Using Caldecott Books with Older Readers

by Thom Barthelmess

1203_c75logowlrgFor 75 years the Randolph Caldecott Medal has defined illustrative excellence in American picture book publication. And for 75 years children have delighted in the narrative power of imagery. A few years ago the New York Times ran an article entitled Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children in which reporter Julie Bosman attributed a marked decline in picture book sales to parents pushing their children to the independent reading of chapter books earlier and earlier. The response from the kidlit community was fast and furious (and occasionally indignant), on the NYT site and across social media. We proclaimed the value of picture books for pre-readers, early readers and practiced readers, citing, among other things, the visual literacy, narrative sophistication and pure joy they provide.

As librarians serving young people we have a particular responsibility to the culture of reading. Children and their families observe our attitudes and behaviors and make assessments about books and reading accordingly. Lots of libraries have systematic programs that share picture books with preschool children (AKA storytime). But how many of us do the same for older readers, regularly sharing and using picture books with the upper elementary and middle school sets? If we want kids of all ages to include picture books among their reading choices, we need to show (not tell) them that picture books belong to them.

And Caldecott books seem like a pretty darn good place to start.

Here are some ideas about categorical ways we can share Caldecott Medal and Honor books with older readers, with suggestions for particular titles in each category. What has worked for you? What are you thinking about trying? Let us know in the form below!

Read Aloud!

It’s true that the Caldecott Medal recognizes excellence in illustration, and text is, by definition, not part of the evaluation equation. But many books in the Caldecott canon read aloud beautifully. And reading them aloud does double duty; on the surface kids enjoy the experience, and underneath they understand that being read to is a normal, legitimate thing (in the presence of lots of “evidence” to the contrary).

Here are some of my favorite Caldecott read alouds that older readers might enjoy:

This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen (Candlewick Press – CM 2013)

Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave illustrated by Bryan Collier, written by Laban Carrick Hill (Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. – CH 2011)

Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, written by Joyce Sidman (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – CH 2010)

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems. (Hyperion – CH 2004)

Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold (Crown Publishers, Inc., a Random House Co. – CH 1992)

A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers illustrated by Alice & Martin Provensen; text: Nancy Willard (Harcourt – CH 1982, also NM 1982)

Rain Makes Applesauce illustrated by Marvin Bileck; text: Julian Scheer (Holiday – CH 1965)

Explore Art – Media!

Over the years the Caldecott committee has recognized illustrations in a wide variety of media (except photography?!). Examining a few books that use a particular medium in different ways is a great way to introduce that medium to kids, and get their own creative juices flowing.

Block prints

These artists use wood or linoleum blocks to make their images. You can use potatoes!

Ella Sarah Gets Dressed by Margaret Chodos-Irvine (Harcourt, Inc. – CH 2004)

Once a Mouse retold and illustrated by Marcia Brown (Scribner – CM 1962)

The House that Jack Built: La Maison Que Jacques A Batie by Antonio Frasconi (Harcourt – CH 1959)


Invest in some watercolor paper. The difference will astound you!

The Lion & the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney (Little, Brown & Company – CM 2010)

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type illustrated by Betsy Lewin, written by Doreen Cronin (Simon & Schuster – CH 2001)

Yo! Yes? illustrated by Chris Raschka; text: edited by Richard Jackson (Orchard – CH 1994)

Look closely

Many Caldecott honorees really blossom under close examination. Engage your kids in making with images and ideas hidden inside (OK, it’s not a medium, but I like the way it fits here).

Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy Rathmann (Putnam – CM 1996)

Black and White by David Macaulay (Houghton – CM 1991)

Three Jovial Huntsmen by Susan Jeffers (Bradbury – CH 1974)

Tell Your Own Story!

Many illustrators have been recognized for telling their own life story, and the range of their stylistic approaches is staggering. What style might your kids adopt to tell their stories?

Expressionism? The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sís (Farrar/Frances Foster – CH 2008)

Photography? Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say; text: edited by Walter Lorraine (Houghton – CM 1994) (I know, they’re not photographs, but they’d be a great way to prompt kids to use photographs)

Cartoon? Bill Peet: An Autobiography by Bill Peet (Houghton – CH 1990)


There is actually quite a bit of science in the Caldecott canon. Think about beginning a STEM-oriented program or series with a picture book. It’s an interesting amalgam (get it?)!

Books about science

How might you take one of these titles and expand it into an activity?

Hot Air: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Hot-Air Balloon Ride illustrated and written by Marjorie Priceman. (An Anne Schwartz Book/Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Simon & Schuster – CH 2006)

What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? illustrated and written by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. (Houghton Mifflin Company – CH 2004)

Castle by David Macaulay (Houghton – CH 1978)

Books about scientists

Here are some wonderful and varied looks at the lives of scientists. You could pick a single scientists and have young people choose and illustrated a single episode in her life. Or work with the kids to identify a scientist of interest and give them free illustrative reign.

Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell (Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. – CH 2012)

Snowflake Bentley illustrated by Mary Azarian, text by Jacqueline Briggs Martin (Houghton – CM 1999)

Starry Messenger by Peter Sís (Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus Giroux – CH 1997)

The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot by Alice & Martin Provensen (Viking – CM 1984)

Books that are science

There is a goodly amount of engineering that goes into the creation of any book. Add some holes and you’ve got a project! Take a look at these books that include the sophisticated use of die cuts and use this F&G template to have kids create an F&G folio with their own surprises.

First the Egg by Laura Vaccaro Seeger (Roaring Brook/Neal Porter – CH 2008)

Joseph Had a Little Overcoat Simms Taback (Viking – CM 2000)

Color Zoo by Lois Ehlert (Lippincott – CH 1990)

Asking Questions

With a history spanning three quarters of a century, the Caldecott canon reflects our evolving sociopolitical attitudes and perspectives. Indeed, under contemporary consideration, some recognized titles raise important questions about cultural expression and representation. By talking with kids about these kinds of issues (instead of talking to them) we expand our understandings of cultural sensitivity and literature, and offer young people some welcome agency. How might you engage kids in discussion of these titles?

The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses by Paul Goble (Bradbury – CM 1979)

Arrow to the Sun by Gerald McDermott (Viking – CM 1975)

The Mighty Hunter by Berta & Elmer Hader (Macmillan – CH 1944)

What Else?

What ideas do you have about sharing Caldecott books with older readers? Let us know!