Civics Related Themes in Award Winning Picture Books Released 2010-2018

Civics Related Themes in Award Winning Picture Books Released 2010-2018

Since the 2016 Presidential Elections there has been an increased call for civics education to be given a higher level of importance in the Massachusetts public school system. This culminated in November of 2018 when Republican Governor Charlie Baker signed “Bill S.2631190th (2017 - 2018) An Act to promote and enhance civic engagement.(Massachusetts, 2018)” It is of note, that this law received high level of bipartisan support from both Democrats and Republicans in the Massachusetts state legislature.  Democratic Massachusetts Speaker of The HouseRobert DeLeo was quoted as saying “When we educate our children about civic responsibility from a young age, we foster an informed citizenship, a strong democracy and the development of our nation’s future leaders.(Moss, 2018)” In addition, Democratic State Senate President stated “Civics education is critically important for the future of our Commonwealth, our nation and our democracy Comprehensive civics education will equip our students with the tools they need to become the informed, active citizens our forefathers imagined when they created our systems of government.” (Moss, 2018).

            In conjunction with this new law, Massachusetts released developed and released a new history and social science framework meant to guide teachers teaching of civic lessons in every grade. This framework contains content standards for every grade from Pre-K to Twelfth Grade and gives guidance about how to incorporate civics education into other academic areas such as English Language Arts. (2018 History and Social Science Framework, 2018).

            The researcher in this study is most concerned with the realm of early childhood education in the public school system which they are defining as Pre-K through First Grade. In \ these grades there is a lot of overlap in the curriculum frameworks between literacy and civics in the curriculum. At the center of any curriculum related to literacy and civics education in these grades will be books. Book publishers often will publish books related to social sciences specifically for this grade range. However, books related civics are not the only place children might encounter themes and topics related to civics in books intended for the Pre-K to First Grade demographic. In the Massachusetts curriculum framework, it explicitly states as part of civics curriculum, children should be exposed show fairness, friendship, kindness, responsibility, and respect for one another. In addition, the frameworks call for students to be exposed to history and maps/geography through books (2018 History and Social Science Framework, 2018).  These themes might be present in any book a child encounters even if that book was not specifically intended to serve as being part of a civics curriculum or to teach a young reader lessons related to civics.

            Thus, the researcher is choosing to investigate what themes related to civics education exist in picture books might encounter in the classroom. Obviously, there have been tens of thousands of picture books published that teachers might choose to read in their classroom or have available in a classroom library and it would be impossible to review them all. In trying to determine which books to review, the researcher decided to focus on award winning children’s picture books. Publishing companies often market award winning books to teachers (Scholastic, 2019). Additionally, libraries often create selection or guides to make these books easier for teachers to find (Congress, 2019). It is therefore possible to surmise that award winning picture books have a greater chance of being used in the classroom than a randomly released book by a publisher.

There are dozens of awards for children’s literature. In a larger study, the researcher hopes to review as wide range of award winning books as possible. However, this initial project will act as a pilot study to determine the merit of the research. Therefore, the researcher selected four of the more prestigious and well known children book awards The Caldecott Award, The Newbury Award, The Coretta Scott King Award, and Pura Belpré Award with a focus on the award winners from this decade 2010-2018. The Caldecott Medal is given annual by the Association for Library Service to Children to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children (Caldecott, 2019). Similarly, The Newbury Medal is given annual by the Association for Library Service to Children to the author of the most distinguished American picture book for children (Newbery, 2019). The Coretta Scott King award is given annual to African American illustrator of the picture book that best demonstrate an appreciation for African American culture and universal human values ("The Coretta Scott King Book Awards," 2019). Finally, the Pura Belpré Award is presented to the Latino/Latina illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children ("Pura Belpré Award Home Page ", 2019).

The central research question is what themes related to civics exist in books released this decade that have won these four prominent children’s literature awards. The eventual goal of the researcher is to use the information obtained in this study and potential future studies to create a guide that would assist Pre-K-First Grade teachers in using award winning children’s picture books as part of civics curriculum for their students.

Literature Review

There is no exact parallel to this current study related to award winning picture books that have been done before. However, there has been some research that was conducted in a similar vein as well as civic based picture book guides developed for teachers. One of the most prominent promoters of using trade books to teach civics is the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). They work with The Children’s Book Council to evaluate trade picture books to create yearly lists of notable books with themes related to social studies. Each book is placed as being related to one of the selected themes related to social studies curriculum. These themes include:


2.Time: Continuity and Change

3.People Places and Environments

4.Individual Development and Identity

5.Individual, Groups, and Institutions

6.Power, Authority, and Governance

7.Production, Distribution, and Consumption

8.Science, Technology, and Society

9.Global Connections

10.Civic Ideals and Practices ("Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People," 2019)

Many other guides and studies related to use of picture books have both been created by NCSS itself and other guides have been created by teachers and researchers with the NCSS book lists as an underlying guidepost. A major guide was published in 1995 by NCSS identifying more than 500 picture books that can be used as part of social studies curriculum in Elementary School along with lessons to go along with those books that matched NCSS guidelines as well as incorporated Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences into the lesson (Krey, 1998).

