The 15 Diverse Picture Books I Plan on Reading Aloud in My Middle School Classroom to Kick Off the School Year!

Get Ready for Read Alouds!

diverse picture books

For many years,  I lived in the school of thought that my middle-school students wouldn’t want to read picture books. As with many things in teaching, we don’t know until we know. I love reading aloud to my students, and naturally, they love it to because reading aloud goes back to a time when they loved reading as young children. As I could spend a lengthy bit of time here on this post about the apparent lack of love of reading that my sixth-graders come into my classroom with every fall, I will l quote Pernille Ripp from #NerdCampMI: “My goal is to make them dislike reading less.” Reading aloud to my students starts to work on this mission. 

I am going to put into place a plan to read one picture book aloud to my students each week. This is new for this upcoming school year. The goal will have three books available in rotation, so I can let students choose what books we are reading each week. This will then become part of our weekly routine. I want to use R.J. Palacio’s 365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne's Precepts book as a guide for some weekly precepts. Read alouds will not necessarily be tied to these precepts, but I want to use it as another guide for talking about empathy. One of my reflections from the 2018-2019 school year was that I loved how I felt solid with my growth in my independent reading program and my mentor text work, but I felt like I needed to be a driving force behind building empathy and compassion through both of these works. Empathy and reading are my two goals for 2019-2020, and reading aloud helps build not only a reading community but empathy and compassion in the form of community listening.

Research Behind Read Alouds

I wanted to supply some research regarding the action of read alouds at the middle school level and beyond. In the article “New Research from Scholastic on Reading Aloud” from School Library Journal, Kara Yorio cites new research from Scholastic that states: “...While the percentage of parents reading aloud during a child’s first three months is up nearly 50 percent since 2014 and the number of 6 to 8 year olds being read to 5 to 7 days a week is up seven points since 2016, reading aloud drops dramatically after kids turn six. Parents think it is less important the older kids get and as children learn to read themselves, despite research that shows continuing to read aloud can be a key factor in literacy skill development and predicting whether kids ages 6 to 11 will be frequent readers.” The age range hit me like a ton of bricks...6 to 11. All of my students are 10-11, and they are very much in the crisis zone of not being frequent readers by the time they get to me. While I am working to build an independent reading program and add on to my mentor text work, I need to be working in weekly read alouds to reach my students as well. Think of the impact of reading aloud to students as they progress through the secondary model. The idea of reading as a way to build a sense of community doesn’t go away after elementary school; we need to still be letting children hear our cadence, tone, and inflections as we read stories to them.

We can use read alouds to access the strategies we are already doing. If we are already working on monitoring comprehension, finding importance, synthesizing, and summarizing, what better way to do these than with stories? I am working on a training for the fall where I am going to discuss teaching skills with diverse texts and then applying those skills to ANY content area. We are all really doing the same thing, but we are all not necessarily using books as access points for helping kids learn new strategies. Laura Varlas in the 2018 article “Why Every Class Needs Read Alouds” from ASCD or the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development states: “Teachers can use read alouds to create a class bond; promote a love of reading; preview information, themes, or text structures; model effective reading; show how texts connect with one another (intertextuality); or provide an exemplar for a genre of writing. The read aloud is like the Swiss Army knife of literacy; it has multiple uses at every age and in every content area.” I like this metaphor of a swiss army knife because it can attack many points on my pacing guide and build community at the same time.

Other Articles/Resources:

Reading Rockets “Reading Aloud to Build Comprehension” (2001)

Chapter Excerpt; “The Power of Reading Aloud to Your students:Guidelines and Top 5 Read-Aloud Strategies,from Best Every Literacy Survival Tips: 72 Lessons You Can’t Teach Without by Lori D. Oczkus (2012)

Education World, “Reading Aloud—Is It Worth It?” (2009)

Pernille Ripp, The Global Read Aloud

I started looking through book lists at the Social Justice Books: Teaching for Change website in order to get ideas. While I have some elementary friends who are always recommending good books, I would have to say my area of expertise is really in middle-grade fiction after spending time this year in mentor texts. (There is no reason why picture books cannot be great mentor texts as well for my middle-grade classroom) So, I like to seek out book recommendations from people who have really read some books in the field. 

