Curriculum Approaches

6 Picture Books to Prompt an Awareness of Self and Others

little hands reading picture book monster saying rrraaah!

How do you engage with picture books? Maybe you curl up with a good book and a special kid in your life. You may gather a class to hear a story as they sit on the carpet gazing up at you. Or perhaps, you hold up and read your favorite book over a video call to those you can’t be with in person.

There are opportunities for engagement if we make the time, and it can all start with a picture book. Reading picture books is an impetus for amazing conversations and artmaking experiences regarding awareness. Both the reader and audience will learn something new about themselves and the world around them.

colored cushions on the floor for storytime

What is awareness?

Awareness is noticing what is going on in and around you so you can make a choice. Self-awareness is a competency of social-emotional learning (SEL) that centers the learner on themselves and their experiences. More specifically, individuals focus on understanding their emotions, thoughts, and values and how these influence behavior. Self-awareness is not just for students—it’s something we continually work on throughout our entire lives.

An awareness of self almost always prompts an awareness of others. This is social awareness. This competency includes understanding the perspectives of others and empathizing with them, including those from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and contexts.

For more information on social-emotional learning, check out The Art of SEL podcast. For more specific information on the competency of awareness, listen to Episode 2: Self-Awareness and Episode 4: Social Awareness.

As previously mentioned, awareness leads to making a choice and taking action. Once we know more about a topic, including ourselves, we make decisions with impact. Picture books are wonderful tools for increasing knowledge. They also create opportunities for conversation and artmaking.

drawing of four family members with grass and sky

Why call them “picture books”?

Why not call them “children’s books” or “children’s literature”?

Have your eyes ever welled up with tears while reading a picture book? Or has an image ever prompted you to think of your own life experiences and memories? Picture books are written to an intended audience. This often includes the adults in the room who are reading them.

The joy of picture books is that there are multiple ways to “read” them. Often the words on the page were thoughtfully orchestrated by the author to convey a rich story. Then there are the illustrations that accompany the text. How often have you read a children’s book that did not have pictures? The pictures are vital. These images can bring forth their own dialogue separate from the author’s writing.

Here are 3 ways to fully utilize the pictures in picture books:

  • Use the pictures to spark conversations about how a character may feel by pointing to the expression on their face or body language.
  • Ask questions about the relationships between characters and objects.
  • Point out the colors the illustrator used to convey a specific emotion.

It may take much longer to read a book this way, but it turns the book from a form of entertainment to a tool used to foster meaning through awareness.

little hands reading picture book monster saying rrraaah!

3 Strategies for Reading Together

In addition to the strategies above promoting visual literacy, here are three more strategies for reading together to make the experience successful and worthwhile for everyone.

1. Set aside time and patience.

If we want to facilitate building awareness, we need to set aside the time and patience to wrestle with students’ questions and ponderings. For example, I have read the classic book Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems for ten years to my kindergarten students. Then, one day it hit me—I turned and looked at the suburban five-year-olds in front of me and asked, “Do you know what a laundromat is?”

2. Build prior knowledge.

Spoiler alert, in the book, the stuffed rabbit gets left behind at a laundromat. One student raised their hand to share that they thought these were places in olden times for people to do laundry. What followed was a fascinating discussion about laundromats, the many different types of people who use them, and the one located a block from my own house. The students’ knowledge of laundry, or lack thereof, doesn’t impact the overall storyline of this wonderful book. But the question prompted great discussions about the ways people live their lives.

3. Establish a safe space.

None of the conversations have to include fully realized lesson plans. But you will need to build a safe space and a willingness to question and listen. Though the following books and prompts can feel quite elementary, there are moments of awareness and inspiration for any age level if you provide the opportunity.

Check out these 6 picture books, paired with corresponding artmaking moments, to prompt awareness.