The book C is for Citizenship: Children’s Literature and Civic Understanding(Singleton, 1997) reviewed and discussed over 100 children literature titles intended for the Elementary School grades published before 1997. In that book, the author created teacher guides for picture trade books that were on recommended lists for books related to social studies such as the aforementioned Notable Trade Books For Young People annual guides. The author then choose to categorize books into three different types of themes related civics including Freedom of 1. Expression, 2. What Makes a Good Citizen?, and 3. Equal and Equitable: What's the Difference? (Singleton, 1997).

Shorter collection and guides to using picture books as part of civics instruction for young children have also been created by teachers and researchers. According to Farris and Fuhler, picture books are ideal to use as part of social studies curriculum because they can provide detailed information related to topics in different ways than a textbook, picture books may lend themselves to discussion of difficult and sensitive subject matters, and picture books can be used to pique students’ curiosity about new topics. They go on to create lists of picture books that are categorized into the categories of anthropology, geography, history, and sociology (Farris & Fuhler, 1994). However, Farris and Fuhler’s work differs from this papers study in that they focus on using picture books in middle and upper elementary school for social studies curriculum as opposed to Pre-K-First Grade demographic. The NCSS guide is also by Gina Almerico when they wrote their paper to share instructional methods related to using picture books as part of social studies curriculum. Key topics from the books are taken and students are put into small groups to research and discuss the topic in more detail (Almerico, 2013). Likewise, Palmer and Borroughs, discuss ways picture books and songs can be used as part of Elementary School history curriculum (Palmer & Burroughs, 2002).

Given that civics is a broad topic, people have taken to look at picture books with themes related to social studies using different lenses and using them in Elementary School curriculum. One of those lenses is exploring social justice issues. Kathy Fox conducted a study an author study approach to a reading curriculum with an emphasis on students exploring author’s voice and themes related to social justice in the text. Fox concluded that students after conducting three week author studies that students had a better understanding of how to use writing and author’s voice as a tool for advocacy for social justice related issues (Fox, 2006).


The researcher used a priori themes coding technique where the initial coding themes were created prior to reading the books (Huddersfield, 2019). The themes were based off of Massachusetts Department of Education frameworks of what was expected  (2018 History and Social Science Framework, 2018).  The 10 codes selected were adapted from those frameworks and include the following: 



3. Friendship



6.Economics: Work and Commerce



9.Knowledge of Different Cultures

10.Freedom of Expression


The following is an overview of the theme instances of each theme being found in in picture books that won the Caldecott Medal, Coretta Scott King Award, Newbery Award, and The Pura Belpré Award from 2010-2018.

Framework Theme: Fairness

Fairness comes up often in as a theme in award winning picture books. In This is Not My Hat[1] we meet a small fish who tells the reader they have stolen a large hat from a big fish. The small fish appears to boast directly the reader that not only stole the hat from the big fish, but that the big fish won’t know that it was the small fish who took the hat. The small fish justifies his thievery by saying “I know it’s wrong to steal a hat. I know it does not belong to me. But I am going to keep it. It was too small for him anyway. It fits me just right” (Klassen, 2013). Here we have a main character attempting to spin the idea of what fair ownership of something should revolve around. Should possession of an item be based on who had possession of an item first (and or who got it without stealing) or who the item most suites. Eventually, the larger fish finds the smaller one and takes back his hat off page.

A similar conflict over fair possession of an item occurs in Benny and Penny and The Big No-No!. In this case the titular Benny and Penny believe that their missing pale has been stolen by a new neighbor and they go into the new neighbor’s yard on a mission to steal back the pale. The enter a yard after discussing the fact according to their mother’s rules going into someone else’s yard is a big no-no; but they also discuss that taking something when it is not yours is also a big no-no. The characters are in a complex situation where there rules about what is right and wrong conflict with each other. They want to get back the pale they believe was wrongfully stolen but to do so they must break another “big no-no”. After getting into literal mudslinging conflict with their new neighbor they take back the pale only to discover that the original pale they thought was stolen was in their yard all along. Benny and Penny after discovering this fact, decide to give the pale they took back from their neighbor (Hayes, 2009). Both the initial mission to take the pale back (when it was believed to be actually stolen) and the returning of the pale Benny and Penny actually stole get into the moral areas of fairness related to ownership and possession. Moreover, the characters in Benny and Penny and The Big No-No and This Is Not My Hat actions and dialog get into the moral gray areas of what is fair.

