Amping up Agency Blog Series · picture book · Read Aloud

Five Read Aloud Books for an Agency Study: Amping up Agency Blog Series

The first time I read Luli and the Language of Tea, written by Andrea Wang and illustrated by Hyewon Yum, I was struck by the agency of the main character. 

Luli and the Language of Tea takes place in a daycare, where all the children speak different languages and play in isolation. The story opens on Luli’s second visit—one she has determined will be a departure from her first visit. “Last time, Luli had played by herself, too, until she had an idea. She’d drawn it for Miss Hirokane. This time, Luli had a plan.” 

What Luli plans and does with intention—bringing tea and cookies to share—changes the daycare experience for every child in that room. I love that this young child has the power to make such a difference. 

This is the power I want every young writer in my workshop to feel. 

For a work of fiction at any level—picture book through adult—to work, the main character must demonstrate agency. That’s fiction writing 101. The character must take action, or the reader will quickly lose interest in the story. 

There is something about how Luli takes action—as well as what the other children do when she runs out of tea—that makes the concept of agency so clear to a reader of this book. These characters ACT, and they don’t let a little thing like a language barrier stand in the way. These children want and need something important, and their collective initiative transforms the daycare into a community. They believe they can make change, and they do.

I knew immediately that I wanted to read this book aloud to kids. Luli and the Language of Tea is the perfect mentor text for studying what it means to have and to demonstrate agency. 

In writing workshop, we invite and encourage young writers to develop and demonstrate agency. That intention is built into the structure, the routines, and our stance as workshop teachers. As the co-authors of Two Writing Teachers discussed the many possibilities for “Amping up Agency” in our workshops, my thoughts kept circling back to Luli and the Language of Tea. I started thinking about the ways we teach students what agency is, what it means to have a sense of agency, what it looks and sounds like when we act with agency. 

I’ve put together a text set of newer picture books to explore the concept of agency with kids. Imagine how it might look across a week to read these books aloud, co-creating an anchor chart with similarities between the actions of the main characters. What might we anticipate writers noticing? What connections might kids make to writing workshop? How might these characters serve as mentors as we collectively build our writing workshop, ensuring it is a place where each writer is encouraged and challenged to make decisions, to initiate the action they need to move their writing work forward? 

Apple and Magnolia (written by Laura Gehl and illustrated by Patricia Metola)

Apple and Magnolia are Britta’s two favorite trees, and she is sure they are best friends. When Magnolia begins to show signs of illness, Britta is determined to save her. Britta’s methods are unconventional, but her family gives her space to try. 

The way Britta’s Nana responds to the problem and to Britta’s efforts reminds me of a workshop teacher. She asks if Britta has a plan. She helps Britta to make a chart to capture her measurements. She reminds Britta that “unusual friendships can be the most powerful of all.” 

Nana never tells Britta what to do or does for Britta something she is capable of doing herself. She believes in Britta’s abilities to solve her problem, and she creates the conditions for Britta to believe in herself. 

Imagine what writers might say, when asked to compare Britta’s experience with their own experience working through a problem in workshop. What happens when a strategy doesn’t work? What does it take to decide to try again? What about when others don’t understand your vision? What are some ways writers know when they’re on the right track, when they should carry on and have faith in what will result from their efforts? 

I am Thinking my Life (written by Allysun Atwater and illustrated by Stevie Lewis)

“I am sculpting my world. I am clay. I am motion. I am light. I am what I think.” 

This is a concept book, rather than a narrative. Concept books clarify ideas for young readers—from the ABCs or colors to more sophisticated concepts such as friendship or identity or, in this case, agency. In this lyrical text, the main character makes connections between her thoughts and her actions as she moves through her daily life. This character does the things that young children do, notices the things that young children notice. For a reader trying to figure out what it looks and sounds like to have agency, this book paints a picture. 

“I am planning my world. I breathe meaning into my life through my thoughts and then my actions. I am the architect of my dreams. I think myself joyful. I see myself joyful. I am joyful.”

Imagine reading this book the same week as Luli and the Language of Tea or Apple and Magnolia. What kinds of connections might kids make between those stories and this book, which is almost like the inner monologue of Luli or Magnolia? What connections might kids make to their own self-talk, in writing workshop and beyond? 

The Girl Who Built an Ocean: An Artist, an Argonaut, and the True Story of the World’s First Aquarium (written by Jess Keating and illustrated by Michelle Mee Nutter)

This picture book biography of the life of marine scientist Jeanne Villepreux-Power is an ideal nonfiction addition to a text set around agency. Many picture book biographies could serve this purpose, since most focus on the choices real people made in life that led to their overcoming of obstacles and eventual success. AND. . . there is something really remarkable about this one.

The Girl Who Built an Ocean opens with Jeanne as a girl working in her parents’ shop, marveling at their craftsmanship with shoemaking and dressmaking. “What could Jeanne create with her hands? Could she transform a pile of nothing into a beautiful. . . something?” 

Although Jeanne initially follows in the footsteps of her parents, becoming a renowned dressmaker herself, it is her insatiable curiosity about ocean animals that drives the exploration and inventiveness for which she becomes best known. As she seeks answers to her own questions, she builds the world’s first aquarium, giving her the opportunity to study living marine animals closely. As a result, Jeanne solves a mystery that no other scientist had previously been able to solve: Where does the argonaut get its shell? 

Each of Jeanne’s successes is clearly linked to her willingness to act, even when it was not easy for a woman in the early 19th Century to do so. Keating’s use of repetition elevates the role Jeanne’s agency played in her ability to overcome challenges: “Jeanne rolled up her sleeves and set to work.” Over and over again, the connection between Jeanne’s determination and her ability to rise above challenges is highlighted. 