1. The Good Egg by Jory John and Pete Oswald

The stress and pressure we put on ourselves can have a real impact on our mental and physical health. When one good egg takes on the weight of the world, it can start to crack. That is exactly what happens to our buddy in this book. However, that is not the end of the story. Our hero learns self-awareness strategies that mend their wounds. This aspect of self-awareness can prompt meaningful talks with students about their own reactions to stress.

worksheet with the good egg and a blank egg with arms and legs standing on an egg carton

Artmaking Moment: Provide a drawing prompt such as, “Draw yourself as an egg doing a positive activity for another.” Be sure to follow up with, “Draw yourself as an egg doing an activity you love doing for yourself.”

2. Big Boys Cry by Jonty Howley

Our words matter to students, and they take to heart what we say. And that is what happens when the dad in the story tells his son, “Big boys don’t cry.” However, they do. They most certainly do. The boy discovers that men cry for so many different reasons—because they are happy, because they are sad, and because they are hopeful. The boy learns that experiencing emotions is part of what makes us feel human.

student example emotions comic strip

Artmaking Moment: Create self-portraits that convey emotion. Students focus on one emotion or create a series of self-portraits in the format of a photo strip to portray a range of emotions or how an emotion evolves.

3. The Hello Goodbye Window by Norton Juster and Chris Raschka 

Visiting relatives or the people we love is a part of the human experience. Even though we are all different, there are collective moments we can relate to. A collective moment in this story happens when a young girl spends time at her grandparents’ house. Use this moment to start a dialogue with students about spending time with someone they care about.

drawing of three family members with grass and sky

Artmaking Moment: Students compose a self-portrait with two people they love and respect. Use the book’s illustrative style of scratching through paint layers to inspire a background for the portraits.

4. The Pigeon Wants a Puppy by Mo Willems

Let’s talk Mo Willems. This man is a master of expressing a wide range of emotions with thoughtfully simplified lines. In this specific story, the pigeon pleads with the reader to give it a puppy. Each page depicts a unique facial expression prompted by the pigeon’s tactics. Guide students through a discussion of how faces contort with various emotions. This is also a great opportunity to identify the difference between a want and a need.

Artmaking Moment: Willems intentionally made the pigeon a simplified character kids can recreate, so have them do it. Students draw the pigeon with the same minimal line work. Then, students make their own book and, on each page, depict a new interaction between the pigeon and the pet it thinks it wants.

5. Spoon by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Scott Magoon

Every student has fascinating and unique aspects like special skills or interests. What if we encourage students to spend time focusing on what makes them unique? A small spoon is guided through a conversation where it gains awareness of how awesome its other cutlery friends are. The spoon then becomes aware of its own incredible abilities. Be sure to check out the trilogy, including Chopsticks and The Last Straw.

Artmaking Moment: Students draw a spoon and add details to make it look like them. Fill the spoon or the area around it by writing all of the wonderful things that make them unique. Don’t stop there—apply the same practice for others.

6. Mixed by Arree Chung

The primary-colored circles live in harmony until they start asserting their individual awesomeness and dismiss one another. What ensues is an exploration into color-mixing and relationships. Each page is filled with expressive characters that can launch discussions about personal feelings, relationships, and how our actions impact others.

painted circles with expressive faces drawn in each

Artmaking Moment: Start with the primary colors and make circles on a page. Use the colors to mix more and more colors, with each new color forming a new circle on the same page. When the paint is dry, add unique facial expressions to make each circle come alive.

For more books to add to your shelves, take a peek at the following lists:

Hopefully, this list of picture books brought you a new title or two to add to your library. This summer, as you peruse these books, brainstorm how you can incorporate them into your art room using the artmaking moments provided or by coming up with your own. More importantly, reflect on how you can use picture books to spark conversations to grow awareness in your students.

What are your favorite picture books to share with your students?

How have you used picture books to tie in discussions on awareness? 

How can artmaking experiences be heightened when students are aware of self and others?

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.


Jonathan Juravich

Jonathan Juravich, an elementary school art educator, is a former AOEU Writer. He is a social-emotional learning enthusiast and explores this essential concept with his students and fellow art educators.

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