A fair resolution to a conflict over a possession has a more morally clear story arc in A Ball For Daisy. In this story we meet a dog named Daisy who is enjoying playing with a red ball. However, another dog soon comes along while Daisy is on her walk and this new dog begins playing with the ball and accidently punctures the ball. Later, we see Daisy looking said in the wordless illustrations in the book as she walks home and as she is sits around the house with her owner. When Daisy goes on a walk the next day, the other dog and her owner see them and give them a new ball to play with which makes Daisy happy again (Raschka, 2012). This is a morally clear case of fairness where the dog who took Daisy’s ball and punctured it makes things fair again by giving her a new ball to replace the ball that was ruined.

Economic and racial fairness are a theme in many other books reviewed. In some cases there is intersectionality in those themes. In the biography of Diego Rivera we learn that he painted murals that depicted the struggle of the Mexican people to gain freedom from the Spanish king and the fight of farmers and others workers defending themselves against greedy businessmen (Tonatiuh, 2011). In both those cases it can be argued a theme is fairness related to the treatment of common people and workers and powerful governments and businessmen.

The unfairness of slavery is subtly shown in Dave The Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave. Slavery is not explicitly discussed in the main body of the text which focuses it narrative and illustrations mostly on Dave work on the potter’s wheel and the creation of pots. However, the inherent unfairness of slavery is depicted often in the background in illustrations where we can see people who are slaves working the fields and in shackles. Moreover, in the end notes of the book, we learn more about the context of Dave’s life the fact that slaves were treated unfairly in inhumane ways and that most were not even given the chance to learn to read or use a skill like Dave (Carrick, 2010). Fleeing the horrors of slavery is the central plotline of Underground: Finding The Light To Freedom which could open up discussions about the unfair nature of slavery. The central text is sparse but the illustrations depict people have to crawl and hide to get to freedom and the joy of the faces of those who do make it (it is mentioned in the text that some do not make it) which demonstrate how the unfair system of slavery to readers (Evams, 2011).

The racism that underpins slavery is brought to light in understated ways in I, Too, Am, America . The words of Langston Hughes poem state “I am the darker bother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company” which coincides with illustrations of African Americans working in a train’s kitchen (Hughes, 2012). This shows to the reader the unfairness of racism that African Americans have experienced in the country.

Unequal treatment and slavery are issues in Martin de Porres life as well. We first his mother when she is pregnant. The text and illustrations combine to inform the reader how the Spanish Royals in Lima were living luxuriously while slaves were made to work while living in poverty and lack of access to basic life necessity. We learn that de Porres’s mother is a black slave and his father is Spanish royalty and that the poverty he experienced when living with his mother only improved when his father took custody of him (Schmidt, 2012). This highlights the unfair nature of the systems of slavery and royalty and also harkens to the aforementioned Diego Rivera. The unfairness wreaks its head again when we learn that de Porres cannot become despite his ability to heal people because he is not considered to be “pure blood.” Being held back due to unfair belief systems also comes into play during Drum Dream Girl. In that book, we meet a young girl in Cuba who dreams of playing the drums but is initially held back by her father and others who tell her that she can’t be a drummer because only boys can be drummers which was the tradition in Cuba at the time (Engle, 2015).

Framework Theme: Kindness

            Instances of characters and historical figures displaying kindness and respect towards others permeate award winning picture books. The kindness and respect takes place in the form of both actions and words.

            In Wolf In The Snow, a young girl and a young wolf are both depicted in the illustrations walking in a cold forest. The young girl realizes the young wolf is lost and then helps bring the young wolf back to its pack. Later the young girl herself gets lost in the snowy woods and the wolf pack comes to her aid both protecting her and howling which alerts the young girl’s mom that she is lost (Cordell, 2018). Here we get a reciprocal form of kindness where a nice deed is paid back in the form of a similarly nice deed.  This is a variation of the type of kindness displayed in the aforementioned A Ball For Daisy where the second dog gives Daisy a ball because he ruined the first ball Daisy had (Raschka, 2012). In one case the wolves are showing kindness to repay kindness shown to them while in the other case the kindness of giving a ball to Daisy is for restitution to the accidental harm that was done to Daisy by destroying her ball. Reciprocal kindness comes into play into two other story books reviewed which are A Sick Day ForAmos McGee and The Lion and The Mouse.  Amos Mcgee wakes up early each morning to go to his job at the zoo where he takes care of his animal friends. Amos is depicted playing chess with elephant, running a race with tortoise, sitting quietly with penguin that is shy, and lending a handkerchief to Rhino who is sick. However, one day Amos does not show up to work with his friends at the zoo. When the zoo animals find out that Amos is home sick they all hop on a bus together and show Amos the kindness he showed them by playing games with him at his home and taking care of him at his house (Stead, 2011). Amos’s kindness and respect for the animals’ individual want and needs is given back to him by the animals in his time of need. At the start of The Lion and The Mouse a mouse is being chased by an owl. The mouse runs towards a lion which provides him safety from the owl but theoretically puts him into the potential peril of being attached by the lion. Nevertheless the lion decides to show kindness and lets the mouse go. Later, we see that the Lion has been caught by hunters in a net. The mouse hearing the lion’s distressful roar comes to the lion’s aid by chewing through the rope. The mouse showing the kindness to the lion that the lion showed to him is yet another example of the theme of reciprocal kindness present in some of these award winning books.