We Are Teachers, “The Best Read Alouds on YouTube”

Scholastic, “100 Best Read-Aloud Books”

Book Choices

I have chosen these first 15 books as the focus for my first trimester of school. I plan on choosing another 15 for each subsequent trimester (3 total). The books in trimester one have connections to activities we will do, focus on compassion and empathy, and encourage students to examine adjusting to a new environment. My plan is to sometimes ask big questions after read alouds to encourage students to get into the mind frame that all texts-including picture books-can make us think. These will be short writing pieces that ask them their opinions and can also get them into the habit of thinking with theme and text connections in mind.


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1. The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson and Rafael López

Amazon Summary: “National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson and two-time Pura Belpré Illustrator Award winner Rafael López have teamed up to create a poignant, yet heartening book about finding courage to connect, even when you feel scared and alone.

There will be times when you walk into a room

and no one there is quite like you.

There are many reasons to feel different. Maybe it's how you look or talk, or where you're from; maybe it's what you eat, or something just as random. It's not easy to take those first steps into a place where nobody really knows you yet, but somehow you do it. 

Jacqueline Woodson's lyrical text and Rafael López's dazzling art reminds us that we all feel like outsiders sometimes-and how brave it is that we go forth anyway. And that sometimes, when we reach out and begin to share our stories, others will be happy to meet us halfway.”

Lesson Connections:

  • Ideas about first impressions

  • First day of school

  • First week of school


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2. The Pigeon HAS to Go to School! by Mo Willems

Amazon Summary: “Why does the Pigeon have to go to school? He already knows everything! And what if he doesn't like it? What if the teacher doesn't like him? What if he learns TOO MUCH!?!

Ask not for whom the school bell rings; it rings for the Pigeon!”

Lesson Connections:

  • Brainstorming ideas for what is terrible about school

  • Why does reading suck?

  • Why does writing suck?

  • Class norms activity


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3. How to Read a Book by Kwame Alexander and Melissa Sweet

Amazon Summary: “Find a tree—a

black tupelo or

dawn redwood will do—and

plant yourself.

(It’s okay if you prefer a stoop, like Langston Hughes.)

With these words, an adventure begins. Kwame Alexander’s evocative poetry and Melissa Sweet’s lush artwork come together to take readers on a sensory journey between the pages of a book.”

Lesson Connections:

  • Why does reading suck brainstorm

  • Good reading habits

  • Strategies for when my mind wanders, etc

  • Independent reading motivation


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4. The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson

Amazon Summary: “The Newbery Award-winning author of THE CROSSOVER pens an ode to black American triumph and tribulation, with art from a two-time Caldecott Honoree.

Originally performed for ESPN's The Undefeated, this poem is a love letter to black life in the United States. It highlights the unspeakable trauma of slavery, the faith and fire of the civil rights movement, and the grit, passion, and perseverance of some of the world's greatest heroes. The text is also peppered with references to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and others, offering deeper insights into the accomplishments of the past, while bringing stark attention to the endurance and spirit of those surviving and thriving in the present. Robust back matter at the end provides valuable historical context and additional detail for those wishing to learn more.”

Lesson Connections:

  • Who matters to you?

  • Who do you look up to?

  • Who do we honor from the past?

  • Leads into narrative nonfiction and biographical reports


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5. I Am Human: A Book of Empathy by Susan Verde and Peter H. Reynolds

Amazon Summary: “From the picture book dream team behind I Am Yoga and I Am Peace comes the third book in their wellness series: I Am Human. A hopeful meditation on all the great (and challenging) parts of being human, I Am Human shows that it’s okay to make mistakes while also emphasizing the power of good choices by offering a kind word or smile or by saying “I’m sorry.” At its heart, this picture book is a celebration of empathy and compassion that lifts up the flawed fullness of humanity and encourages children to see themselves as part of one big imperfect family—millions strong.”

