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The Vine: August 23, 2013

Submitted by on August 23, 2013 – 1:46 PM57 Comments


I'm a fifth-grade teacher seeking some inspiration.

My poor kiddos only get art (and music) once a week, and I have been attempting to bring as much exposure to the arts into my general-ed classroom as possible. As of lately, I have been especially focusing on visual literacy. My question is actually twofold.

Part the first: I am looking for some good recommendations for graphic novels that have some level of literary value. Maus may be thematically above my readers, but I would like to challenge them past Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Captain Underpants (ugh).

Secondly, I would love some novel recommendations that center around a real artist or piece of art. Could be a painting, sculpture, photography, or something I haven't yet considered. I already have literature circle sets for Blue Balliet's books, including Chasing Vermeer and The Calder Game. I've recently been inspired by Rebecca Stead's Liar & Spy and its inclusion of Seurat.

Checking in with the usual teacher resources has not turned up anything that has thrilled me. I suspect that the Nation may have some ideas that better align with my style. My fifth-grade readers range from a third-grade reading level up to early high school. While I do have some very strong readers, I still need to steer clear of any questionable content. Love to push them, though!


Mr. G

Hit it, Nation — but please keep it to three (3) suggestions per comment so they don't get too tl;dr. (You can always post again if you're feeling really strongly about a fourth. Or…fourteenth. Which probably won't happen because y'all hate to read.)


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  • Duana says:

    There's a great book called The Mozart Season, by Virginia Euwer Wolff – involves a 12-year-old girl who enters a competition to play Mozart's 4th violin concerto, K. 218.

    It's great and both light and dark at times – also gets very specific about the music in certain parts.

  • Bubbles says:

    American Born Chinese might work.
    I think Bone should work at about that level.
    I tend to stick to superheroes, so that's all I've got offhand.

  • LauraBeth says:

    From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It's about a girl and her brother who run away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's still one of my favorite books!

  • LDA says:

    From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Inspired me to do research on Michelangelo as a child and to dream of living at the Met.

  • Adrienne says:

    The Art Forger by BA Shapiro is a fictionalized account of a woman faking one of the stolen paintings from the Isabella Stuart Gardner museum heist. Lots of real Degas paintings were taken, but she made one up for the book, too. I'm pretty sure there's some adult content, but I can't remember how adult it was, but that's true of Girl with a Pearl Earring, too.

  • Elizabeth says:

    What about M. T. Anderson's book on Handel? It's a picture book, but pitched at a higher reading level than most (so even though students younger than 5th grade could read it, I don't think it would feel too babyish), and it's hilarious and awesome.

  • katie says:

    For graphic novels, you might try Bone and Amulet. My kid has enjoyed both of those.

  • Kari says:

    I am a middle school librarian and I worked a few years ago on a project called Art of Collaboration, which focuses on infusing the visual arts throughout the curriculum. I'm linking a page of lesson plans here to give you some ideas of what we did. It was amazing how much our students could learn when we brought in other forms of learning.

  • Lily P. says:

    Two books by E.L. Konigsberg come to mind:

    From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (of course)

    The Second Mrs. Giaconda (about Da Vinci painting the Mona Lisa)

  • Nanc in Ashland says:

    Hmm, you're dealing with a lots of variables! My suggestion is for your upper level readers–hopefully the rest of the nation will have suggestions that are more inclusive of the entire range.

    I haven't read them myself, but the teen librarian where I volunteer is always recommending The Graphic Canon, Volumes 1, 2 and 3, edited by Russ Kick. They're on my request list at the library but I'm in place 80 or so, so it will be awhile before I get to them.

  • Suzanne says:

    Hollow Earth and Bone Quill by Carole and John Barrowman. They're fantasy books (aimed at middle school age-ish) about twins who travel through paintings. They have strong details, descriptions, and information about various famous artists and their paintings. They also have some nice historical and mythical elements that are well researched.

  • Matthew E says:

    _I Kill Giants_ might work for you; my brother tells me that his friend has used it in her special-needs class.

  • Plantie says:

    Both of my middle school kids loved "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" and "Wonderstruck" by Brian Selznick; not really graphic novels but appealing in the same way.

