Using Picture Books to Teach Voice in Writing

Voice.  It’s in every good piece of writing, but it’s a tad elusive when it comes to defining and teaching.

Writing that connects with readers has voice.  Writing that makes you feel emotion has voice. Writing that comes to life has voice.  Writing that sounds unique or comes from the heart has voice.  Voice is the distinct personality of a writing.

That sounds a lot like living literature, doesn’t it?  Exactly.  If we don’t want to read twaddle, we shouldn’t care to write it either.  That’s where voice comes in.

Some people might describe voice as the mood or tone of a piece of writing.  While the mood or tone are definitely impacted by the voice – actual voice is something just a little bit more.  It’s how you craft the words to create the mood or tone of the writing.

See, I told you.  The definition is a little elusive.

No worries, though.  I think by using several picture books as mentor texts, it becomes easier for students to develop an understanding of voice and begin using it better in their own writings.

P. S.  Besides teaching voice through writing, picture books have the unique ability to teach visual voice in their illustrations, too.

Using picture books to teach voice in writing makes a tough concept come to life.

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Using Picture Books to Teach Voice

Below, I will share several lesson ideas to use picture books as mentor writing.  However, simply reading mentor books followed by discussions can work just as well.

One discussion question to use with any mentor book:  Where do you find the voice?  Is it in the general tone of the author/narrator?  Or, is the voice coming from a character(s)?

Using picture books to teach voice in writing makes a tough concept come to life.

Voice Can Evoke Feelings

When books make you laugh out loud or shed a few tears, they have voice.  When they make you feel strong or afraid, they have voice.  When you feel sorry for a character or a situation, you’ve been affected by the voice.  Here are a few great examples of books that set out to stir your emotions:

The Monster at the End of This BookThe Monster at the End of This BookLilly's Purple Plastic PurseLilly’s Purple Plastic PurseNettie's Trip South (Aladdin Picture Books)Nettie’s Trip South (Aladdin Picture Books)When I Was Young in the Mountains (Reading Rainbow Books)When I Was Young in the Mountains (Reading Rainbow Books)


The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone

Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes

Nettie’s Trip South by Ann Turner (an excellent book about slavery)

When I Was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant

Discussion Activity:  What emotions are the characters trying to make you feel?  How do the characters elicit the feelings of the reader?  In other words, what tactics are they using to stir those emotions?

Assigning Voice Lesson:  This is a fun activity to help students learn to give voice to something that seemingly shouldn’t have a voice – colors!  Read My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss and/or Hailstones and Halibut Bones by Mary O’Neill (one of my favorites.)  Complete these three activities:

  • Discuss how each author gives voice to the colors.  Notice particular words and phrases used.  Notice how emotions are stirred.  Notice if the color has taken on a personality through the words.
  • Choose your own color and write a few notes or draw a few images to depict how that color makes you feel.
  • Write a short poem about your color.  The color has just been given a voice!
Using picture books to teach voice in writing makes a tough concept come to life.

Voice Can Share a Perspective

Two people can see the same situation very differently.  When an author wants you to see (or even believe) a certain perspective, it’s often shared through voice.  These books share perspective through voice beautifully:

The True Story of the Three Little PigsThe True Story of the Three Little PigsButterfly HouseButterfly HouseTwo Bad AntsTwo Bad AntsTown Mouse, Country MouseTown Mouse, Country MouseAlexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad DayAlexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day


The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by John Scieszka

Butterfly House by Eve Bunting

Two Bad Ants by Chris Van Allsburg

Town Mouse, Country Mouse by Jan Brett

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst

Discussion Activity:  Perspective is otherwise known as point of view.  How does the main character’s perspective from each book shape the story?  Could the story be totally different from the perspective of a different character?

Perspective Lesson:  Tell (or write) one story from two different perspectives.  Choose from the scenarios listed below or create your own.  Afterward, discuss major twists in the storyline based on the varied perspectives.

  • There’s a snake in your yard.  Tell one story from your perspective.  Tell another from the snake’s perspective.
  • Its the day after Christmas.  Tell one story from the perspective of the mom who gets her cluttered house back in order.  Tell another from the perspective of the trash collector picking up the extra trash from the holiday festivities.
  • It’s raining.  Tell one story from the perspective of someone living near a creek where the rains have been pounding for four days straight.  The another story from the perspective of a farmer who hasn’t seen rain in two months.
Using picture books to teach voice in writing makes a tough concept come to life.

Voice Can Show Personality Traits

It makes sense that the voice of a character would share much about his or her personality, and that’s exactly what these books demonstrate – very intriguing personalities:

My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother (Aladdin Picture Books)My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother (Aladdin Picture Books)The Paper Bag Princess (Classic Munsch)The Paper Bag Princess (Classic Munsch)Officer Buckle & Gloria (CALDECOTT MEDAL BOOK)Officer Buckle & Gloria (CALDECOTT MEDAL BOOK)The Story Of Ruby Bridges: Special Anniversary EditionThe Story Of Ruby Bridges: Special Anniversary EditionThe RaftThe Raft


My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother by Patricia Polacco

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch

Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy Rathmann

The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles

The Raft by Jim LeMarche

Discussion Activity:  Whether you read one or all of these books, go through the following discussion for each book that you read.  Which character from the book has a personality that stands out the most?  How would you describe the personality?  Share examples from the book that support your view of the personality.  How has the author crafted the words to shape the character’s personality?  Did anything happen in the storyline to reshape the personality?

