MUST HAVE Picture Books for the Upper Grades

I love using picture books in my classroom.  There is just SO much that can be taught with them and through them that excluding them from my fifth grade class just because they are "for younger kids" is a travesty to me.  Picture books can be full of rich imagery, wonderful lessons, complex name it, picture books have it.  

There are SO many different picture books that I use in my class throughout the year, but for this particular post, I thought I would focus on 10 of my favorites and how I use them.  (all of the links to the books are affiliate links on Amazon.)

I See You is a book about homelessness. This book literally changed the course of my classroom.  It is a wordless book that I picked up to read to my students the last 10 minutes of class one day.  At the beginning of the book, we see a little boy who notices a woman, illustrated in black and white.  As the book goes on, we see that she is homeless and that the other people in the book are not treating her very well.  It is a heart wrenching book that really hit home with my students.   We had a very long discussion at the end of the day that I wasn't really expecting, to be honest.  They began to see that maybe we weren't treating those experiencing homelessness very well, and embarked on a 3 month long service project to help those in our area and school district who might be homeless.  Even if you don't plan on doing a homelessness service project, this book is worth a read.

First Day Jitters (Mrs. Hartwells classroom adventures)

This one is PERFECT for the first day of school!  I read it aloud to my students and then had them use emojis to describe how they were feeling in class that very moment.  Doing this on the first day helps the kids to see that reading is important AND their feelings have a place in school.  To read about the activity (and pick up the sheet so you can do it too), follow this link here.

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation (Jane Addams Award Book (Awards))

This is a fabulous book about a little known or talked about chapter in American history, particularly in California.  Mexican families, in the time around WWII, were not allowed to go to school with their white counterparts.  This is the story of a family who fought against that, winning a landmark decision that paved the way for Brown vs. the Board of Education.  This book is particularly timely and makes for a great discussion with your students.  I found that my kids were very interested in this story (since many of my students are of hispanic dissent and connected with it.)

The Man in the Red Bandanna

I love this book to use on 9/11.   It talks of a real life hero who put others before himself.  He was a 24 year old man (the same age I was that day) who helped bring people down from the high floors, then went back up twice to get more.  Ultimately the towers fell on his last trip up.  This is a story the kids immediately relate to, telling them enough details of the tragedy for an upper elementary kid who wasn't around at the time to understand without getting too in-depth.  It focuses on character and acts of selflessness.  I wrote more in detail about exactly how I use this book on 9/11 in my classroom here but you can use this book at any time of the year, particularly in a study of personal character.

After the Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again)

This book is about failing and picking yourself up again.  It tells the story of Humpty Dumpty and what happens AFTER he fell off the wall.  It has a fantastic message that shows just because you fail once the world is not ending.  Pick yourself up and get back out there....even though it may be hard.

The Library Book

What an adorable book to kick off the joy of reading in your classroom!  It is about a little girl who has nothing to do on a rainy day, so she heads to the library.  Told in verse, the little girl finds so much joy in the pages of the books she is passing.  The characters call out to her and "join" her as she reads.  It shows what magic is available just from reading books and is the perfect way to start the year in your room.  Just read it on day one to set the tone for how you view books and your library and then let your kids loose on the books in your library!

The Whispering Town (Holocaust)

There are many stories of people who stepped up to help those being targeted by the Nazis during WWII, but this story is one that must be shared.  It is the fictionalized account of one family who, along with their entire Danish town, helped nearly every Jew living in Nazi occupied Denmark escape to the safety of Sweden.   This story shares how dangerous it was, how these people were putting themselves at great personal risk, to help the Jews escape what would mean certain death for them.  In the end, 7,200 of the 7,800 Jews were ferried to Sweden.  Through the pictures and eloquently written words, the students instantly see how working together for a cause you believe in can be worth the great sacrifice that there may be in the end.

The Word Collector

This is such a simple book but a very powerful one.  It tells the story of a little boy who loves words. She collects them, organizes them, and makes them important.  Then, he shares them with the world. The story is perfect to capture the magic of words.  It is great to introduce a writing unit or to just read on its own.  My own son was captivated by the book.  He read it over and over and over again.  It is a must have in any library.

Creature Features: Twenty-Five Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do

My kids went gaga for this book.  It shares 25 different animals and the reasons for their specific coloring patterns, facial features, etc...  Some reasons were as you would expect (i.e.: camouflage) and others were not (I won't spoil them, but they are so fun!)  My kids loved trying to guess what the reasons were and were mesmerized by the fascinating facts held within the covers of this book.  This is a great jumping off point into cause and effect and problem and solution.   If you teach an animal unit in upper grades, you could use it too.  They also could just research a different animal not mentioned in the book and write their own page in the same style.  So many possibilities with this one.

A Letter to My Teacher

Honestly, this is one that I just couldn't bring to read aloud this year as I knew it would cause massive amounts of uncontrollable sobbing to take place.  This is an end of the year book for sure, when you reflect together about how far you have all come together and how much the year meant to each of you.  But be warned.  You will cry.  

So there you have it.  10 books that I love to have in my upper grade library.  Each of these books gets read nonstop throughout the year.  My fifth graders just love them!  They are passed around constantly and I never can keep them on the shelves....which, I would say, is a win for all.  :)  What picture books are must haves in your room?

Want to read about even more books to use in your upper grade classroom?  My friends below also have joined me in writing about their favorite books.  Hop on over to read all about them!



  1. What a great list of books! I’ve only heard of a couple of them. I’ll be off to the library this week to do some reading! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you for reading :) You are going to love these books!

  2. You do the most AMAZING things in your classroom!!
    How did you make the colonies that large? I have been trying to do this, but I can't figure out how. Please help. Thank you SO much in advance.

  3. Thanks for this list! I was especially happy to find "Separate Is Never Equal". I used "The Princess and the Warrior" by Tonatiuh last year with my students, but didn't know about his other work. I'll be using it as a Civil Rights piece the week before the MLK holiday.

  4. Thank you! I am signed up to read to my daughter's third grade class and was looking for some inspiration!!


Please leave a comment! I love to hear what you think about what is posted :)