Lesson Connections:

  • Big questions about empathy and compassion

  • What happens when we make mistakes

  • How to say sorry

  • Acting scenes with apologies


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6. The Word Collector by Peter H. Reynolds

Amazon Summary: “Some people collect stamps. Some people collect coins. Some people collect art. And Jerome? Jerome collected words . . . 

In this extraordinary new tale from Peter H. Reynolds, Jerome discovers the magic of the words all around him -- short and sweet words, two-syllable treats, and multi-syllable words that sound like little songs. Words that connect, transform, and empower.

From the creator of The Dot, I Am Human, and Happy Dreamer comes a celebration of finding your own words -- and the impact you can have when you share them with the world.”

Lesson Connections:

  • Favorite word activity

  • What word represents you?

  • Introductory poem activities

  • Where I’m From Poems and Odes


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7. Say Something by Peter H. Reynolds

Amazon Summary: “The world needs your voice. If you have a brilliant idea... say something! If you see an injustice... say something!

In this empowering new picture book, beloved author Peter H. Reynolds explores the many ways that a single voice can make a difference. Each of us, each and every day, have the chance to say something: with our actions, our words, and our voices. Perfect for kid activists everywhere, this timely story reminds readers of the undeniable importance and power of their voice. There are so many ways to tell the world who you are... what you are thinking... and what you believe. And how you'll make it better. The time is now: SAY SOMETHING!”

Lesson Connections:

  • What bothers you?

  • What are you passionate about?

  • Examples of when to speak up

  • Incident reports


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8. The Name Jar by Yangsook Cho

Amazon Summary: “The new kid in school needs a new name! Or does she?

Being the new kid in school is hard enough, but what about when nobody can pronounce your name? Having just moved from Korea, Unhei is anxious that American kids will like her. So instead of introducing herself on the first day of school, she tells the class that she will choose a name by the following week. Her new classmates are fascinated by this no-name girl and decide to help out by filling a glass jar with names for her to pick from. But while Unhei practices being a Suzy, Laura, or Amanda, one of her classmates comes to her neighborhood and discovers her real name and its special meaning. On the day of her name choosing, the name jar has mysteriously disappeared. Encouraged by her new friends, Unhei chooses her own Korean name and helps everyone pronounce it—Yoon-Hey.”

Lesson Connections:

  • Name activity

  • Acrostic poems

  • Why do names matter?

  • Creative writing prompt: Does your life change with a different name?


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9. The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig and Patrice Barton

Amazon Summary: “A simple act of kindness can transform an invisible boy into a friend...

Meet Brian, the invisible boy. Nobody ever seems to notice him or think to include him in their group, game, or birthday party . . . until, that is, a new kid comes to class.

When Justin, the new boy, arrives, Brian is the first to make him feel welcome. And when Brian and Justin team up to work on a class project together, Brian finds a way to shine.

From esteemed author and speaker Trudy Ludwig and acclaimed illustrator Patrice Barton, this gentle story shows how small acts of kindness can help children feel included and allow them to flourish. Any parent, teacher, or counselor looking for material that sensitively addresses the needs of quieter children will find The Invisible Boy a valuable and important resource.”

Lesson Connections:

  • What makes us feel invisible?

  • What is kindness?

  • Cause and effect


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10. The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh by Supriya Kelkar and Alea Marley (Release Date September 3, 2019)

Amazon Summary: “Harpreet Singh loves his colors—but when his family moves to a new city, everything just feels gray. Can he find a way to make life bright again? 

Harpreet Singh has a different color for every mood and occasion, from pink for dancing to bhangra beats to red for courage. He especially takes care with his patka—his turban—smoothing it out and making sure it always matches his outfit. But when Harpreet’s mom finds a new job in a snowy city and they have to move, all he wants is to be invisible. Will he ever feel a happy sunny yellow again?”

Lesson Connections:

  • Color poems

  • Describing feelings

  • Sequence


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11. Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James

Amazon Summary: “The barbershop is where the magic happens. Boys go in as lumps of clay and, with princely robes draped around their shoulders, a dab of cool shaving cream on their foreheads, and a slow, steady cut, they become royalty. That crisp yet subtle line makes boys sharper, more visible, more aware of every great thing that could happen to them when they look good: lesser grades turn into As; girls take notice; even a mother’s hug gets a little tighter. Everyone notices.