Personality Traits Lesson:  A little acting can go a long way in developing personalities in writing.  This quick lesson is fun, too!

  • Write several personality traits on index cards:  rude, angry, sweet, shy, selfish, energetic, bossy, confident, studious, excited etc.
  • Ask your student to develop a character in his mind.  Give the character a name and share his or her physical characteristics.  Don’t define anything about the character’s personality yet.
  • Draw one personality index card.  Tell a short story about the character in which this one main personality is portrayed.
  • As you draw new cards, you can choose from two possibilities:  First, change the character’s personality entirely and tell a new story with the new personality.  Second, add a new layer to the personality and continue telling the original story where the character now portrays two (or more) personalities.
  • After some practice with this exercise, transition to a written short story that focuses on building a character with clear personality traits.
Using picture books to teach voice in writing makes a tough concept come to life.

Other Books To Teach Voice

Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground RailroadHenry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground RailroadTar BeachTar BeachFly Away HomeFly Away HomeWe Had a Picnic This Sunday PastWe Had a Picnic This Sunday PastMrs. Katz and Tush (Reading Rainbow)Mrs. Katz and Tush (Reading Rainbow)Pink and SayPink and Say


Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine

Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold

Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting

We Had a Picnic This Sunday Past by Jacqueline Woodson

Mrs. Katz and Tush by Patricia Polacco

Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco

Stellaluna 25th Anniversary EditionStellaluna 25th Anniversary EditionTrain to SomewhereTrain to SomewhereThe Wall (Reading Rainbow Books)The Wall (Reading Rainbow Books)The Velveteen RabbitThe Velveteen RabbitThe Rough-Face GirlThe Rough-Face GirlThe Relatives CameThe Relatives Came


Stellaluna by Janell Cannon

Train to Somewhere by Eve Bunting

The Wall by Eve Bunting

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

The Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martin

The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant

Aunt Chip and the Great Triple Creek Dam AffairAunt Chip and the Great Triple Creek Dam AffairMailing MayMailing MayThe Emperor's New Clothes (Folk Tale Classics)The Emperor’s New Clothes (Folk Tale Classics)Owl MoonOwl MoonVerdiVerdi


Aunt Chip and the Great Triple Creek Dam Affair by Patricia Polacco

Mailing May by Michael O. Tunnell

The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

Verdi by Janell Cannon

Here’s a fun idea to use with any of the above books.

  • Read the book without showing your student any pictures.
  • As you read, they should picture the main character and note facts about his or her personality traits, character qualities, attitudes, and physical characteristics – even down to their age and what they might wear.
  • Your student should explain their observations about the character and give evidence from the book to support their view.
  • Explain that the “picture” of the character was built not only by descriptions that may have been written directly in the book, but through the impressions given by the voice of the text.
  • Now, your student gets to do some writing!  Using the same character from the book you just read, your student must craft a new story.  The setting and/or situation should be entirely different, but the character and all his or her attributes should be the same.
  • Note:  When first learning about voice, it’s best to only expect a paragraph or two for the new story.  Expand the length expectations as you see fit.

Need a little more direction in teaching with this method?

I taught a practical class that can help!

If you’ve enjoyed this article, I know you’ll enjoy the others in this series, too!

Picture books are great tools to teach writing styles! Great lesson ideas here!


  1. Thanks for this series. Picture books are a favorite of mine, and I am always happy to find new ways to use them while teaching (gives me an excuse to keep buying new books) I have used several of your suggestions with great results. We are entering a poetry unit and I would love to see your suggestions for that genre. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Ah, poetry. It’s on the to-do list. I’ll try to get to it before too long. 🙂 (P.S. I always love hearing from fellow bookaholics.)

  3. Great ideas! My kids aren’t in high school yet, but I am so glad to learn about meaningful ways to continue incorporating pictures books throughout their educations. I’d like to invite you to link up with our Literary Musing Mondays Linkup #LMMLinkup.

  4. Great ideas! I love using literature to teach writing. Passed this on to my daughter who wants to each a Literature and Art class next year to young homeschoolers.

  5. I love this. This year I will have three teens in the house. And I am always looking for new ways to teach them. Mix it up a little. And I just can’t seem to get enough of picture books lately. I’m loving this list, of some old favorites to new ones. Thanks! So glad I found you 🙂

  6. I can never get enough picture books in my life, Liz! LOL Enjoy your teens!!

  7. Kathryn Duffy says:

    Thank you so much for this information. Lots of the books you mention are available here and fit with the Australian curriculum. I, too cannot collect enough picture books and my students are soaking up my own enthusiasm. I look forward to any inspiration on poetry as well. I’m so glad I found you!

  8. You know, I think OUR enthusiasm about learning might make the biggest difference of all in homeschooling!

  9. books4learning says:

    Love your ideas! Thanks for this great post.

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