  • Lucy says:

    These may not be quite as literary as what you're looking for, but I've been really enjoying Atomic Robo comics. The art is fun, they're kid-appropriate (no swearing, no sex, cartoony violence), and they're really funny in a way that I think kids of that age will appreciate. The antagonists are generally mad scientists/evil robots/the ghost of Thomas Edison, and the comics include/reference a lot of historical scientists (see above re: Edison, also Tesla, Turing, Sagan, etc.).

  • SolitaryBlue says:

    Joining the chorus for "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler." Still one of my favorite books ever.

    Also try Bettina Valentino and the Picasso Club.

  • Maria says:

    Here's a link from a local library that might have some good ideas now that everyone has steered you to E.L Konigsburg. ;o)

  • Gene says:

    "Digger" by Ursula Vernon

    Won A Hugo for Best Graphic Story, it was a as webcomic that was released as 6 volume large format.

  • Jo says:

    I've been reading a graphic novel adaption of Nelson Mandela's autobiography. It's pretty good and relevant to current events. I think it would be appropriate for fifth graders.

  • Liz B. says:

    Ooh, me, pick me! ::flails hand in the air::

    Okay, these are not actually about real people like you asked, but since way too many GNs center on boys or have girl characters who are little more than damsels in distress, I'd like to offer up some girl-friendly (but NOT wimpy or romance-soaked) alternatives, and then I'll do another post with real-world relations. Consider this my "extra credit" section. ;-)

    These are all series (so kids who like the first have the option to continue), and they all have MANY thumbs up from me and my now 10-year-old daughter who is about to go into the 5th grade, herself:

    1) Courtney Crumrin (

    2) Magic Trixie ( (this author/artist also has many other fantastic kid-friendly GNs)

    3) The Courageous Princess (

  • MinglesMommy says:

    I second "Wonderstruck." It's really extraordinarily well done.

  • Liz B. says:

    Okay, so stuff that relates directly to the real world:

    I'm cheating, here, but The Cartoon History of… series is one of my favorites. It's a little on the advanced side, and the pictures are cartoony rather than art-y, but each one provides a really fantastic overview of its subject. You can probably find one with chapters that overlap whatever's in your social studies plan.

    There are others in the series for sciences and lots of other topics as well:

  • pomme de terre says:

    It might be a little junior for 5th graders (although the Amazon link says ages 9 and up), but the Linnea in Monet's Garden series was a favorite of mine:

  • Candy says:

    You don't have teacher librarians at your school, Mr. G? This is 100% the kinds of reference questions they are there for! You could also ask the childrens' librarian at your local public library too, we get these kinds of questions a lot and usually have readymade lists available!

  • Plaidsneakers says:

    "The Court of the Stone Children" by Eleanor Cameron is more of a time slip historical fiction. It's kind of a cross of "From the Mixed Up Files" (mentioned above) and "The Children of the Green Knowe" friendly ghost story and mystery from the past. The heart of the story is in a museum, so maybe more art adjacent. This one is in San Francisco. I read it in 5th grade way back in 1980,and still remember loving it to pieces.

  • Emma says:

    I Personally didn't like it, but there is a book based on Girl With a Pearl Earring.

    Also, this isn't visually-based, but would you have use for The Shakespeare Stealer, The Day They Came to Arrest the Book, and other YA-as-frame-story-for-classics types?

  • anotherkate says:

    The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin uses the song "America the Beautiful" as clues in a scavenger hunt.

    Court of the Stone Children by Eleanor Cameron is out of print, but is a great ghost story that involves paintings, specifically "Time Is A River Without Banks" by Marc Chagall. It's also set mostly at a museum (DeYoung Museum in San Francisco). This might be slightly above your age level, I haven't read it recently enough to remember.

  • Kim says:

    Oh, Mr. G, I just want to tell you I love you for doing this. My third-grade teacher similarly poured modern art into our heads in spare moments–decades later, I wonder if he was a thwarted grad student–and kindled a love of certain artists in me that I didn't even twig to until visiting MoMA in New York, long after. The shock of affection and memory, recognizing piece after piece, was an amazing experience.

