Sophisticated Picture Books

Qualities of a Sophisticated Picture Book

1. Uses a variety of literary techniques.
2. Provides  information to increase the general knowledge of readers 11-years-old and up.
3. Includes an important idea about life that is relevant even to adults.

Selected Bibliography

Arias, Patricia de. Marwan’s Journey. Hong Kong: Minedition, 2018.
A little boy is walking, leaving his homeland and travelling into the unknown. Step after step, day after day, Marwan and his family trudge along, searching for safety, imagining a new home where they will live in peace. Simple yet powerful full-page illustrations by Laura Borràs accompany this picture book originally published in Spanish. Told from the first person point of view, it is highly recommended for readers 8 years old and up. 

Bardoe, Cheryl. Gregor Mendel: the Friar Who Grew Peas. New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2006.

Barretta, Gene. Neo Leo: the Ageless Ideas of Leon da Vinci. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2009.

Berne, Jennifer. On a Beam of Light: a Story of Albert Einstein. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2013.

Bogart, Jo Ellen. The White Cat and the Monk : a Retelling of the Poem ‘Pangur Bán’. Toronto; Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2016.
A monk spends hours studying while his cat spends hours hunting in the darkness. As a new day dawns, the cat has found his mouse and the monk has found the meaning of his manuscript. A retelling of an Irish poem from the 9th century, this picture book illustrated by Sydney Smith is accompanied by an explanatory author’s note. It is recommended for inquisitive readers 7 to 14 years old. [Cats; Middle Ages; Monks; Pets; Truth]

Brown, Don. Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2004.

Brown, Don. One Giant Leap: the Story of Neil Armstrong. Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998.

Brown, Don. Uncommon Traveler: Mary Kingsley in Africa. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Brown, Don. A Wizard from the Start: the Incredible Boyhood & Amazing Inventions of Thomas Edison. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2010.

Bryant, Jen. Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.
Energetic, impetuous, determined, brilliant. This picture book biography – illustrated by Boris Kulikov – of the young boy who grew up to invent a way for blind people to read is highly recommended for readers of all ages. An author’s note, additional information about Louis Braille, and a bibliography and list of websites are provided at the end of the story.

Bucay, Jorge. The King and the Magician. New York: Abbeville Kids, 2014.
A powerful and feared king, who commands his subjects to not only obey him and but also admire him, hears of a much loved magician who can foretell the future. Consumed by jealousy, the king plots the magician’s demise. This spell-binding picture book from Argentina – full of magnificent pictures by Gusti, an award-winning illustrator – will be appreciated by readers 8 to 14 years old. [Jealousy; Kings, queens, rulers, etc.; Wisdom; Wizards] 

Cole, Tom Clohosy. Wall. Somerville, Mass.: Templar Books, 2014.
In 1961, families found themselves suddenly separated by the Berlin Wall. East Berlin was under Communist rule and people were not permitted to cross the wall and join their relatives in the West.  In this evocatively illustrated picture book, a young boy is determined to find a way for his family to be reunited. Told from the first person point of view and based on true stories, Wall is recommended for readers 8 years old and up. (Artists interested in seeing how to depict night-time scenes may appreciate analyzing the illustrations which were created digitally but provide ideas for working with pastels.) [Berlin Wall; Cold War; Fathers; Historical fiction]

Cuevas, Michelle. The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2016.
A lonely man lives his life by the sea, faithfully watching for letters to deliver. Messages that almost always deliver joy to the recipients. Will there never be a message for him? This poignant tale of hope – softly illustrated by Erin E. Stead – will appeal to gentle reflective readers 8 years old and up. [Friendship, Letters, Oceans]

D’Agnese, Joseph. Blockhead: the Life of Fibonacci. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2010.

Demi. The Empty Pot. New York: H. Holt, 1990. 
Should you admit failure? This folktale from China tells the story of Ping, who discovers that no matter what he tries, he cannot make a seed grow. What will he have to show the great emperor? [China; Honesty]

Demi. Gandhi. Toronto: Margaret K. McElderry Books. 2001.

