How I Created a Children’s Book With Elementary School Students and Teachers

What would it look like if elementary school students and teachers created a children’s book?

I started thinking about that question after learning about human-centered design, which at its core involves:

  1. developing empathy with the people you want to solve a problem with,

  2. producing lots of ideas, and

  3. building different prototypes to share with the people you want to help.

These prototypes are refined by feedback from actual users and then brought to market.

My rationale was simple: if I can understand what elementary school teachers and students use children’s book for and what their needs are when engaging with children’s books, I can work with them to create a more useful book.

Here’s how it worked.

  1. I made multiple trips to 3rd grade classrooms to observe read aloud sessions and interview students and teachers about the read aloud experience. I also spoke to individuals in each group about what they use children’s books for, and what’s usually missing for them in children’s books.

  2. I wrote a story grounded in student and teacher feedback, with hints of some of my favorite things, like science, product design, and outer space.

  3. I had the teachers I visited previously read this prototype story aloud to students to gauge its usefulness and ability to engage users. I also had the teachers instruct students to draw what they envisioned when they heard the story.

  4. I refined the story based on student and teacher feedback, and the fantastic illustrator I worked with, Alyson Record, sketched out the book’s illustrations guided by what students’ envisioned.

  5. Once a rough draft was in place, the book returned to the classroom for another round of feedback.

  6. The book was edited further based on classroom feedback and then formatted for publication. It’s now available on Amazon.com!

You can see how the book transformed into where it is today:

A few of insights from the field that inspired my book:

Teachers said…

  • “I hate book jackets. They always get lost or ruined, and the illustrations underneath the jacket never match the ones on the jacket.”

  • “I want content that aligns with state standards so my lessons can reach across topics and daily routines…Growth mindset is a big topic the District wants us to teach.”

  • “We need more books that help us make science and math interesting, and that can show how both are used in real life.”

  • They analyzed their favorite books, authors, and illustrators for guidance.

  • They expressed frustration with the climbing prices of children’s books and shared how they are largely responsible for building their own classroom libraries.

Students said…

  • “When I can’t see the pictures [during read aloud], I don’t have as much fun.”

  • “My favorite book [about Malala Yousafzai] teaches people to speak up for what’s right.” The real story of Malala is intense, touching on topics like terrorism, human rights, and violence. Hearing this told me that students can capture the message of serious stories.

  • “I want a scarier monster. I want to be excited and scared.”

  • “I like how [the protagonist] doesn’t give up. It tells us we shouldn’t quit.”

By anchoring the project in the needs of students and teachers, we were able to create a book with a user-driven purpose — not a publisher or famous author.

More broadly, this experience shows the versatility of human-centered design methods, which are applicable in any industry and easy to use — just get out there and listen.