Build Your Stack: Books as Reflections - National Council of Teachers of English
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Build Your Stack: Books as Reflections

This blog post is part of Build Your Stack,® a new initiative focused exclusively on helping teachers build their book knowledge and their classroom libraries. This video and blog post were by created by NCTE member Gary Gray and educator Narin Ramani.

We love picture books because they’re perfect for any age group, reel readers right in, and foster a sense of community. Our perfect stack of picture books includes ones that reflect the diversity within our classrooms, as well as our world. We want kids to recognize themselves, feel seen, and believe that they matter. More importantly, we want students to believe in the value they add because of the traits that make them unique.


Here are our go-to books!


Love by Matt De La Peña, illustrated by Loren Long 

In this poetic and gentle picture book, Matt begins with a baby in a crib and then, rather than sticking to one character, each turn of the page reflects children older than the last who are from different places, races, and abilities. Each snapshot shows children navigating their way through life’s experiences: some filled with laughter and joy; others with fear and pain.

When I read this book to my students, I wasn’t quite prepared for the recognition that passed across their faces during some of the darker but powerful scenes. Many students ask to borrow this book again and even return to the same pages. In these pages, Matt and Loren reveal struggles and feelings that are far too often clouded in shame. What’s more, they somehow manage to do this while also reminding us that regardless of how isolating those experiences can feel, there will always be one factor that unites us: love.


The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Rafael López

This is one of my favorite books by Jacqueline Woodson. It is told in such a way that those that often feeling left out, feel connected. Jacqueline always does a great job reaching a wide audience within her books, and she does it again with The Day You Begin. Everyone has had the experience of being new. Everyone knows what it feels like to “just begin something.” The message captured through the words and in the pictures is that we need to be reminded that we are a better world together than we are apart. This book can easily become one of the most important books in your library.


Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts, illustrated by Noah Z. Jones

Those Shoes is a book I truly believe parents and teachers should be reading all the time. It is a picture book for all ages, with multiple messages that easily relate to everyone. Jeremy struggles with a dilemma at school. He notices that all the “cool kids” have the perfect shoes. With multicultural characters in a city setting, the story shows diversity in family structures, giving, friendship, income, and so much more. Empathy is a significant message within this book, as is understanding why we long for certain possessions and discovering what really matters.


To This Day: For the Bullied and Beautiful by Shane Koyczan

In today’s ever-changing culture and political climate, now more than ever, we want books to reflect our students’ current world, yes, but also the world they have the power to create. Shane Koyczan’s passionate anti-bullying poem “To This Day” expresses the deep impact that bullying can have on us and inspires readers to find the strength within themselves to move beyond their current experiences. Students cheer out loud when I tell them that the picture book actually came from an animated video, and they cheer even louder when I tell them that the video went viral, racking up over 12 million hits. They’re intrigued that thirty remarkably talented artists from all over the world were inspired enough to create the illustrations. And they’re mesmerized by the collage of images, colors, and words that resonate with their own feelings of insecurity, doubt, and a desire to belong.


Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal

A gentle story that packs a punch! The illustrations in this book really steal the spotlight. Alma does not understand her last name but is taught its history and importance by her dad. The story itself provides a look into family traditions, ancestry, identity, and the power of names. Alma becomes more appreciative of her culture and heritage by doing the research and understanding. This book will make any reader want to share their story loud and proud.



Gary Gray and Narin Ramani became educators because of the profound impact education had on their lives. The two met in Toronto at a recruitment fair for international teachers, and ended up signing contracts for the same school in Kuwait. The rest is history! They’ve since gotten married, relocated to teach at the Singapore American School, and are about to move and teach at the International School of Manila.

Because they’re both so passionate about learning, many of the stories around their dinner table center on teaching highlights. These highlights include the moments when the right book is placed in a kid’s hand and its pages offer the reader a road map to help navigate their experiences. Within these a-ha moments students find their reflection, and learn that books and life really are same same! It is for these moments that Narin and Gary teach.You can find Gary on Twitter and Instagram @garyrgrayjr . You can find Narin on Twitter and Instagram @msnramani.