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Picture Books in College Classrooms

A conversation began when I shared about middle school teachers using picture books in their classrooms on Twittter/X. I was thrilled when one of my followers shared the post and said she uses picture books in her college classrooms. Of course, we began talking! Not only is Shannon Avra an anthropologist and college professor, she is also a published children's author. I knew I wanted to get to know more about Shannon. 

And now a bit of her story is here for you all because Shannon is really an inspiration. Huge thanks to Shannon for agreeing to be interviewed! Enjoy! 

Annette Whipple: I loved hearing on Twitter/X you use picture books in your college classrooms since picture books aren’t just for little kids. Please tell us about yourself and what inspired you to use picture books with the students you teach.

Shannon Avra: Hi! Thank you so much for chatting with me. I’m in my 23rd year of teaching Medical Anthropology and Women in Changing Society at the college level. I also teach Medical Anthropology for 3rd year medical students.

Shannon Avra with her daughter
Both Medical Anthropology and Women in Changing Society focus on human rights, diversity, and social and environmental sustainability. In my medical classes, we emphasize the critical need to understand cross-cultural variation in definitions of health and healing. We discuss a wide range of topics from water and sanitation to performative language in a clinical setting. In Women in Changing Society, we research ways in which norms and roles are socially constructed. A few of our topics include access to education, leadership, and pay.

In both classes, we research and discuss challenging issues. I believe we learn best when we can take gained knowledge and apply it to something more abstract – like storytelling. It’s important to know terms and definitions, theories, and concepts, etc. But I like to see what that information means to the student beyond a traditional exam. Storytelling makes it personal. It makes it stick in a way that flat memorization often cannot.

Annette: I understand you also use comic books to engage your students. Tell us about that!

Shannon: Picture books and comic books are powerful socio-cultural representations of our world. I don’t think of them as age-based because there is truly something for us all to learn in every story. Picture and comic books are visually engaging, linguistically diverse, and highlight traditions and beliefs. They are wonderful tools to use in conjunction with field-specific, scholarly publications. 

Annette: Do you use picture books to introduce topics/ideas or reinforce them? 

Shannon: A book centered on a holiday might lead to a further discussion or analysis of family structure or poverty or grief. It might bring to light the struggles of inclusion, acceptance, and self-celebration. A book centered on sharing can do the same. Stories, in connection with our lives, are layered. My classes love working with both picture books and comic books. I welcome non-fiction and fiction. Old and new. 

At the end of the semester, students have an opportunity to create their own comic or picture book in conjunction with their formal research report. Sometimes they are intimidated when they read the instructions, but that falls away as we work through the details together. Through visual and written storytelling, we can further understand complex issues. And I want them to succeed. Teaching is a responsibility I take to heart. My goal is to make learning engaging, relevant and meaningful.

Annette: What’s your biggest advice for using picture books with college students or anyone older than what many see as the traditional picture book age?

Shannon: I was taught to find joy in being a student. To find hope and wonder in learning. I don’t know isn’t a stopping point. It’s the beginning. And that’s exciting.

Books should help us feel seen and heard. Valued and respected. They should echo long after the last page has been read. The same should be true in the classroom. What an incredible gift to learn and grow together with the invaluable strength of words. 

Annette: You’re a published author, too! Tell us about Molly & Nightmare and any other projects

in the works.

Shannon's family

Shannon: Molly & Nightmare is a picture book fantasy about friendship, loss, and the permanence of love. The book is published by POW!, distributed by Simon & Schuster, and illustrated by David Spencer.

An unusual friendship between Molly and her monster, Nightmare, who learn to love one another over the course of an entire lifetime. When Molly dies a very old woman, Nightmare is forced to face his grief and move forward.

I have a second picture book under contract with POW! I can’t wait to reveal more soon!

Annette: That sounds fascinating! Where can we find you online to make sure we don't miss your next book announcement?

Shannon: You can find me online at:

IG at @shannonavrabooks

X at @avranicole 

Annette: It's been a delight getting to know you and learn how you use graphic and picture books in your classroom. Thank you so much for sharing!

I suspect many of you want to know more about some of the books Shannon has used in her classroom. Here's a list of the ones shown here. (Some are affiliate links with no additional cost to you.) 

Brave Like Mom, by Monica Acker and Paran Kim

Hidden: A Child's Story of the Holocaust, by Loic Dauvillier, Marc Lizano, and Greg Salsedo

The Whispering Town, by Jennifer Elvgren and Fabio Santomuro

Adam Gets Back in the Game, by Greg Adams and Paige Mason

Star of the Week: A Story of Love, Adoption, and Brownies with Sprinkles, by Darlene Friedman and Roger Roth

The Best Family in the World, by Susana Lopez and Ulses Wensell

Crossings: Extraordinary Structures for Extraordinary Animals, by Katy S. Duffield and Mike Orodan

House Finds a Home, by Katy S. Duffield and Jen Corace

and of course

Molly and Nightmare, by Shannon Avra and David Spencer


If I hadn't convinced you before the value of using picture books with older kids, I think Shannon has now! Don't forget that many authors have valuable educator guides on their sites. Many of us intentionally write them so they can be adapted for various ages. 

Edited: This is teacher and librarian who has a great blog post about all the ways her classroom changed when she began reading aloud to her middle school students. 

Let me know your thoughts about picture books beyond elementary school. I think they're for middle school, high school, college students, and beyond! 

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1 comment

  1. I'm in my fifties and I love excellent picture books! Illustrations are a wonderful memory aid when reading/learning about a nonfiction topic.