Demi. The Girl Who Drew a Phoenix. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2008. 
A young girl practises drawing a phoenix and thereby gains its qualities: wisdom, clear sight, equality, generosity, and right judgement. Striking illustrations help tell another story by the award-winning Demi. Recommended for ages 7 and up. [China; Drawing; Phoenix (Mythyical bird); Wisdom]

Demi. The Greatest Power. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2004.

“Long ago, a Chinese emperor challenges the children of his kingdom to show him the greatest power in the world, and all are surprised at what is discovered.” – CIP. The story of Ping, started in The Empty Pot, continues in this beautiful picture book. Recommended for everyone 7-years-old and up who is looking for hope.Demi. Joan of Arc. New York: Marshall Cavendish Children, 2011.

Demi. The Hungry Coat: a Tale from Turkey. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2004.
“After being forced to change to a fancy new coat to attend a party, Nasrettin Hoca tries to feed his dinner to the coat, reasoning that it was the coat that was the invited guest.” – CIP. Nasrettin Hoca was a 13th century philosopher who told stories to teach his listeners lessons about life. This illustrated picture book by the award-winning author of numerous biographies and philosophical stories is highly recommended for readers of all ages. Excellent as a read-aloud , as well.

Demi. The Shady Tree. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2016.
Wealthy Tan Tan lives in a beautiful home with a lovely shady tree which he does not want to share. After poor Ping uses the little money he has to buy that shade, Tan Tan discovers  he’s sold more than he expected.  Kind Ping, though, shares and all turns out well in this Chinese folktale for readers 7 to 14 years old. [China; Folklore; Greed; Sharing]

Demi. Su Dongpo. New York: Lee & Low Books, 2006.

A delicately detailed picture book biography of a civil engineer, poet, and statesman who exhibited courage, patience, and honour in 11th century China. Recommended for lovers of philosophy of all ages. [Authors; China; Su, Shi]

Fan, Terry and Eric Fan. The Night Gardener. New York: Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2016.
What a magnificent story! William, a lonely boy, creeps out at night to discover the stranger who prunes the trees into amazing creatures. The simple text in a suitably-sized font accompanies the intricate illustrations that subtly help tell the story. Highly recommended as a book to read and read again. And talk about: How does beauty change people? How does creating beauty change people? How does imagination save us? Wonderful for all ages. [Gardeners; Imagination; Loneliness; Topiary]

Feris, Jeri. Noah Webster and His Words. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Floca, Brian. Moonshot: the Story of the Apollo 11. New York: Atheneum Books, 2009.

Foreman, Michael. A Child’s Garden: A Story of Hope. Somerville, Mass.: Candlewick Press, 2009.
Living in ruin and rubble with a wire fence and soldiers separating him from the cool hills where his father used to take him as a small child, a boy’s tiny, green plant shoot gives him hope in a bleak landscape. – CIP [Gardens; Hope; Poverty; War]

Freedman, Deborah. This House, Once. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2017.
Before your house was a house, what was it? Trees. Rocks. Mud. Sand. This elegantly illustrated picture book will intrigue readers and listeners 5 years old and up. (If you like to analyze books, notice how the colour and style of the font complement the colour and size of the illustrations, creating a reflective tone that matches the mood of the story.)

Gerstein, Mordicai. The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. New York : Square Fish, 2003.

Graham, Bob. How to Heal a Broken Wing. Cambridge, Mass.: Candlewick Press, 2008.

Heckert, Barbara. A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider: The Story of E.B. White. New York: Christy Ottaviano Books / Henry Holt and Company, 2017.
Who was the author of the classic Charlotte’s Web? What was his childhood like?  What challenges did he overcome? What inspired him to write children’s stories? The design of this picture book – illustrated by Caldecott winner Lauren Castillo – is unfortunately weakened by the font, which does not match the style of the pictures. Nevertheless, this biography is still recommended for curious readers 8 years old and up. 

