diverse people across a range of historical periods and accomplishments. For more, visit our archive of picture book biography book lists.
Nacho’s Nachos: The Story Behind the World’s Favorite Snack
by Sandra Nickel, illustrated by Oliver Dominguez
In our home, we love nachos. Nachos for lunch, nachos for snacks, nachos for dinner. The only nachos we don’t like are those gross ones you get at ball parts with the plastic, shiny cheese on top. Here’s the fascinating story of how nachos were invented in the mid 20th century in a restaurant just over the border by a gentleman named–yes–Nacho.
Eliza: The Story of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton
by Margaret McNamara, illustrated by Esmé Shapiro
Perhaps your children have seen the musical, Hamilton? Kids who want to know more about Alexander’s wife, Eliza, will enjoy this picture book biography. Written as a letter from Eliza to her great-granddaughter, the text is accompanied by fantastic illustrations. Eliza describes her life from childhood through her marriage and beyond. A detailed endnote gives further background on the events mentioned in the text.
Soldier for Equality: José de la Luz Sáenz and the Great War
by Duncan Tonatiuh
José de la Luz Sáenz left his teaching job in Texas in hopes that enlisting in the United States Army would convince white Texans to treat Tejanos fairly and equally. In 1918 he served in France in the intelligence office, but was not treated equally with his fellow soldiers. Upon returning to Texas after the war, Luz saw that his service made no difference as to how he was treated and so he organized and worked as an activist with other Tejanos. Tonatiuh tells the story of a fascinating individual and introduces children to a lesser know story in the fight for civil rights. The book includes historical notes and a timeline.
More: Books about civil rights
The Book Rescuer
by Sue Macy, illustrated by Stacy Innerst
Inspired by his immigrant grandmothers love of books, Aaron Lansky pursued a study of Jewish literature. He went in search of Yiddish books and found out they were quickly disappearing. Lansky then set out to rescue as many Yiddish language books from destruction as he could. The result of his work is the Yiddish Book Center in Massachusetts, which is now home to over 1 million books. Anyone who knows the value of a good book will be inspired by this tale, as well as the stunning illustrations.
Historical Fiction/Nonfiction and Cultural Themes
We Are the Water Protectors
by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade
An Indigenous girl narrates an Anishinaabe prophecy that describes a black snake that comes to terrorize the land. The black snake, of course, is the oil pipeline that threatens the community and the life-giving natural resources of land, water, and animals. Her call to action emphasizes the importance of standing up for those that do not have a voice, protecting the vulnerable and working together as a community. Native artist, Goade’s gorgeous illustrations feature symbolism from her culture. A must-read book.
The Bell Rang
by James E. Ransome
In his author’s note, Ransome mentions that while there are picture books about runaway slaves, most leave out the experience of the enslaved family and friends who are left behind. This is not an easy book to read but it is an extremely important one. Straightforward text tells the story of repetitive, grueling days which all begin with the ring of a bell. The families in the book resist the attempts to dehumanize them, and the young female narrator relates their story. When her brother, Ben, runs away, life changes emotionally for the families. The story ends without a resolution, and we wonder if Ben’s sister will also run away. We wonder if Ben was able to escape to freedom. We can get no satisfaction from this book, but that is not its purpose. An important story.
Sugar in Milk
by Thrity Umrigar, illustrated by Khoa Le
This is a wonderful book to teach compassion and the value of diversity. A young girl is an immigrant in an unnamed country. She is homesick and feels out of place in her unfamiliar surroundings. She goes for a walk with her aunt, who tells her a folktale about refugees. The refugees came to a new land but the king refused to allow them to settle, pointing to a glass of milk as a metaphor for a land that was full. The refugees, however, placed sugar in the milk, communicating that adding something new will make the milk sweeter. I have always loved folktales and I was so delighted to find this picture book which demonstrates how important folktales are in passing down wisdom that still resonates with contemporary events.
