Using Picture Books to Teach Character

Sheryl Lain


The author explains and illustrates ways picture books can be used to teach values at the same time they are implemented to fulfill language arts standards, as well as examine and apply aspects of the author's craft.

Teachers can be overwhelmed with new initiatives to teach, such as anti-bullying or character building, when their day is packed already. So why not teach character development with the literature we already use? One of the richest sources for short literacy lessons is quality picture books. These picture books can serve a dual purpose: They can teach the core standards (2010) and they can teach values. Table 1 lists a few of the many picture books with themes that illuminate seven key values derived from thinkers such as Stalker (1902), Kohlberg (1987), Borba (2001), Samenow (2004), and others.

Table 1: Values with Picture Books for Teaching Them



Picture Book


Purity of motivation. The opposite is covetousness, wanting what belongs to others.

Keepers by Jeri Hanel Watts (1997)


Patience. The opposite is gluttony.

Through the Night by Jim Aylesworth (1998)


Love, which is the greatest virtue¾ superseding all others. The opposite is greed; greedy people do not love others as they love themselves.

Jin Woo by Eve Bunting (2001)

Wherever You Are My Love Will Find You by Nancy Tillman (2010)



Work ethic, persistence. The diligent person is responsible. The opposite is laziness.

A Chair for my Mother, by Vera B. Williams (2007)


Forgoing judgment. The opposite is anger.

Smoky Night by Eve Bunting (1999)



Empathy, the ability to walk in someone else's shoes. The opposite is jealousy.                                  

Hooway for Wodney Wat, by Helen Lester (1999)



Self-awareness enough to see one's own faults. The opposite is pride.

Henry, the Dog with no Tail by Kate Feiffer (2007)



Structure for Workshop

A classroom workshop is one approach when teaching values-based themes along with literacy lessons in picture books. A workshop is a block of time when the teacher delivers a lesson followed by students working independently: reading their texts, writing their own pieces, and/or speaking and listening in large or small groups. While students work, the teacher coaches—observing, commenting and tweaking student work (Graves, 2003).


To teach values through picture books, the teacher first reads the book aloud. If she has access to a document camera, the read-aloud is augmented by projecting the pages onto a large screen so students can share the reading, following the print and illustrations. After the read aloud, the teacher discusses the value at the heart of the book's theme and weaves selected literacy skills into the lesson.

See Table 2 for sample lessons using Smoky Night by Eve Bunting (1999), with its theme of forgiveness. In addition to potential for discussion on forgiveness in its character development, Bunting's book offers lessons consistent with the Common Core State Standards (2017) as well as state and district benchmarks.

Table 2: Sample Lesson Using Smoky Night by Eve Bunting

Theme: Forgiveness.

In the text, two families from ethnically diverse backgrounds discover during a city riot that they can learn peacekeeping in their daily lives. They forgo judgment, forgive their differences, and avoid the kind of wrath that leads to violence.


  1. To enhance vocabulary and spotlight the author's word choice, students create a word cloud using words from the text that connote violence (rioting, smash, destroy, angry, screams, crumpled, stealing, breaks, toss, pounce, dragging, yelling, staggering, pounding, hooligans, yowling, screeching).
  2. To enhance her theme, the author uses phrases that signify togetherness. Make a T Chart and label one side "Together" and the other "Apart." Students list together phrases from the text on one side: "buy from our own people," "we'll sleep together tonight," "the cats were together," "the cats drank from the same dish" and "they probably didn't know each other before." They then create opposing phrases for the apart side.

Writing: The writing assignment for this book is a rough draft journal jot that need not go through the writing process.

  1. Students notice the author's use of alliteration: color of carrots and flicker of flames.
  2. Students write in their journals about a time when they experienced or witnessed or avoided forgiveness. They might try to add alliteration into their jots.

Speaking / Listening: I select which structure is appropriate for this lesson: Socratic Circles, Literature Circles, or Think-Write-Share.

Picture Books for Literacy Standards

The Common Core Standards (2017) define the reading process. First, students read to determine what the text says explicitly and implies. Next readers understand how the author conveys the message using author's craft. Finally, they read to analyze the text's themes, topics and claims.

Smoky Night. The sample lesson for Smoky Night meets reading, writing, speaking, and listening standards. The Smoky Night lesson asks students to understand the text; apply alliteration, an element of author's craft; and engage in writing, speaking, and listening on the theme of forgiveness. Besides addressing reading standards, this picture book lesson incorporates writing. Draft writing is the seed for later narrative, expository, and argumentative pieces that move through revision and editing. The sample lesson also engages students in speaking and listening. Through discussion, students comprehend what they hear, collaborate with others to discuss and extend thinking, and present ideas in various settings including small and large groups.