Hong, Chen Jiang. Mao and Me: the Little Red Guard. New York: Enchanted Lion Books, 2008.

Hopkinson, Deborah. A Boy Called Dickens. New York: Schwartz & Wade Books, 2012.

Hopkinson, Deborah. Keep on: the Story of Matthew Henson, Co-discoverer of the North Pole.  Atlanta, GA: Peachtree Pub., 2009.

Hopkinson, Deborah. Sky boys: How they Built the Empire State Building. New York: Schwartz & Wade Books, 2006.

Hopkinson, Deborah. The Story of a Story. New York: Holiday House, 2021.
Do you ever get stuck when you are trying to write a story or an essay or even a short paragraph? You might have ideas but how do you find the right words? Should you keep trying or simply give up and walk away? This beautifully designed picture book humorously presents the dilemma and offers a straight-forward solution. At the end, an outline is provided for readers ready to write their own story. Recommended without reservations for writers of all ages.

Jeffers, Oliver. Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth. London: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2017.
What do we need to remember living on this planet in space? Jeffers eloquently explains in this gently profound picture book written for his newborn son. The world is wonderfully complex.  And life passes quickly.  So be good to the people around you and take care of the earth.
Full-page illustrations in Jeffers’ uniquely whimsical style and a friendly yet formal font help create a picture book that will appeal to readers and listeners of all ages.
P.S. Teachers: read this aloud to start a discussion or inspire thoughtful writing.

K’naan. When I Get Older: the Story behind Wavin’ Flag. Toronto: Tundra Books, 2012.

Kamkwamba, William and Bryan Mealer. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2012.
In 2001, William Kamkwamba’s village suffered from a drought. His starving family could not afford to send him to school but he did not give up learning. In the local library, he read a book about windmills. He decided to build his own windmill. Amazingly, he was successful!  He found a way to bring electricity to his village, and a way to use that electricity to provide irrigation to water crops for his village. This picture book, beautifully illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon, is highly recommended for readers 8 years old and up.  (Africa; Electricity; Ingenuity; Inventors; Irrigation; Malawi; Mechanical engineers; Poverty; Windmills) 

Lasky, Katherine. One Beetle Too Many: the Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin. Somerville, Mass.: Candlewick Press, 2009.

Markel, Michelle. Balderdash! John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2017.
Wow! What a quietly rambunctious biography! Created by two award winners – author Michelle Markel and illustrator Nancy Carpenter – this picture book tells the story of an English farm boy who grew up to create the first magazines and novels especially for children. Readers of graphic novels will enjoy the details in the illustrations. Avid readers will find the story fascinating. Additional information and a bibliography are provided at the end. Highly recommended!

Martin, Jacqueline Briggs. Snowflake Bentley. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Miller, William. Richard Wright and the Library Card.  New York: Lee & Low Books, 1997.

Mortensen, Lori. Come See the Earth Turn: the Story of Leon Foucault. New York: Tricycle Press / Random House, 2010.

Milway Smith, Katie. One Hen. Kids Can Press, 2008.
Based on a true story, this picture book a picture book tells the story of a young boy in Ghana who, with the help of a small loan, starts a small chicken farm to earn enough money to go back to school and help his family. (Ghana; Poverty; Perseverance; Loans; Decision-making)

Mochizuki, Ken. Passage to Freedom: the Sugihara Story. New York: Lee & Low Books, 1997.  
In 1940, five-year-old Hiroki Sugihara watched as his father, a Japanese diplomat stationed in Lithuania, disobeyed orders and signed visa after visa for Jewish refugees fleeing the horrors of Nazi Germany. Hiroki’s father was soon transferred and the entire family – he, his parents, his aunt, and his two younger brothers moved to Berlin. In an afterward, Sugihara tells what happened to to his family as a result of his father’s courageous actions.The haunting full-page illustrations by Dom Lee and the well-spaced layout of the text enhance the power of this little-known story of a man who saved an estimated 10,000 refugees. Highly recommended for readers 7 to 70 years old. [Courage; Diplomats; Holocaust, Jewish; Sugihara, Chiune; WW2]

Nivola, Claire A. Planting the trees of Kenya : the story of Wangaru Maathai. New York: Francis Foster Books / Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2008.