A Bowl Full of Peace
by Caren Stelson, illustrated by Akira Kusaka
This is an incredibly moving true story that speaks to the experience of living through war and surviving the aftermath. Grandmother’s bowl sits full of food on the Yasui family table. The bowl is passed from mother to daughter, its exact origin unknown. Sachiko describes living through the war in Nagasaki, watching the contents of the bowl get smaller and smaller until the family must flee their home. Returning in the aftermath, Sachiko’s father miraculously finds the bowl, unharmed, in the piles of rubble. The family now fills the bowl to remember the lost and give thanks for peace.
by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Alexander’s tribute to Black American is a stunning poem. This moving and lyrical journey through the ways African-Americans have shaped and responded to events in history will inspire meaningful conversations with your children. A treasure trove of historical information about the figures depicted in the illustrations can be found in an extensive endnote.
by Francecsa Sanna
I really like the illustrations in this picture book about a family that flees their home after it is destroyed and the father disappears. They travel in many different modes: car, boat, on foot, etc. Yes, it is an intense book, but a necessary one. It is an excellent book for building compassion for others in quite different situations than our own. The ending is uncertain, but not without hope — a great teaching moment for your own kids.
A Page in the Wind
by José Sanabria, illustrated by María Laura Díaz Domínguez
A newspaper narrates its journey as it is caught up by the wind and its pages are blown hither and thither. Each page lands someplace different and has a unique experience. Some pages are read, others line bird cages. Still another covers a homeless person as he huddles for shelter. While reading the book my mind took me in so many directions (sort of like the newspaper). I was seeing how different people in the city lived, how the newspaper (which has a central mind, yet is able to feel and sense what each page is experiencing) ends up in both lowly and exalted situations. Thought-provoking.
What Is Given From the Heart
by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by April Harrison
A pastor announces to the congregation that they will be making “love boxes” for those in need, for “what is given from the heart reaches the heart.” At first, James Otis, a boy with very little himself, has trouble seeing what he can possibly give a family that lost everything in a fire. His mama turns their tablecloth into an apron and James Otis searches his heart and discovers there is always something you can give someone else. This is McKissack’s final picture book. Read it!
The Whispering Town
by Jennifer Elvgren, illustrated by Fabio Santomauro
Based on a true story, this testament to community is the inspiring tale of how one town Nazi-occupied Denmark saved the lives of a Jewish mother and son. Anett’s family had been hiding the pair in their cellar, but in order to get them through the town to a boat headed to Sweden, the whole town must take a risk and come together.
The Eleventh Hour
by Jacques Goldstyn
Parents, get ready to have a tissue handy, this book does not have a happy ending. Neither does war, frankly. Jim and Jules were born on the same day in the same village. They grew up together, the best of friends, despite their different personalities. When the draft hits, they march off to war together, but unfortunately, they do not return together. The narrative is straight forward, but it fits the subject matter and much of the emotional content is conveyed through the illustrations. The timing of Jim’s death was rather shocking to me, and hits home the cruelty of war.
When Spring Comes to the DMZ
by Uk-Bae Lee
This gorgeously illustrated picture book introduces readers to a unique landscape with which most western children are not familiar. Uk-Bae Lee takes readers on a journey through the seasons in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, describing the abundance of flora and fauna that inhabit the landscape. Each season a grandfather climbs to a lookout point to observe the natural phenomena. At the end of the book the final pages show a gate and the pages fold out to display a wonderful landscape waiting to be explored. At several points in the story, the author reminds us that the DMZ is also a place where soldiers train and takes note of the barbed wire surrounding the area. A really wonderful book that will inspire a lot of conversations with your kids!
by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrate by Hudson Talbott
Family history and the story-quilt making tradition begins with the narrator’s great-grandmother, born enslaved and working on a plantation. The historical narrative travels through emancipation, segregation and the civil rights era and emphasizes the strength of the women enduring the paths they walk. This historical fiction picture book would also be a great tool for children to begin their own family history project.
Not My Idea: A Book about Whiteness
by Anastasia Higginbotham
Okay, white folks, if you are really serious about teaching your kids to be anti-racist, this book is for you. It spells it out and treats kids with the respect they deserve. Kids see things, they know things and trying to hide the way power structures operate from them is insulting. If we want to foster an anti-bias attitude, we must first recognize our own biases. Higginbotham’s essential book helps kids understand the concept of privilege, how it affects them, and offers hope that they have the ability to change it.
by Jacob Kramer, illustrated by K-Fai Steele
My son loved this book and could not stop talking about it after I read it aloud to him. Elephant loves noodles and likes having his animal friends over for pasta parties! But the kangaroos, who make all the rules and thus hold all the power declare that pasta is only to be eaten by kangaroos. They declare that the other animals should eat sticks and branches instead. This simply won’t do and Elephant and his friends invent a machine that turns ordinary objects into pasta! I love the clever wordplay and the sneaky subversiveness of the non-kangaroo animals to protest the unjust law. Of course, the marvelous conclusion reaffirms that injustice and inequality must always be challenged. Highly recommended.