Slight variations of type of reciprocal kindness are present in some of the non-fiction books reviewed as well. Basquiat’s mother is his inspiration early on in life to helping him become an artist. When his mother get’s older and is ill, he visits her frequently to keep her company (Steptoe, 2017). Ballerina Misty Copeland is inspired by African American ballerina Raven Wilkinson and Copeland depicted in illustrations and via text helping to work with and inspire a new generation of African American ballerinas (Copeland, 2015).

Kindness that is shown not related to ever receiving kindness in return comes into play in these award winning books too. The aforementioned Basquiat is allowed to stay at the homes of his friends for free when he was a struggling artist (Steptoe, 2017). In the fairytale La Princesa and The Pea, a traveling maiden is allowed to stay in a prince’s castle. Charlie and Mouse shows two friends on a way to a party and they act kindly to those they see along the way both inviting them to the party and making cookies for the party goers.

Framework Theme Friendship

            Making friends is one of the main things young children are learning how to do in early childhood education settings. It is thus no surprise that friendship is a common theme in award winning children’s literature.

            In Up, Tall, and High and We Are Growing!, we meet groups of friends in the case of the former a group of birds and in the case of the latter blades of grass. In both of these books a common example is that characters display their friendship by complimenting and affirming each other. Blades of grass look at other blades of grass with smiles on their faces and turn to their friends and say “you are growing tall” and “you are growing curly” and the reader is given the impression that the blades of grass are happy for their friends accomplishment (Keller, 2016). We get a scene with the birds that mirrors this type of friendship dynamic as a bird appears to be happy for their friend as they say “There! Now you can fly!” as their friend who previously could not fly is flying with the assistance of balloons (Long, 2012). In both of these cases friends are happy that their friends are accomplishing something.

            Another strand of friendship explored in the books is that friends often help each other out. Amos McGee helps his friends at the zoo and they help him out when he is sick (Stead, 2011). The lion helps out the mouse by saving him from the owl and the mouse helps out the lion by saving him from hunters (Pickney, 2010). Daisy becomes friends with a new dog when the new dog gives her a new ball after he punctured her first one (Raschka, 2012). Friends helping each other out occurs in non-fiction as well. As Basquiat is struggling on his path to becoming an artist, his friends provide him with free places to stay along the way (Steptoe, 2017) and we learn that friendships were made on the underground railroad between people who were fleeing to find freedom (Evams, 2011). Friendships with people who live in the neighborhood are depicted in Grandma’s Gift as boy and his grandma travel through the El Barrio neighborhood in New York City and are greeted by familiar and friendly faces; on the other hand it is noted by the boy that when he and his grandma travel to Fifth Avenue that his grandma searching for familiar friendly faces but cannot find any (Velasquez, 2019).

            In Finding Winnie: The True Story of The World’s Most Famous Bear we get another non-fiction story that involves a bear making multiple friendships. Winnie is a bear that is in the possession of a bear trapper when a veterinarian named Harry who is on his way to being a World War I solider thinks something is special about Winnie and buys her from the trapper. Winnie and Harry develop a bond as they travel together; soon we also learn that the other soldiers stationed Harry take a liking to Winnie too and they bring Winnie things to eat and play with her. Eventually Harry and the other army members must go to fight in the war where it won’t be safe for Winnie. Harry brings Winnie to the zoo and the illustrations show the sadness on both their faces as the two friends must depart and Harry tells Winnie “I will always love you.” Luckily for Winnie, a boy Christopher Robin takes a liking to her and visits her all the time and a new friendship develops. In the end notes of the book we see actual pictures of the real Winnie, Christopher Robin, and Harry (Mattick, 2016). This book demonstrates to children the emotional bonds of friendship and the process of making a new friend.

