Using Picture Books to Teach Setting


Something that has surprised me about homeschooling is how much I’ve enjoyed teaching and learning along with my children. I’ve been picking books for our family read aloud that I loved as a child or have always wanted to read. I’m learning to add and subtract from left to right (as much as my brain rebels against the thought), and this just may be the year when molecular structure actually makes sense. Maybe. Of all the things we’ll study this year, however, I’m most excited about introducing my third grader to the basic elements of story structure and writing. I’m spending more time planning these lessons than any other, mostly because I love the topic so much. To get us started, I’m opting to focus on story elements in picture books because they are short and fun. In the process, I’ve ended up with a list of some of my favorite books to illustrate setting:

We started with the definition of setting: the time and place of a story or scene. After that, we looked at stories set in very specific locations. My favorite example for this kind of setting is Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey. Important details in the story are tied to the city of Boston, from the skyline to the street names. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling is another fabulous example, although not a picture book. The locations in the book (Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, Privet Drive) are spectacularly detailed and relevant to the story.

Next, we looked at some books that have detailed settings that are important to the story but are less specific. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak could start in almost any bedroom, although probably not at the swimming pool. Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson and The Mermaid and the Shoe by K.G. Campbell are other examples of stories with settings significant to the story that could be a bus in just about any city or under any ocean respectively.

Finally, we rounded out the lesson with examples of how time and weather affect setting. Both the rain and the nighttime play important roles in The Rain Train by Elena de Roo and Brian Lovelock. We also read books that take place in another time (The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch) and those that move through time (any one of the Magic Treehouse books works well here).

I usually end our writing lessons with a writing prompt. This week, I gave my third grader a choice: rewrite a story in a different place or rewrite a story in a different time. He ended up rewriting Curious George Visits a Toy Store in a grocery store. It was more fun that I thought to imagine what would happen if George was let loose on our local Ingles.

Other picture books that have great examples of settings include Madeline by Ludwig BemelmansShark vs. Train by Chris Barton and Tom Lichtenheld, Leaves by David Ezra Stein, and Bug in a Vacuum by Mélanie Watt. I also found an old story on cassette I’d listened to as a child and purchased the CD version for nostalgia’s sake more than anything else. I can still remember how vividly I could see Venice in my mind’s eye while I sat in my room and listened to the story.

What are some of your favorite setting-rich stories? If any of you try something similar at home or in the classroom, please let me know! I’d love to hear how it goes.



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