Emotions and Self-Reflection
The Three Questions
by Jon J. Muth
We’ve read this book out loud many times over the years. I know that as we continue to read it, we will learn to think even more deeply about the answers to the three questions (What is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?) in terms of how they apply to our own lives, and the book is a great foundation for us to reflect on the importance of doing good deeds and paying attention to the immediate moment.
by Timothée de Fombelle, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
During World War I, and with her father at the front and her mother at work, a five year old girl sits in a classroom and imagines herself on a secret mission for the war effort. Her mother reads her part of her father’s letters and they sound hopeful. But when Rosalie’s mission is successful and she is able to read the letters on her own, she discovers the truth. This book will spark conversations about the realities of war and the experiences of individuals both at home and at the front.
The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirta’s Garden
by Heather Smith, illustrated by Rachel Wada
Inspired by a true story, this touching tale is about navigating grief and the ways that others can teach us about finding solace. After a tsunami takes away his father, Makio stops speaking. He used to spend his mornings with his neighbor, Mr. Hirota, looking down at the workers on the shore. But now he watches silently as Mr. Hirota builds a telephone booth in his garden. Mr. Hirota begins to use the booth to talk to his lost daughter and soon other neighbors are using the booth to talk to their lost loved ones, too. Watching others, Makio finds the courage to speak to his father.
I Am a Thief
by Abigail Rayner, illustrated by Molly Ruttan
This fun picture book both hilarious and thought-provoking, a great choice for both older and younger kids! One day, Eliza slips a sparkly green stone from the classroom into her pocket. The stone made her do it! Now, all day long, Eliza’s thoughts dwell on her actions. She begins to ask everyone if they’ve ever stolen anything. To her surprise, many of them have. When she returns the stone to the classroom and expresses her regret, the teacher doesn’t shame her and Eliza realizes that no one is only one thing.
I Talk Like a River
by Jordan Scott, illustrated by Sydney Smith
I Talk Like a River is one of my favorite books of the year. A boy who stutters describes what it feels like to be unable to get out the words that flow through his mind and how his father has taught him that he “talks like a river.” The boy and his dad head down to the river after a bad day and the water offers comfort while his dad describes how his speech is sometimes choppy, sometimes smooth, sometimes churning, just like the river. A gorgeous, compassionate picture book not to be missed.
You Are Stardust
by Elin Kelsey, illustrated by Soyeon Kim
I have previously recommended Kelsey and Kim’s other collaborations, the gorgeous Wild Ideas and You Are Never Alone. In this, their earlier book, spectacularly detailed multi-media illustrations and lyrical text take us on a journey that reveals our connection to the natural world through the formation of atoms from ancient stardust. Older readers will enjoy the profound wisdom of the book and science-minded children will rush out to learn more about concepts behind the story.
The Fox on the Swing
by Evelina Daciutè, illustrated by Aušra Kiudulaite
Translated from the Lithuanian, this is a whimsical tale of hope, friendship and happiness. Paul and his family live in a tree in a park and one day when Paul is on his way home from the bakery he meets a fox on a swing. Thus begins a rather interesting series of encounters with the philosophizing fox who creates just the right conditions for Paul to consider the nature of happiness and friendship. I love this book for encouraging emotional intelligence because the complex nature of the dialogue really challenges kids to consider the themes touched on in the story.
by Øyvind Torseter
I simply adore super-quirky books like this strangely philosophical gem from Norwegian author, Torseter. One morning, our protagonist wakes up to discover a hole in his home. Oddly, it moves around and how the hole got there is as equally mysterious as its behavior. Readers will love the die cut hole that goes through the book and watching how Torseter brilliantly uses it in his illustrations. Don’t miss this one!