            The process of making a new friend is also a central theme of The Adventures of Beekle: The Un Imaginary Friend, Benny and Penny in The Big No-No, and a chapter in Charlie and Mouse. We meet Beekle as he lives on a far away island where imaginary friends are created. After a long time of waiting and no one imagining him as a friend, Beekle decided to take a journey to find a friend. This trip initially proves unsuccessful until Beekle meets a girl. Beekle and the girl’s initial interactions are awkward as depicted in the illustrations and in the text which states “at first they weren’t sure what to do. Neither of them had made a friend before.” They soon get past that awkwardness and become good friends (Santat, 2015). This story lets young readers know that friendship can be initially challenging and confusing at the start. Similarly, Benny and Penny’s friendship with their new neighbor Melina does not start off well. Benny and Penny get into arguments over who stole whose pale, get into mudslinging fights, and make each other cry. In the end, apologies are said, Benny and Penny end up making Melina laugh, and a friendship bond forms between all of them This shows young children that it is possible to become friends with people who you initially had arguments with or did not get along with for some reason. In chapter two of Charlie and Mouse we get another example of how to develop friendships. Charlie and Mouse walk down a street and invite all the children they see to a neighborhood party. We eventually see Charlie and Mouse and all the children arrive at the playground which in a twist is completely empty; Charlie and Mouse and all the children start playing together and the chapter concludes “it was the best party ever” (Snyder, 2017). Here we have a third way of friendship forming which is inviting someone to play with you.

.Framework Theme: Responsibility

            Responsibility is not as an overt theme in the as some of the other in the books reviewed but it is present at times sometimes in subtle ways. In Knock Knock My Dad’s Dream For Me, we meet a boy whose dad knocks on his door to greet him every morning, until one day he stops coming. The boy is depicted in illustrations being sad about his dad not being around and via the text we learn he misses his dad and pines for his dad to come home and teach him to do everything he needs to know in the future like drive a car, dribble a ball, and shave. Eventually, the boy receives a letter from his father who apologies for no longer being there for him and also offers advice and encouragement for his future (Collier, 2013). While not said in those terms in the story, the book touches upon the responsibility that family members have for each other and what happens when people cannot meet those responsibilities.

            Family responsibility is a theme in other stories reviewed. Basquiat always makes time to visit his older mom who is suffering from dementia (Steptoe, 2017). We get a glimpse of the Mouse’s responsibility to its children in The Lion and The Mouse where after being let go by the lion and after freeing the lion from a hunters trap, we see the mouse rush back to its children. It could also be arguing that the mouse helps the lion out of the hunter’s trap because of a sense of responsibility to the lion (Pickney, 2010). The responsibility to protect one’s children can also be seen in the slaves who bring their children along the underground rail road in search for freedom and a better life (Evams, 2011). A boy named Eric has a relationship that includes mutual responsibility with his Grandma in Grandma’s Gift. Grandma helps the boy navigate the city and makes him food and the boy helps his grandma by reading the signs in English she cannot read (Velasquez, 2019). This shows readers a relationship where both people are responsible for different things.

Framework Theme: Geography and Maps

            None of the books reviewed contain a map. On the other hand, locations and geography are discussed and depicted in illustrations. The location that is seen most often in the books reviewed in New York City. Grandma’s Gift is mostly set in two specific locations in New York which is El Barrio a Puerto Rican neighborhood and Fifth Avenue which is downtown. In El Barrio we seen illustrations of shops with signs all written in Spanish as most of the shop owners and workers are people of color. When the action moves to fifth avenue the buildings look bigger and different in the background and the narrator notes that “we didn’t see anyone from Puerto Rico on the streets and no one was speaking Spanish” (Velasquez, 2019). This alerts the reader how changes in location can have big impacts on who you meet and what you see and hear. Radiant Child shows changes in different parts of New York City as Basquiat moves from Brooklyn to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. For instance, in Brooklyn we see buildings with bricks of variations of red in the background and street graffiti style art all around. In both locations, the crowded population of New York is displayed by packing the pages with people of all types and cars and the city is described as a concrete jungle where only the tough survive (Steptoe, 2017). In Firebird we also get stylized illustrations of New York City featuring large building and subway stops(Copeland, 2015). Even the imaginary Beetle who travels to find a friend appears to first land in a place that looks a lot like New York City with tall buildings and subways packed with people where Beetle observes it looks like everyone needs nap time (Santat, 2015). These illustrations and depictions of New York city could help readers get a better understanding of what life is like in New York City.

            While New York City is depicted in some of the books reviewed, New Orleans almost acts as a character unto itself in the biography of Trombone Shorty. We learn that Trombone Shorty grew up in a part of New Orleans called Tremé where “any time of day or night you could hear music floating in the air” (Andrew & Taylor, 2016) and we then get illustrations of Brass Band Parades marking through packed neighborhoods and people celebrating Mardi Gras along with actual pictures in the author’s note of Trombone Shortygrowing up in the Tremé neighborhood. Other biographies reviewed provide a sense of place via the illustrations. For instance the Barrios and Church Cathedrals of Lima, Peru are depicted as we learn about Martin de Porres’s childhood (Schmidt, 2012) and the land of Edgefield, South Caroline is shown as we read about the life of Dave The Potter (Carrick, 2010). Cuban cafés are brought to life in the illustrations of Drum Girl Dreaming (Engle, 2015)as are both the streets of Mexico and the ruins of ancient Aztec and Maya civilizations in when we read about Diego Rivera’s world (Tonatiuh, 2011). Both Winnipeg Canada and locations in England are shown in illustrations in Winnie the Bear’s story. (Mattick, 2016).