    Meanwhile, is it odd to say "get these kids onto Calvin and Hobbes, STAT"? Not exactly a graphic novel, but there are layers in there for every reading level.

  • katie says:

    Oh, and Mouse Guard is great, and really quite well-written for a children's graphic novel.

  • Wehaf says:

    I haven't read it yet, but I have heard good things about Clan Apis (a graphic novel about honeybees).

    Dinotopia isn't quite a graphic novel; it's written as a 19th century traveler's sketchbook and diary. Very Jules Verne-esque, and the illustrations are amazing.

    The Percy Jackson and the Olympians books are also available in graphic novel form.

  • Daisy says:

    Daisy Whitney has a new one coming out Sept. 3 called Starry Nights. Description from Goodreads:

    "Seventeen-year-old Julien is a romantic—he loves spending his free time at the museum poring over the great works of the Impressionists. But one night, a peach falls out of a Cezanne, Degas ballerinas dance across the floor, and Julien is not hallucinating.

    "The art is reacting to a curse that trapped a beautiful girl, Clio, in a painting forever. Julien has a chance to free Clio and he can't help but fall in love with her. But love is a curse in its own right. And soon paintings begin to bleed and disappear. Together Julien and Clio must save the world's greatest art . . . at the expense of the greatest love they've ever known.

    "Like a master painter herself, Daisy Whitney brings inordinate talent and ingenuity to this romantic, suspenseful, and sophisticated new novel.A beautifully decorated package makes it a must-own in print."

  • ArtTeacher says:

    I would suggest talking with your art teacher/music teacher in the building. There might be books she/he is using/planning on using in her/his class that you don't want to overlap with. I also suggest making sure you are on the same page. I think it is great you want to include more in your curriculum, but you want to make sure you are not sending students mixed messages. Make sure you are supporting what they are learning in their weekly classes and not conflicting or confusing what they are learning!

  • Mr. G says:

    Original poster here. I'm excited for the suggestions. Definitely going to look into all of them. Love the concept for the Barrowman books! While I didn't include it in my original post, I have done E.L. Konigsburg books before. I'm also pumped about your resource, Kari. Thanks for sharing! "Bone" has been on my to-read pile for too long. Need to get on that.

    Excited to hopefully hear of a few more ideas.

  • Chesh says:

    In the webcomic vein, I like Bad Machinery and Gunnerkrigg Court. They both have fantasy/mystery elements and feature children as protagonists, and hard copies are available on Amazon. I can't recall any content more questionable than a Harry Potter book in either of them, but you can screen them both online to see if they're what you're looking for.

  • Elizabeth says:

    My students really like Raina Telgemeier's Smile, Drama, and Wonder.

  • Bubbles says:

    I was just going to say Smile! I had forgotten about Raina Telgemeier until I was looking aroudn with my kiddo at the bookstore last night. I've read and excerpt from smile, and it looks really good.

  • Jane says:

    Don't forget nonfiction/history! James Sturm's Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow; Lat's Kampung Boy; Don Brown's The Dust Bowl. (Not sure what "questionable content" means to you, so I can't promise they're policed for that, but they're all recommendable to the average fifth-grade class, and they're fantastic books–all with authors that are worth looking at more from.)

    Is this a school without a librarian? That's really sad.

  • Lindsay says:

    Different option: Have you considered Eric Carle's Animals Animals? It's a wonderful collection of different samples of poetry from around the globe, with fantastic cut paper illustrations.
    I find it inspirational on so many different levels – art, poetry, different world cultures.

  • Mr. G says:

    I've already checked the usual teacher resources, including the teacher-librarian at our school and the public library. Sadly, they did not pull anything that I haven't already used or seen.

    ArtTeacher, I appreciate your point. Rest easy, though, because this is actually an initiative that her and I have been pushing together. Art only once a week is such a travesty, that we've been working together to bring more of what they do into my classroom.

    Now that I have such an awesome, beefed-up list to work from, I need to get to work on acquiring small sets of these novels. Last Spring, I attempted a failed Donor's Choose project to get a class set of "Bone." Fingers-crossed for a blow-out sale on graphic novels!