Park, Frances. My Freedom Trip. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press, 2010, 1998.

Pinkney, Andrea Davis. Duke Ellington: the Piano Prince and his Orchestra. New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 1998.

Roth, Susan L. Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2012.

Rubbino, Salvatore. A Walk in London. Somerville, Mass.: Candlewick Press, 2011.

Ruelle, Karen Gray. The Grand Mosque of Paris: a Story of How Muslims Saved Jews During the Holocaust. New York: Holiday House, 2009.

Rumford, James. From the Good Mountain: How Gutenberg Changed the World. New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2012.

Rumford, James. Seeker of Knowledge: the Man who Deciphered Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Ryan, Pam Munoz. When Marion Sang: the True Recital of Marian Anderson : the Voice of a Century. New York: Scholastic Press, 2002.

Satoshi, Kitamura. Stone Age Boy. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2007.

Drawing From Memory (Scholastic Press, 2011) by Caldecott medal winner Allen Say is an inspiring story about Allen Say’s life. His life was very eventful and also very interesting. This book starts with Allen telling what he did as a kid. All he did as a kid was read and draw. Their family had to escape the war and move quickly. But during that chaos, all Allen wanted to do was draw, and his parents and grandparents hated him for it. His Grandmother finally told him hat if he got into this very well known private middle school, she would rent an apartment for him at the age of 12. Allen of course studied everyday hoping to pass the entrance exam. Once he passed the exam, his Grandmother rented him a place in an apartment. This only reason his Grandmother sent him to the apartment was so he could study for his new school, but the only thing on Allen’s mind was to draw, and draw, and draw. After going out to dinner, Allen picks up the local newspaper at the restaurant. He starts to read about another kid who ran away from home just to draw. He soon got taken in by Allen’s favorite artist, Noro Shinpei. Noro gave him a test just as bad as the middle school exam. Allen passed and became the second apprentice of Noro Shinpei.
This book was creatively coloured. But this book was also very inspiring and interesting. I loved this book, because Allen’s life is very like mine. I often feel like Allen. (Kelvin in grade eight)

Say, Allen. Erika-san. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2008.
A little girl, seeing a picture of a teahouse in her grandmother’s home, becomes curious about Japan. She reads books about Japan, learns how to speak Japanese, and – after she grows up and finishes college – moves to Japan to become a schoolteacher. But busy Tokyo doesn’t appeal to her. She longs for the countryside. She finally finds it, a little village that reminds her of the picture from long ago, a place where she makes a friend, marries him, and creates her new home.
Some reviewers have criticized this picture book for depicting a character that dislikes a foreign city, for writing about a character appropriating another culture as her own. But this quietly beautiful picture book isn’t about displaying political correctness or conveying moral messages. It is a story about someone who admires a way of life and goes out to find it. It is a story for everyone who has had a dream and then set out to find it. Recommended for reflective readers 9 to 12 years old. 

Schanzer, Rosalyn. What Darwin Saw: the Journey that Changed the World. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2009.

Shulevitz, Uri. How I Learned Geography. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2008.

Spinner, Stephanie. Alex the Parrot: No Ordinary Bird: A True Story.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

Tate, Don. Strong as Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became the Strongest Man on Earth. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge, 2017.
Eugen was a weakling, small and puny, without any athletic ability to attract fame. Born in Prussia, his father took him to visit art galleries in Italy, where he was astonished at the physiques portrayed in the statues. Could he ever become as strong as those ancient athletes? While his father wanted him to strengthen his mind, he joined the circus in order to strengthen his body. By the time Eugen was in his early twenties, he was ready to challenge the strongest men in the world. In London in 1889, he reached his goal and sailed into the world of fame.
This beautifully written 40-page picture book biography by an award-winning illustrator and former bodybuilder is recommended for readers 8 to 14 years old. It includes a lengthy bibliography and additional information, including exercises to build strength. A great book for action-oriented students who like sports. Watch on Youtube.