Introducing nonfiction into the text set is a way to be explicit about how agency shows up in real life, not just in stories. The choices we make every day influence our experiences in the world (and in workshop). Imagine a conversation after reading The Girl Who Built an Ocean in which writers reflect on times in their own lives (or in writing workshop) when they were able to solve a problem. What choices did they make? How did their action(s) lead to success? What kind of self-talk helped them to persevere?

Off-Limits (written and illustrated by Helen Yoon)

In this (hilarious) story, a young girl sneaks into her father’s home office and loses herself in play. If office supplies are your jam, you will delight in this book. In a workshop where young writers have access to a wide variety of supplies and are sometimes tempted to go a bit ham using them, this book will be a hit. This main character acts in a way that many of us (and our students) would love to act.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it’s safe to say readers will walk away reveling in what it feels like to have the space to explore and create, the freedom to make decisions about materials. This book belongs in a study about agency because it captures the joyfulness that I want writers in workshop to feel as they bring their intentions to life. 

How fascinating would it be to compare the adults across each of the books, noticing the ways they behave (especially Luli and the Language of Tea, Apple and Magnolia, and Off-Limits)? When do the adults step in (if they do)? When do they sit back? What is the impact of their presence (or intentional lack of presence) in the stories? How do they encourage, model, or discourage agency of the main character? What connections might writers make to the way adults engage with them in the workshop? 

Bringing an Agency Study to Life

There are so many possibilities for how a teacher might organize an agency study, but here are a couple of ideas.

I would group these books into a set and be transparent with writers that we will be using these books over the coming week(s) to explore an important concept: agency. As we read, we’ll be looking for similarities (across books) between how the characters act and think. We’ll make sure to mine the illustrations as well as the text! We will be making connections between what these characters do and what we do as writers in workshop (and beyond). 

Throughout this post, I’ve embedded lines of questioning that I might include in a discussion following a read aloud of each book. In addition to rich discussions, it will be important to capture students’ thinking across the study with a series of co-created anchor charts.  

Throughout the study, I would maintain an inquiry stance, adding on students’ ideas as they build/develop. Don’t worry if the charts are messy! These are authentic artifacts of students’ thinking as it is growing and changing. We will notice patterns and put ideas together. We will change our minds. This is not me as the teacher explaining what agency is. This is an opportunity for students to construct their own understanding of what agency looks and sounds like through close study of literature, reflection, and conversation with each other. Learning that happens this way is internalized in powerful ways! 

I can imagine charts-in-progress with titles such as: 

  • What do we notice characters doing, saying, or thinking? 
  • What Does Luli/Magnolia/Jeanne Do?/Why do we think she does that?
  • Agency Looks and Sounds Like
  • When characters act with agency. . . 
  • Agency Is/Agency Isn’t
  • What Kids are Doing/What Adults are Doing
  • What are some Problems we Encounter as Writers?/What are some ways we act to solve those problems?
  • What does my self-talk sound like when I act with agency?

(I would never use ALL of these. These are just some examples of possibilities. I would coordinate the anchor chart titles to align with my planned line of questioning across texts.)

By the end of the study, we will be able to use thinking from our succession of charts to synthesize our new understanding into a collective definition of agency. We will be able to identify structures and opportunities in our writing workshop (and across the day) where learners act with agency. We will celebrate the way we worked together to make meaning of such an important concept. 

And. . . when new structures or routines are introduced (or revisited) in the workshop to encourage student agency, writers will understand why. 


Atwater, Allysun. I am Thinking my Life. Bala Kids, 2022. 

Gehl, Laura. Apple and Magnolia. Flyaway Books, 2022. 

Keating, Jess. The Girl Who Built an Ocean: An Artist, an Argonaut, and the True Story 

of the World’s First Aquarium. Alfred A. Knopf, 2022. 

Wang, Andrea. Luli and the Language of Tea. Neal Porter Books, 2022. 

Yoon, Helen. Off-Limits. Candlewick Press, 2021. 


Throughout the week, we’d love to hear your thoughts. We even have a book giveaway for those of you who share comments! 

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Engaging Literate Minds: Developing Children’s Social, Emotional, and Intellectual Lives, K–3 by Peter H. Johnston, Kathy Champeau, Andrea Hartwig, Sarah Helmer, Merry Komar, Tara Krueger, and Laurie McCarthy. Many thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for one reader.
  • For a chance to win this copy of Engaging Literate Minds, please comment on any of our blog series posts by Noon EST on Sunday, February 12. Leah Koch will use a random number generator to pick the winner whose name will be announced in the blog series wrap-up post on Monday, February 13. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Leah can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at Stenhouse will ship the book to you. 
  • If you are the book winner, Leah will email you the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – AMPING UP AGENCY BLOG SERIES. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

9 thoughts on “Five Read Aloud Books for an Agency Study: Amping up Agency Blog Series

  1. I hadn’t considered text sets for agency, but truly appreciated this post!
    Not only are these excellent recommendations, they are a reminder of the necessity and power of agency in workshop. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Just….wow! Thanks Amy for this powerful text set to help us zoom in on building agency with our young writers. This would be an interesting text set to try out with parents in a study group as well. How are we as adults supporting agency? So much to dig into with these stellar mentor texts!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This post is amazing! I love the idea of teaching into agency through picture books. It’s lit a spark into how these SEL mini-units could support their work in writing workshop!! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I appreciate whenever children’s books are shared with connections to writing. The five books shared in this post will definitely provide support to students with their thinking and application of agency plus it will be a way for me to model my thinking with the students as well. The charts in progress question ideas are very helpful. Thanks so much for this information.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love this post so much. Thank you for writing it. Such great insights and so many wonderful ideas to connect students to texts pertaining to agency. I hope to try this book study soon!

    Liked by 1 person

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