The best picture books that teach without being teachy

Who am I?

When I was little, I knew I would work with books in some way, and I did, for many years working for one of the major children’s book publishers. But it wasn’t rewarding in the way I had hoped. Some kids know they want to be a teacher when they grow up. I definitely did not, yet I became one. I love finding ways to make learning fun. In my teaching days I found ways to get the most reluctant students to find something they could enjoy about learning. And now as an author, I find myself doing the same, and as a parent, seeking out books like the ones I recommend here that teach without teaching.


I wrote...

No Place Like Earth

By Lori Fettner, Michael Fettner (illustrator),

Book cover of No Place Like Earth

What is my book about?

A child’s dream takes us on a journey through space. The child looks for a place to land while passing each planet, but some are too hot, some are too cold, and some are just made of liquid and gas. In the end, the child heads home for the night, realizing Planet Earth is just right.

Fun rhyming text introduces children to each planet and interesting facts about it. The text is accompanied by stunning images, courtesy of NASA, as the child passes by each planet in order. This book fills a gap for children interested in space, who are too old for board books, but not yet old enough for longer picture books, and reminds us all why we must take care of this planet we call home. 

The books I picked & why

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My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay

By Cari Best, Vanessa Brantley-Newton (illustrator),

Book cover of My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay

Why this book?

My then 6-year-old stumbled upon this book at her school’s used book sale, and it quickly became a favorite in our house. Zulay’s beautifully written voice describes what school is like for her and her friends: they wear their uniforms, come by car or bus, seemingly mundane details about some typical children. A careful reader will notice Zulay describes scenes using sounds and smells, not visuals. She describes the sound of shoe shuffling, her teacher who smells like “Juicy Fruit and fresh outside.” There are allusions to the cane that remains folded at the back of her desk, that she clearly doesn’t want to use. Zulay is blind, but I don’t think that word is ever used. This book beautifully demonstrates how to be inclusive, kind, and hard-working without being teachy.

My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay

By Cari Best, Vanessa Brantley-Newton (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Zulay and her three best friends are all in the same second grade class and study the same things, even though Zulay is blind. When their teacher asks her students what activity they want to do on Field Day, Zulay surprises everyone when she says she wants to run a race. With the help of a special aide and the support of her friends, Zulay does just that.


The First Drawing

By Mordicai Gerstein,

Book cover of The First Drawing

Why this book?

The first thing I love about this book is the very unusual use of 2nd person: “You live in a cave with your parents.” The child in this story loves exploring and using his imagination. Everyone else is busy with the job of surviving. The child sees shapes in the clouds and wonders why no one else can see what he sees. One night, without thinking, he takes a stick and draws on the cave walls. Now everyone can see what he sees, and it is the first-ever drawing. Everyone is amazed by it, thinks it is magic, and it is! The ability to use our imaginations to create art is magic, and it is what the author has done in this book, inspired by the real first drawing.

The First Drawing

By Mordicai Gerstein,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The First Drawing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1994, the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc was discovered, filled with the oldest known drawings in existence at that time, made 30,000 years ago. In that same cave, prehistoric footprints were discovered: those of an 8-year-old child and a wolf. From these astonishing facts, THE FIRST DRAWING was born.

In this beautiful picture book, Caldecott Medal-winning author/illustrator Mordicai Gerstein imagines one possible way drawing was invented. The young boy that stars in this story has such a vivid imagination that he sees images everywhere - clouds, stones and smoke look like animals to him. His parents, however, don't share his enthusiasm…


The Way I Feel

By Janan Cain,

Book cover of The Way I Feel

Why this book?

My daughter sometimes struggles with expressing her emotions, and has made a fun game with this book. Rhyming couplets and over-the-top drawings on each page describe a feeling. My daughter likes to read the description of each feeling without saying the feeling, and we have to guess, for example, “____________ is the way I feel when I make a funny face…” Even “negative” feelings like scared, angry, and disappointed are made accessible with light-hearted text and illustrations. This book has been a favorite in our house for years, and has been a great tool for discussing those hard to talk about feelings.

The Way I Feel

By Janan Cain,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Way I Feel as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Feelings are neither good nor bad, they simply are. Kids need words to name their feelings, just as they need words to name all things in their world. The Way I Feel uses strong, colorful, and expressive images which go along with simple verses to help children connect the word and the emotion. Your child will learn useful words, and you will have many chances to open conversations about what's going on in her/his life. Recommended by parents, teachers and mental health professionals, The Way I Feel is a valuable addition to anyone's library. This book is ideal for children…


My Blue Is Happy

By Jessica Young, Catia Chien (illustrator),

Book cover of My Blue Is Happy

Why this book?

I love how this book turns around what we typically think of colors and how they are associated with feelings. “My sister says that blue is sad like a lonely song. But my blue is happy like my favorite jeans and a splash in the pool on a hot day.” This calm, cheerful book has characters expressing opposing views on each page, and it’s never confrontational. The message of this book, without being teachy, is that we all see things in our own way, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s also another book that makes it fun to talk about feelings, which is tough for many kids.

My Blue Is Happy

By Jessica Young, Catia Chien (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked My Blue Is Happy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What is your blue like? A lyrical ode to colors — and the unique ways we experience them — follows a little girl as she explores the world with her family and friends.

Your neighbor says red is angry like a dragon’s breath, but you think it’s brave like a fire truck. Or maybe your best friend likes pink because it’s pretty like a ballerina’s tutu, but you find it annoying — like a piece of gum stuck on your shoe. In a subtle, child-friendly narrative, art teacher and debut author Jessica Young suggests that colors may evoke as many…


Thank You, Mr. Falker

By Patricia Polacco,

Book cover of Thank You, Mr. Falker

Why this book?

This is one of the few books that no matter how many times I read, I still get choked up. A family has a tradition they keep whenever the children are going to learn to read. They do it for their little girl when she’s headed to kindergarten, but she doesn’t learn to read there. She doesn’t learn in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd grade either. In 5th grade, Trisha still can’t read, and she feels “dumb” and “different.” One teacher finally realizes Trisha’s problem and through hard work and creative methods teaches her to read. This is based on the true story of the author, Patricia Polacco, who overcame her reading struggles so well that she became an author! This book beautifully teaches that one can overcome difficulties to achieve greatness.

Thank You, Mr. Falker

By Patricia Polacco,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Thank You, Mr. Falker as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The real-life classic story of a dyslexic girl and the teacher who would not let her fail. A perfect gift for teachers and for students of any age.

Patricia Polacco is now one of America's most loved children's book creators, but once upon a time she was a little girl named Trisha starting school. Trisha could paint and draw beautifully, but when she looked at words on a page, all she could see was jumble. It took a very special teacher to recognize little Trisha's dyslexia: Mr. Falker, who encouraged her to overcome her reading disability. Patricia Polacco will never…


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