  • Lauren says:

    You might like "The Arrival" by Shaun Tan. It's a wordless graphic novel whose themes include immigration (although not in a way that's likely to be insanely controversial–think Ellis Island plus magical realism; the era and fantasy elements help distance it from current U.S. politics). I read it for a college literature course but checked it out of the youngest kids section of my local library.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Wow, such great suggestions! I finally thought of something: The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatly Snyder. It's got interracial friendships that don't make a huge deal of said friendships, boys and girls interacting realistically, and a lot of kid's point of view research of ancient Egypt's history and art. Warning–there's a murder mystery in the book that may be a bit too scary for younger readers.

    If they like that one, the same author wrote the wonderful The Headless Cupid and The Witches of Worm.

  • Laura says:

    Definitely Bone. It's perfect.

  • nem0 says:

    I would check for age appropriateness first, but the Nausicaa graphic novels by Hayao Miyazaki are beautiful and tell an amazing tale, with a strong female protagonist to boot.

    Persepolis is also a pretty and literary book, but again, I'm not sure what age group you're going for.

    For something a bit sillier, but very good and grade school friendly, check out the works of Faith Erin Hicks. Adventures of Superhero Girl, Friends With Boys, and War At Ellsmere are all fantastic and probably good for all ages. She just came out with a new book, Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, that's an adaptation of a YA novel about competing robot building teams in high school. There's a sample on the book's webpage:

    (Full disclosure: I'm friends with Faith and helped design her first book cover, so BIASED. But she's won awards and is considered one of Canada's top sequential artists by people with far more qualifications than I have, so…there's that.)

  • AngieFM says:

    Couple ideas–Jenni Holm and Matt Holm write two graphic novel series. One is "Babymouse" (centers on a girl mouse in the elementary grades and her adventures; she's sort of…Eloise meets Scout meets Harriet the Spy?) and the other is "Squish," which is about an amoeba and his friends. Both series are great–funny, well-drawn, interesting. Probably a little young for fifth grade, but a good fit for some of your up-and-coming readers.

    Also came across a graphic novel version of "A Wrinkle in Time" just today. Haven't read it so I can't vouch for it, but I know it's out there.

  • Maureen says:

    I used to put together book fairs for Borders, and I second AngieFM's recommendation of Babymouse. I also got a a head's up from a 5th grader on the Big Nate series. These are more of the "let's get the kids into reading", rather than art literacy-but I think your kids would really enjoy them.

  • Wehaf says:

    I also came across this list on, "The Best Graphic Novels for Middle School".

  • Maggie says:

    Graphic novel recommendations!

    Non-fiction: Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales by Nathan Hale – crazy true stories from American History. There are 3 so far: Revolutionary War, Civil War, and the Donner Party. They're awesome.

    Fiction: Hereville by Barry Deutsch

  • Georgia says:

    Ooh! I work for a children's library development collection service.

    Bluffton by Matt Phelan: a graphic novel about Buster Keaton
    The Amelia Rules! series by Jimmy Gownley: series of realistic graphic novels about a middle school-aged girl; very funny
    The Shakespeare Mysteries by Deron R. Hicks: series in which a middle school-aged girl must discover her family's connection to Shakespeare in order to save the family business; funny, clever, good info. about Shakespeare and his times

  • Allie says:

    Graphic novel recommendation:
    It might be a bit junior – but even as an adult I loved Zita the Spacegirl and Legends of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke. The art is charming and the adventures are fun and exciting.

  • Phineyj says:

    This is a music recommendation rather than visual art — it's a cartoon that introduces classical music in a fun and visual way. Also teaches the students something about totalitarianism – result!'s_Orchestra

  • Laura G says:

    A little late to the party, but I have to recommend "I, Juan de Pareja". It's told from the perspective of a real-life slave of a real-life big-time artist whose name escapes me at the moment. Spoiler: Juan is eventually freed, becomes a great artist in his own right, and meets the king. Might be good for discussing slavery race in addition to art and European history.

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