Other picture books. The picture books in Table 1 teach a variety of craft lessons. For example, in Through the Night the author, Jim Aylesworth (1998), skillfully uses the refrain—a unifying organizational device—and figurative language, in this case a simile ("the city buildings gleamed like boxes draped in diamonds"). Students can apply these examples of author's craft as they write.

Vera Williams (2007) employs the organizational device of flashback in A Chair for My Mother. She begins the story in the present and then flashes back to describe how a fire destroyed all the family's furniture. The main character is saving money to buy an easy chair for her hard-working mother. The virtue of diligence is extolled in the actions of both the mother and the daughter.

David in Jin Woo by Eve Bunting (2001)feels the pinpricks of jealousy, the opposite of the virtue of kindness. Students close read the text, locating evidence of jealousy as David adjusts to his newly adopted baby brother. This book also teaches symbolism. In the resolution David gives the baby his beloved duck mobile, a symbol of security. Finally the text lends itself to writing a constructed response on a prompt such as "What are David's feelings, and how does the plot resolve his internal conflict?"

Wherever You Are My Love Will Find You, by Nancy Tillman (2010), develops the theme of charity (love) with the ABAB rhyme scheme. Students can try out this pattern in their journals. Hooway for Wodney Wat (Lester, 1999) contains the literary devices of onomatopoeia (Whap Whap Whappity Slappity Whap) and alliteration (Camilla Capybara). After reading Keepers (Watts, 1997), students write a narrative, spinning off the virtue of chastity (purity of conscience) with this prompt: "Tell about a time you did something you regret." In Henry, the Dog with no Tail, Kate Feiffer (2007) uses puns ("my days having a tail are behind me"). This text also contains several examples of similes ("flying like a helicopter,""threw him like a Frisbee,""flapping like a flag").

Explicit Teaching of Values

As explained above, picture books teach students to notice, understand, and use the craft of writing. But literature teaches much more than author's craft. The themes in picture books—indeed in all literature—offer rich opportunities to teach values, explicitly or implicitly.

Forgiveness in Smoky Night. After I read aloud the picture book Smoky Night in my classroom, I talk about forgiveness. I say, "In this book, people endure a difficult time, and they learn to forgive one another's differences." I might ask my students why people in the story dislike one another in the first place, and why the scary experience helps them overcome their prejudices. After some student input, I tell kids I want to unpack the character trait of forgiveness. I say,

People who forgive are patient. Instead of stirring up conflict, they try to make a peaceful, stable community. People who forgive can control themselves. They are thoughtful of others and aim to balance self-interest and public interest. A person who can't forgive is angry and wants to get even. If carried to its extreme, vengefulness leads to chaos and a breakdown of a civil society.

In my room I post a chart defining forgiveness as a place holder for my learners. After reading aloud Smoky Night and explaining the virtue of forgiveness, I immerse my students in reading, writing, listening and speaking activities. I make other picture books with the theme of forgiveness available: Baseball Saved Us, Leo the Late Bloomer, Stand Tall Molly Lou Melon, The Giant, My Rotten Red-headed Brother, and The Other Way to Listen.

To engage students in writing, I use quick write strategies by Barry Lane (1992) and Natalie Goldberg (2010), who admonish writers to shush their censors and write like their hair is on fire. Students write for three to five minutes in their journals. "Let's write about a time when we saw forgiveness in action," I say, and then I prod my writers by using Davey's think aloud strategy (1985) and offer several of my own ideas (Calkins, 2003). "Hmmm," I say as I strike a thinker's pose. 

What could I write about forgiveness? Well, I could write about the time when my mom got hurt building a fence with Dad. She could've blamed him, but she didn't. Or I could write about how I took Dorman's red Tootsie Roll pop out of his desk and never admitted it. I never got forgiven because I never told him I was wrong. Today, I think I'll write about taking Dorman's candy. 

And I take off writing on the white board, modeling how to write like my hair is on fire.

Strategies for exploring values. When students write, they make a personal connection to the theme. They then stand a chance of applying the character trait in their own lives. Likewise, speaking and listening to one another also encourage application. I use several methods including Socratic circles (Paul & Elder, 2006), literature circles (Daniels, 2002), and think-write-share.

Socratic circles (Paul & Elder, 2006) encourage examination, analysis, and application. Students sit in a circle. I pose a question. For example, I might ask, "Why is it so hard to ask for forgiveness? Why is it so hard to forgive others? How do you know if a person really is sincere when she asks to be forgiven?" Students speak as their turn comes, connecting their comments to those of the student(s) who spoke before them. Powerful discussions arise as kids make personal connections, lift the conversation from the personal level to the philosophical, and apply these abstract ideas to their own values. The beauty of the Socratic method is that there is no one right answer.