Thornhill, Jan. The Triumphant Tale of the House Sparrow. Toronto: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2018.
For over 100 years, little brown house sparrows have been at home here in British Columbia. They enjoy living near people, near a steady supply of food. So it is not surprising that over 10,000 years ago, when people started settling down and growing grain in the Middle East, sparrows started settling down, too, making their homes inside human dwellings. As human settlements spread, the house sparrow travelled along until now it can be found almost all around the world.
Jan Thornhill, acclaimed Canadian author and illustrator, tells the story of this lowly bird in a fascinating and exquisite picture book accompanied by a world map, a life cycle chart, a glossary, a list of wild animals that live near people, and a list of related websites. Highly recommended for readers 11 years old and up as a book to not only borrow but buy! [Birds; Sparrows]

Tonatiuh, Duncan. Diego Rivera: His World and Ours. New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2011.

V., Sarah. The Old Man. Wellington, New Zealand: Gecko Press, 2018.
An old man, hungry and homeless, wanders the streets. The weather is cold and dark. Windy and wet. But a little girl offers him her sandwich and smiles. His heart is warmed as he trudges to the safety of a shelter. Poignantly illustrated by Claude K. Dubois and translated from the French by Daniel Hahn, this picture book is most highly recommended for readers 7 years old and up.

Winter, Jeanette. The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps. New York : Schwartz & Wade Books / Random House ; 2011.

Winter, Jonah. Born and Bred in the Great Depression. New York: Schwartz & Wade Books, 2011.
The author tells the story of his father’s childhood in Texas during the 1930s. Told from the second person point of view, this beautifully designed picture book with pencil, ink, and watercolour illustrations by Kimberly Bulcken Root is accompanied by black and white photographs. Recommended for readers 8 years old and up.

Yolen, Jane. Encounter. Orlando, FL: Harcourt 1992.

Young, Ed. The House Baba Built: an Artist’s Childhood in China. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2011.

Zihan, Mei. New Year. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2021.
Can you miss someone who is far away and be happy for them at the same time? In this wistful picture book, a father thinks about his grown-up daughter who lives in Paris. He wishes she could be back home with him in Beijing for Chinese Lunar New Year. But he is also proud that she has grown up into an independent person who has her own life in France. This extraordinarily beautiful story – evocatively illustrated in ink and watercolour by Qin Leng – is for mature readers who are able to see life from more than one point of view. 

Teachers of creative writing may want to use this story to show how to subtly move from speaking about a person to addressing them directly. Teachers of literature may want to show how specific cultural details can be combined with universal emotions to create a story with timeless appeal.

More philosophical picture books (and other books) for sophisticated readers

Analyze a picture book for older readers!

A. Citation or bibliographic entry

Use proper format.

B. Evidence of literary techniques

Click HERE to find a list of techniques.
If your book is unpaged, write “Unpaged book.” at the beginning of this section.

C. Information to expand your general knowledge

Find the information about biology, geography, history or psychology contained in the story.
Make a list of the facts that readers can learn from this book.
Often extra information is given at the end of the story.

D. An important idea about life

You should infer the theme or central idea in the story.
Then provide evidence, paraphrased or quoted, to prove that theme.

E. Your thoughts about the idea

Write a paragraph, or several paragraphs, telling what you think about the theme.
You should provide evidence from your own life or from the lives of people you know.
You may also relate the theme to other books you have read or movies you have seen.

An example of a literary analysis of a picture book

Directions for a literary analysis

For many more examples by students, type “literary analysis” in the search box.

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