Framework: Economics, Commerce, and Work

            The unequal nature of who has economic power and money is theme that comes up in many books reviewed. We learn that the people who live in Tremé don’t have a lot of money, but they do have music (Andrew & Taylor, 2016). In Lima royalty are depicted as having fancy food and rings while slaves and others lack basic necessities of life  (Schmidt, 2012). The struggle of everyday people to get what they need from greedy businessmen and Spanish Royalty comes up often in the artwork and life of Diego Rivera as his story is told (Tonatiuh, 2011). While they are not always overtly discussed, the fact that slavery is an exploitation of  someone’s life and labor for someone else’s profit can be seen as an economic theme of Dave the Potter (Carrick, 2010) and the slaves who are looking for freedom via the Underground Railroad (Evams, 2011).

            Not all of the stories reviewed show economics, work, and commerce, with this dynamic of unequal interactions. Eric’s Grandma is shown negotiating prices for various food items at the local shops in El Barrio New York. (Velasquez, 2019). This demonstrates to the reader that negotiations in prices are part of economic systems. In chapter three of Charlie and Mouse both characters want to get money. Their idea is to go door to door in their neighborhood and sell rocks. But, they soon find that their neighbor is not interested in buying rocks but will pay them a dollar to get the rocks off of her property (Snyder, 2017). The failure to sell rocks can be looked at as continuing theme of negotiated prices in a market as can the agreement to do work in exchange for a dollar. Another sale takes place as Henry buys the bear Winnie from a trapper for the negotiated price of twenty dollars (Mattick, 2016).

Framework Theme: Government/Elections

            The concepts of elections are never specifically addressed in any of the books reviewed. There are mentions of government both in the biographies of Diego Rivera (Tonatiuh, 2011) and Martin de Porres (Schmidt, 2012). In both cases, Spanish Royalty and the unequal and oppressive practices of that royal government are themes in the text and illustrations.


            History is a common feature of the award winning text reviewed. The main reason for this is the number of books reviewed which were biographies. These include biographies of Martin de Porres, Trombone Shorty, Jean Michel Basquiat, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Misty Copeland, Dave The Potter, Millo Castro Zaldarriaga (Drum Girl Dreaming) and Winnie The Bear. How the biographies are approach varies in style however. The biographies of Martin de Porres, Trombone Shorty, Diego Rivera, Jean Michel Basquiat, Millo Castro Zaldarriaga and Winnie the Bear follow a more traditional biographical structure of starting in their youth and following them into adulthood. These texts more likely fit the notion of what the frameworks for history are trying to address. The stories of Frida Kahlo are Misty Copeland handled differently. Both of those books feature sparse text that only give hints to the subjects biographies and use the illustrations to give further insights into who they subjects were as people; in addition, both books feature author’s notes in the end with fuller biographies of the subjects the books depict.

            History is also a theme in the background of I, Too, Am, America and Underground, Finding The Light To Freedom. The text of  I, Too, Am, America is a Langston Hughes poem which makes reference to the historic mistreatment of people of color in the United States; moreover, the illustrations which mostly are on a train ride depict the Pullman Porters who worked on trains and gathered newspapers, books, albums, and more left behind by train passengers and threw them to people in towns the trains would stop at (Hughes, 2012). This is another case were the illustrations hint at history and then in the illustrator’s note we get a fuller understanding of the historical context of what is in the illustrations. In much the same way Underground, Finding The Light To Freedomdoes not read like a direct historic narrative but uses sparse text and illustrations to show readers what traveling along the Underground Railroad most likely would have been like (Evams, 2011).

Framework: Knowledge of Different Cultures

A large number of the books reviewed present opportunities to learn about different cultures. Twenty different poets and poems from all around the world representing a myriad of cultural backgrounds are in Out of Wonder: Poems About Celebrating Poets(Alexander, Colderley, & Wentworth, 2018). That book features the work of African American poet Langston Hughes whose poems also form the text of two of the other books reviewed My People (Hughes, 2010) and I , Too, Am, America (Hughes, 2012) which have themes of pride in African American culture. When Trombone Shorty is introducing us to the world of New Orleans Jazz, the reader is introduced to specific New Orleans and Jazz related slang and expressions and one of the overarching themes of the book can be interpreted as Trombone Shorty’s pride in the New Orleans culture which inspired him (Andrew & Taylor, 2016).