Literature circles (Daniels, 2002)are much like adult book clubs, but with added structure. Students respond to literature from the viewpoint of the role they assume. Roles include discussion director, summarizer, vocabulary enhancer, illustrator, connector, figurative language finder, and so on. The aim is to encourage thoughtful discussion, allowing students to practice the strategies good readers use.

Think-write-share is a technique that ensures all students get a chance to speak their minds by writing in their journals, the repository of their thinking. I pose an open-ended question and ask students to jot their views in their journals before answering orally. This allows kids to delve more deeply into their own thinking before they raise their hands to talk; it requires a response from everyone, not just the few eager kids who dominate class discussion; and it gets kids writing. We scribble our responses in our journals. Then a few students raise their hands to answer aloud.

Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

I ask students to write in their journals about my open-ended questions on forgiveness or on wider themes. I draw three concentric circles on the board (see Figure 1). I tell kids that a thinker named Lawrence Kohlberg thought we start out as babies being very self-centered, or narcissistic. Then we grow, if we are able, into people who are good, not just because we obey the rules, but because it is the best thing for everyone, even people we don't know. We would even sacrifice ourselves for the good of others. This is Kohlberg's theory of moral development.

It is through this lens that I ask wider questions for student response in their journals: 

  • Why am I on Earth? 
  • Do I have a purpose/mission? 
  • Do I have choices (fate vs. free will)? 
  • Does truth change? 
  • What is love? 
  • Are humans "good" or "bad" by nature? 
  • Where do we draw the line between what is OK for me and what is in the best interest of the society?"

After all have explored ideas in their journals, a few students raise hands to answer aloud and read their responses to the whole class. We listen to a few as time allows. Then students turn to their partners to share in small groups so that everyone speaks, including those who are shy and hesitant to address the whole class.


When teachers use literature to teach the virtues of forgiveness, kindness, moderation, love, purity, work ethic, and humility, they fulfill the language arts standards, but more important, they help their students develop character. At the heart of literature, students find the truth, as Kevin did in Rodman Philbrick's novel Freak the Mighty (1993)."Books are like truth serum," Kevin says. "If you don't read you can't figure out what's real." No need to purchase character development or anti-bullying materials when quality picture books teach values.


Figure 1: Diagram of Kohlberg's Law of Moral Development

Sheryl Lain began teaching on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Before her recent retirement, she had served as director of the Wyoming Writing Project, international consultant for the Bureau of Education & Research, language arts coordinator for kindergarten through twelfth grades at the district level, and instructional leader of teachers at the state level. She published a book about building community in the classroom entitled A Poem for Every Student.


Borba, M. (2001). Building moral intelligence: The seven essential virtues that teach kids to do the right thing. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Calkins, L. M. (2003). Units of study. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2017). Common Core State Standards Initiative. Retrieved from

Daniels, H. (2002). Literature circles: Voice and choice in book clubs and reading groups (2nd ed.). Portland ME: Stenhouse.

Davey, B. (1985). Think-aloud: Modeling the cognitive processes of reading comprehension. Journal of Reading, 27, 44-47.

Goldberg, N. (2010). Writing down the bones (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Graves, D. (2003). Writing: Teachers and children at work. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Kohlberg L. (1981). Essays on Moral Development: Vol. I. The philosophy of moral development. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.

Lane, B. (1992). After the end: Teaching and learning creative revision. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2006). The art of Socratic questioning. Dillon Beach, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking. Retrieved from

Samenow, S. (2004). Inside the criminal mind. New York, NY: Crown.

Stalker, J. (1902). The seven cardinal virtues. London, England: Hodder and Stoughton.

Picture Book References

Aylesworth, J. (1998). Through the night. New York, NY: Athenum.

Baylor, B., & Parnall, P. (1997). The other way to listen. New York, NY: Aladdin.

Bunting, E. (2001). Jin Woo. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Bunting, E. (1999). Smoky night. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Co.

Ewart, C.(2003). The giant. New York, NY: Walker & Company.

Feiffer, K. (2007). Henry, the dog with no tail. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Books.

Kraus, R. (1994). Leo, the late bloomer. New York, NY: Windmill Books.

Lester, H. (1999). Hooway for Wodney Wat. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Lovell, P. (2001). Stand tall, Molly Lou Melon. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam.

Mochizuki, K. (1993). Baseball saved us. New York, NY: Lee & Low Books.

Philbrick, R. (1993) Freak the mighty. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Polacco, P. (1994). My rotten red-headed older brother. New York,NY: Simon & Schuster.

Polacco, P. (1999). My ol' man. New York, NY: Penguin.

Tillman, N. (2010). Wherever you are my love will find you. New York, NY: Feilwell and Friends Books.

Watts, J. H. (1997). Keepers. New York, NY: Lee & Low Books.

Williams, V. (2007). A chair for my mother. New York: NY: Harper Trophy.