Picture Book-Driven Inquiry: Picturing Survival with Octavia Butler

I’ve been eager to shake up my classroom literature circles.  Sometimes, it is easy to fall into a routine rut: assign some chapters to be read, passages to be annotated, literary techniques to be identified.  As we read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, I thought about what it meant for Lauren Olamina to come of age in the dystopian setting of Robledo—specifically, how her approach to survival is at odds with how her neighbors in the walled community approach it.  Wishing to “build a future that makes sense,” Lauren refuses to settle for band-aid solutions that fail to address root causes.

As my class discusses what adolescence looks like in the novel’s bleak dystopian world, we think about what it means to come of age with a sense of well-being, with nurture and support available to young people as they move toward greater independence.  This train of thought led me to thinking about the influence of picture books: how important it is to have access to stories at an early age, when we’re just starting to make sense of our place in everything.  In a post from last spring, I described how a picture book helpfully anchored a case study research investigation with my students.  In this post, I’ll share steps for building literature circle discussions around picture books deliberately put into conversation with Parable of the Sower. This exercise helped my students take ownership of our unit direction, as their noticings and questions became the driver of our class discussions.

Step One: Getting to Know their Picture Books

For the first read-through, the groups designated a member to do the read-aloud, who would make sure to display the pages to the group before turning each page.  Then each member would process the picture book contents through a “head, heart, gut” activity:

  • Head: What did the story make you think of?
  • Heart: How did it make you feel? (Specifically, HOW did it do that?  Through illustration style, repetition, memorable characters, etc.?)
  • Gut: What resonates with you?  (Something that resonates with you is similar to something you already think or believe.)

What became clear from listening to my students discuss their first impressions of their picture book was that thinking about it alongside Butler’s novel allowed them to zoom in.   Thrown against a new backdrop, important details of the novel became more noticeable.  Through reading about Isatou Ceesay’s effort to recycle the plastic bags that were polluting her community, one group better understood how Lauren’s coming-of-age journey occurs as the disintegrating United States faces converging environmental and economic crises.  The accumulating plastic bags reminded them of a striking metaphor from the novel: the “land sharks” waiting to find a way into the walled community.  Both Isatou and Lauren are able to foresee and are willing to address problems that will only snowball.

Step Two: Exploring Picture Book Elements

For a second read-through, groups designated a different member to read the story and flip the pages while everyone looked carefully at the elements of a picture book that might be overlooked: its title, cover, endpapers, gutter, typography, color, and illustration style.  After they considered these elements, I asked them to make connections with some aspect of Butler’s novel.  Then, each group wrote a bank of connections on a poster chart to be displayed throughout the rest of the unit.

While flipping the pages of Outside In, one student noticed that the illustrator uses warm and bright colors when describing the outdoors and darker colors when describing indoor scenes.  He explained that these color associations usually are reversed in his head.  His group made the connection that the walled community in Butler’s novel is the so-called “safer” place compared to the outside.  The illustrator’s use of color helped my students deem the boundary between safe and threatening places in the novel to be illusory.  Nevertheless, this group interestingly described “outside” as a type of ally in both books.  The picture book’s representation of “outside” connects it with the possibility of its readers’ increased social-emotional wellness and overlaps with Lauren’s vision of a safer place up north where she can establish her Earthseed community.

Step Three: Documenting Emerging Questions

The ongoing usefulness of the text juxtaposition became clear once my students began to connect picture book imagery and words with thematic ideas they had identified in the novel.  The student group reading Because of an Acorn had identified change and growth as key thematic ideas that spoke both to Lauren’s coming-of-age journey and the necessary mental adjustment the Robledo community needs to make in order to survive.  Flipping through the picture book pages, my students observed how the illustrated interconnected layers of an ecosystem demonstrate so clearly the cause-and-effect dynamics that are always taking place.  As a result of juxtaposing the texts, this student group generated these questions, which they used to lead discussion in subsequent classes.

  • How does an acorn’s life cycle relate to Lauren’s life?
  • How does the idea of a forest become similar to the change Lauren is trying to seed within her community?
  • What role does change play in a young person’s coming-of-age journey?

The visual stimuli enjoyed through these text juxtapositions helped my students more fully grasp concepts as they thought together.  For more ideas on how to teach Butler’s Parable of the Sower, see my post from last year.


How do you bring picture books into your classroom?  What strategies do you use to make the most out of literature circles?  Share your reflections in the comments below or find me on Twitter @dispatches_b222.

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