            The biographies of both Diego Rivera and Frida Kohlo give readers insights into Mexican culture. The illustrations of Frida depict her wearing traditional Mexican dresses and the fact her artwork was inspired by both Mexican culture in her time and the indigenous cultures of Mexico is discussed in the author’s note at the end of the book(Morales, 2014). Frida Kohlo’s husband Diego Rivera had similar themes in his art work. In the book we see Diego painting murals that depict Mexican people’s history and costumes and learn that he was also inspired by ancient Aztec and Maya civilizations in his artwork. Moreover, the illustrations of the text depicts different outfits and types of dress that included Spanish Royalty and common Mexican people who were struggling for freedom against them as well as traditional Mexican dance traditions (Tonatiuh, 2011).  Mexican culture can also be found in Nino Wrestles The World which features a boy pretending to be a Lucha Libre wrestler. Lucha Libre is a  performance style of wrestling where wrestlers wear masked that often depict characters who are heroes, animals, and mythical figures which is mentioned in the notes about Lucha Libre sections of the book (Morales, 2013). Book Fiesta provides an overview of the Mexican holiday El Dia De Los Ninos (children’s day) and tells the story how it also became a day to celebrate reading and books in Mexico (Mora, 2010). The intersection of performance arts and culture is also present in Drum Dream Girl which has illustrations that show Cuban Café’s where Cuban drummers would perform (Engle, 2015).  Religion and culture intersect in Martin de Porres biography as we see him go from living in poverty in Lima to being part of the church where he was eventually canonized. The illustrations exhibit the style of dress and building architecture both in Lima and inside the churches where he worked (Schmidt, 2012).

            New York and Puerto Rican cultural traditions permeate the art of Basquiat as well. We learn early in his biography that his Puerto Rican mother was a big influence on his art and he grew up eating traditional Puerto Rican dishes like arroz con pollo made by his grandmother. Moreover, Basquiat’s father plays him jazz music. Subtle cultural references can be found throughout the text. For example, a icon of Jesus and Mary is displayed prominently in Basquiat’s family apartment and a cross is visible above his mother when he goes to visit her when she is older and sick. The illustrations also give us a view into New York’s street culture with people dressed in wide range of outfits and graffiti with different messages covering buildings (Steptoe, 2017). We get a similar mix of New York and Puerto Rican culture shown in Grandma’s gift. There we see grandma and her grandson Eric traveling around the El Barrio section of New York where Puerto Rican shops are along all the streets and Spanish is primarily spoken. This is later juxtaposed to Fifth Avenue culture which is not too far away from El Barrio but where no one speaks Spanish and the people are illustrated as Caucasian more than as people of color. As Grandma is shopping, she is shown getting ingredients to make a traditional Puerto Rican Christmas dish of Pasteles which she buys while speaking Spanish to the shop owners. Back home, Eric and his Grandma make the Pasteles while she tells him stories of Puerto Rico and they listen to Puerto Rican music (Velasquez, 2019).  All of this provides a deep dive into Puerto Rican culture.

            In many of the above mentioned books, Spanish and English are both used in the text In some cases like Grandma’s Gift Spanish and English are both used by characters while in other like Book Fiesta both the entire text is written in both Spanish and English. As language is tied with culture, both styles expose readers to different languages and thus culture. The Princesa and The Pea which is a Peruvian twist on the fairy tale even goes as far as providing a glossary of Spanish terms that will be used in the text (Elya, 2017).

            As noted earlier, cities and places can demonstrate cultural themes. Just as cities often have their own culture, so can the suburbs. Some of the books written have stories and settings that could be argued to be examples of suburban culture. Charlie and Mouse walk around their neighborhood that is filled with homes and not large buildings, they play at a local playground, and interact with neighbors in yards (Snyder, 2017). Benny and Penny also appear to be living a suburban style life where there is a neighborhood with yards all separated by picket fences and potential friends to meet or get into conflicts with on the other side (Hayes, 2009).

Framework Theme: Freedom of Expression

Expressing oneself via the arts is the most common manifestation of freedom of expression in the books reviewed. At the end of Grandma’s Gift the grandson Eric learns about a slave who eventually became a famous painter Juan De Pareja as part of a school project where he has to visit an art museum (Velasquez, 2019). In Diego Rivera’s biography not only is the reader exposed to his art and activism, the book ends with a call for the reader to be a future artist and activist (Tonatiuh, 2011). The expressive and healing powers of art are a central theme in the life story of Basquiat (Steptoe, 2017) and we also learn in the author notes how art was part of Frida Kohlo’s way of expressing herself and dealing with health issues (Morales, 2014). Expression via the musical arts is both central to the true stories of Drum Girl Dreaming(Engle, 2015)and Trombone Shorty(Andrew & Taylor, 2016). Poetic expression can happen in song lyrics and in poetry itself which is celebrated in Out Of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets(Alexander et al., 2018) as well as Dave The Potter who expresses himself via poetry and the artistry in the pots he creates (Carrick, 2010).  The value of written expression is referenced in the culminating letter from father to son in Knock Knock when the father writes to his estranged son to “dribble the page with the brilliance of your ballpoint pen” as the illustration depicts the boy writing” (Collier, 2013). Misty Copeland tells a young ballerina that she will sore and be a beautiful swan (Copeland, 2015) which highlights how dance can be a form of expression as well.

