Using Picture Books to Teach Characterization

characterizationWe’re plugging along in our Elements of Story unit in language arts, and it’s been a fun excuse to read more picture books with my third grader. Now that he’s reading chapter books on his own, he sometimes considers picture books beneath him. That hasn’t stopped us both from really enjoying the books we read during our character unit.

We started the lesson by defining both protagonist and antagonist. We briefly talked about main vs. supporting characters, especially in longer books. (While Harry Potter is definitely the protagonist of his eponymous series, Hermione, Ron, and Dumbledore are certainly main characters as well.) In addition to the Harry Potter series, we also read through picture books with larger-than-life characters: Can I Play Too? by Mo Willems, Monty’s Magnificent Mane by Gemma O’Neill, and Olivia by Ian FalconerA Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead is full of quieter characters, but they are distinct and beautiful, so it provided a nice contrast to the brighter, sillier books on our list.

When it came time to introduce antagonists, we read about some of my favorite villains: Baba Yaga, the fox from Dr. DeSoto by William Steig, Rumpelstiltskin, and the White Witch from The Lion, The Witch, and the WardrobeWe rounded out the discussion of antagonists by reading That Is NOT a Good Idea! by Mo Willems. The delightful twist at the end is perfect for a lesson on characterization.

Later in the week, we used this list of character traits and these character profile worksheets to examine some of our favorite characters. By pure coincidence, we were also studying adjectives that week, so we spent extra time coming up with character descriptions outside the basic good, bad, kind, and mean. While my third grader was able to describe characters fairly easily, it took him some time to get used to justifying his description with details from the illustrations or text.

The lessons themselves went well, and I was pleased with the variety of characters we found. He didn’t know it at the time, but the whole week was a precursor to my favorite aspect of most stories: the narrator.


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