A fresh cut makes boys fly.

This rhythmic, read-aloud title is an unbridled celebration of the self-esteem, confidence, and swagger boys feel when they leave the barber’s chair—a tradition that places on their heads a figurative crown, beaming with jewels, that confirms their brilliance and worth and helps them not only love and accept themselves but also take a giant step toward caring how they present themselves to the world. The fresh cuts. That’s where it all begins.

Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut is a high-spirited, engaging salute to the beautiful, raw, assured humanity of black boys and how they see themselves when they approve of their reflections in the mirror..”

Lesson Connections:

  • What makes us feel confident?

  • How do we build confidence?

  • Prompt: “I am most confident when…”


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12.  Where Are You From? by Yamile Saied Méndez and Jaime Kim

Amazon Summary: “This resonant picture book tells the story of one girl who constantly gets asked a simple question that doesn’t have a simple answer. A great conversation starter in the home or classroom—a book to share, in the spirit of I Am Enough by Grace Byers and Keturah A. Bobo.

When a girl is asked where she’s from—where she’s really from—none of her answers seems to be the right one.

Unsure about how to reply, she turns to her loving abuelo for help. He doesn’t give her the response she expects. She gets an even better one.

Where am I from?

You’re from hurricanes and dark storms, and a tiny singing frog that calls the island people home when the sun goes to sleep....

With themes of self-acceptance, identity, and home, this powerful, lyrical picture book will resonate with readers young and old, from all backgrounds and of all colors—especially anyone who ever felt that they don’t belong."

Lesson Connections:

  • Flashbacks and memories

  • Where I’m From poems and I Am poems

  • Personal narrative writing introduction


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13. The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak

Amazon Summary: “You might think a book with no pictures seems boring and serious. Except . . . here’s how books work. Everything written on the page has to be said by the person reading it aloud. Even if the words say . . .

BLORK. Or BLUURF.

Even if the words are a preposterous song about eating ants for breakfast, or just a list of astonishingly goofy sounds like BLAGGITY BLAGGITY and GLIBBITY GLOBBITY.

 Cleverly irreverent and irresistibly silly, The Book with No Pictures is one that kids will beg to hear again and again.”

Lesson Connections:

  • Introduction to descriptive writing and sensory writing

  • Adjective work


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14.  Robo-Sauce by Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri

Amazon Summary: “FACT: Robots are awesome. They have lasers for eyes, rockets for feet, and supercomputers for brains! Plus, robots never have to eat steamed beans or take baths, or go to bed. If only there were some sort of magical “Robo-Sauce” that turned squishy little humans into giant awesome robots… Well, now there is. 

Giggle at the irreverent humor, gasp at the ingenious fold-out surprise ending, and gather the whole family to enjoy a unique story about the power of imagination. It’s picture book technology the likes of which humanity has never seen!”

Lesson Connections:

  • Unexpected twists

  • Robot writing prompts

  • Prompt: What would you use a robot for?


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15. Thank You, Omu! by Oge Mora

Amazon Summary: “Everyone in the neighborhood dreams of a taste of Omu's delicious stew! One by one, they follow their noses toward the scrumptious scent. And one by one, Omu offers a portion of her meal. Soon the pot is empty. Has she been so generous that she has nothing left for herself?

Debut author-illustrator Oge Mora brings to life a heartwarming story of sharing and community in colorful cut-paper designs as luscious as Omu's stew, with an extra serving of love. An author's note explains that "Omu" (pronounced AH-moo) means "queen" in the Igbo language of her parents, but growing up, she used it to mean "Grandma." This book was inspired by the strong female role models in Oge Mora's life.”

Lesson Connections:

  • Connections to food and family

  • Favorite food

  • Sensory writing with foods

Writing Mindset Reflection: What picture books are a MUST in your classroom? Please leave book recommendations below!