Research Limitations

            In any study that analyzes literature looking at themes, one of the limitations is the knowledge limitations, potential biases, and misconceptions of the researcher. Moreover, trying to determine what themes exist in a book is inherently subjective. The fact that this study was only conducted with one researcher reviewing the text limits the ability for more than one researcher to come up with themes related to civics in the stories and to see if there is agreement between the researchers.


            After reviewing of the books, it is clear that themes in award winning picture books overlap with the learning goals related to the social sciences and history in the Massachusetts frameworks. Award winning picture books could most likely be used by teachers to meet the history and social science goals in the learning frameworks. The only standard with limited representation in the framework was related to government and elections. The standards of history, kindness, friendship, and learning about cultures had the most representation in the books reviewed. A larger study that looked at more picture books awards as well as a great number of years could be helpful to teachers looking to find quality picture books that met social studies and history guidelines in Massachusetts. 


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Andrew, T., & Taylor, B. (2016).Trombone Shorty: Harry N Abrams

Caldecott. (2019). Caldecott Medal Home Page: American Library Association Retrieved from

Carrick, L. (2010). Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave, : Little, Brown and Company

Collier, B. (2013). Knock knock: my dad’s dream for me: Little Brown and Company

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Copeland, M. (2015). Firebird: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, Penguin Group

Cordell, M. (2018). Wolf In The Snow: Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan

Elya, S. (2017). La Princesa and the

Pea: G. P. Putnam’s Sons,

an imprint of Penguin Random House

Engle, M. (2015). Drum Dream Girl: How

One Girl's Courage Changed Music: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Evams, S. (2011). Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom: Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck

Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership

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Fox, K. (2006). Using Author Studies in Children's Literature to Explore Social Justice Issues. Social Studies, 97, 251-256.

Hayes, G. (2009). Benny and Penny in

the Big No-No: Toon Books, a

division of RAW Junior, LLC

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Hughes, L. (2010). My People: Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Hughes, L. (2012). I. Too. Am. America: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, an

imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division

Keller, L. (2016). We Are Growing! : Hyperion Books for

Children, an imprint of Disney Book Group

Klassen, J. (2013). This Is Not My Hat Candlewick Press

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Standards (Vol. Bulletin 95): National Council for the Social Studies Retrieved from

Long, E. (2012). Up, Tall and High!, : G. P. Putnam’s Sons,

a division of Penguin Young Readers Group

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Mattick, L. (2016). Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s

Most Famous Bear: Little, Brown and Company, a division of

Hachette Book Group, Inc

Mora, P. (2010). Book Fiesta!:

Celebrate Children’s Day/Book Day; Celebremos El día de los niños/El día de los

libros: Harper Collins

Morales, Y. (2013). Niño Wrestles the

World: Roaring Brook Press

Morales, Y. (2014). Viva Frida 

Moss, B. (2018). Governor Baker Signs Bill to Promote Civic Education for Students.  Retrieved from

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Palmer, J., & Burroughs, S. (2002). Integrating Children's Literature and Song into the Social Studies. Social Studies, 93, 73-98.

Pickney, J. (2010). The Lion & the Mouse Little, Brown and Company

. Pura Belpré Award Home Page (2019): American Library Association Retrieved from

Raschka, C. (2012). A Ball for Daisy Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random

House Children's Books, a division of Random House, Inc

Santat, D. (2015). The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend Little Brown and Company

Schmidt, G. (2012). Martin de Porres: The

Rose in the Desert: Clarion Books

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Singleton, L. (1997). C Is for Citizenship: Children's Literature and Civic Understanding: Social Science Education Consortium Retrieved from

Snyder, L. (2017). Charlie & Mouse: Chronicle

Stead, P. (2011). A Sick Day for Amos McGee, : Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press, an

imprint of Macmillan Children's Publishing Group)

Steptoe, J. (2017). Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist

Jean-Michel Basquiat Little, Brown and Company, a division of

Hachette Book Group, Inc.

. The Coretta Scott King Book Awards. (2019): Association for Library Service to Children Retrieved from

Tonatiuh, D. (2011). Diego Rivera: His

World and Ours: Abrams Books For Young Readers

Velasquez, E. (2019). Grandma's Gift, : Walker Children's Books

[1] This book is a part of The Hat Trilogy where similar moral conflicts over hats occur.

Photos: Fund Our Future’s  Play Date Protest at Massachusetts State House

Photos: Fund Our Future’s Play Date Protest at Massachusetts State House

Boston City Councilor  Michelle Wu And The Importance of Politicians With Young Children

Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu And The Importance of Politicians With Young Children