The Classroom Bookshelf
Inside The Classroom Bookshelf

Dear Substitute

Dear Substitute2Dear Substitute

Written by Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick; Illustrated by Chris Raschka

Published by Hyperion, 2018

ISBN # 978-1484750223


Grades K and up


Book Review

What happens when a substitute teacher unexpectedly shows up and changes everything about the school day? In Dear Substitute, co-authors Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick share the viewpoint of an unnamed child narrator whose day is thrown off by the regular teacher’s absence. Using epistolary poems as the format for the text, the authors establish a window into the intimate ways the narrator is impacted by the substitute teacher’s presence: “Dear Pledge,/I pledge allegiance/to Mrs. Giordano./I like her more today than I normally do.” Caldecott-winner  Chris Raschka’s illustrations highlight the child’s perspective with bold colors, thick lines, and detailed close-ups. As we follow the child’s day, we witness how this change of routine raises an assortment of emotions for the narrator. We also learn a little bit about how a sudden mix-up of procedures and rules can bring unexpected surprises. Perfect for read-alouds, Dear Substitute is a picture book with strong appeal for your students and classroom practice.


Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Grades K and up

  • Personification. After addressing the substitute teacher, Miss Pelly, the narrator begins addressing various objects and events related to the school day: homework, attendance, line leader duty, and other class rules. Discuss the literary device of personification with students, and ask them to find examples of personification in other books they may have read. Some examples of other texts that hinge on personification of inanimate objects include The Day the Crayons Quit or The Day the Crayons Came Home, by Drew Daywalt; The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors, by Drew Daywalt; The Little House, by Virginia Lee Burton; The Dark, by Lemony Snickett; Exclamation Mark, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal; and What Do You Do With a Chance? by Kobi Yamada. Have them study the descriptions, dialogue, illustrations, and other ways the author and/or illustrator strengthen the personification of inanimate objects. Invite students to write their own fictional stories that use personification for various characters throughout the book.
  • Epistolary Writing. Epistolary writing is a story written and structured like letters. Dear Substitute is also written in verse, using epistolary poems, or epistles. Discuss how the text of Dear Substitute can be read both as poetry and as letters. Gather a text set of picture books written in epistolary prose or poetry, such as Thank You, Earth, by April Pulley Sayre; The Day the Crayons Quit or The Day the Crayons Came Home, by Drew Daywalt; Postcards from Camp, by Simms Taback; and A Letter to My Teacher, by Deborah Hopkinson. Invite students to try their hand at epistolary story writing in either prose or poetry.
  • Mixing Things Up a Bit. When Miss Pelly eventually convinces the narrator that “sometimes you have to mix things up a bit,” the day ends up being rather enjoyable. Although many children thrive on routine, they also need to learn flexible thinking and develop skills to adjust to change. Role play different scenarios where the classroom routine gets mixed up a bit. How would students respond to the changes? What strategies can they brainstorm and practice to adjust to those changes in healthy and productive ways? Create an anchor chart for the classroom that lists these strategies, so that like the narrator, students learn it’s okay to mix things up a bit.
  • Substitute Appreciation. Substitute Teacher Appreciation Week occurs every year during the first week of May. Invite your students to plan different ways to celebrate Substitute Teacher Appreciation Week. Encourage them to make the celebration personal by getting to know their substitute teachers in the months or weeks before Substitute Teacher Appreciation Week. Have students write personalized “Dear Substitute” letters to your school’s subs, and make sure they get delivered.
  • Chris Raschka Illustrator Study. Caldecott-winning author-illustrator Chris Raschka is known for his signature artistic style and evocative artwork. Gather a text set of picture books illustrated by Raschka, including The Death of a Hat and A Ball for Daisy, both of which have entries on The Classroom Bookshelf. Survey Raschka’s illustrations, and identify his artistic style, artistic idiosyncrasies, and favorite artistic media to use. Gather information about him from the websites listed below, your local librarian, the Internet, and as other biographical sources.

Grades 4 and up

  • Co-authoring Writing Projects. Discuss with students what it means to co-author a piece of writing, just as Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick did for Dear Substitute. Share some other co-authored texts with students, examining any front or back matter for information about the process of co-writing a piece with someone else. For example, what are the different ways in which co-authors can collaborate? What different roles might they take in the process of writing the text? Some co-authored titles we’ve blogged about include Becoming Madeline, by Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy; Skull in the Rock, by Marc Aronson and Lee Berger; Sugar Changed the World, by Marc Aronson and Maria Budhos; Same Sun Here, by Silas House and Neela Vaswani; The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer; and No Monkeys, No Chocolate, by Melissa Stewart and Allen Young. Discuss what students have learned from these texts, and then have them work in partners to co-author a writing piece for your current or next unit of study.
  • Tales of Substitute Teaching. What do students know about the day of a substitute teacher? Share some of the stories from The Atlantic’sTales of Substitute Teaching,” paying attention to both the successes and challenges. Encourage your students to get to know the substitute teachers in your school better, especially the teachers who substitute at your school on a regular basis, not just the long-term subs. Invite your substitute teachers to share some of their stories with your students, help students develop interview questions, and incorporate interview time in your substitute teacher lesson plans. Teach students how to audio record interviews and then help them turn those stories into written narratives or digital storytelling to share with your subs.

Critical Literacy

  • Substitute Teacher Text Set. With the help of your school or local librarian, gather a text set of picture books and chapter books about substitute teachers. Some titles you might gather include Miss Nelson is Missing, by Harry Allard; Jamaica and the Substitute Teacher, by Juanita Havill; The Substitute Teacher from the Black Lagoon, by Mike Thaler; Substitute Creacher, by Chris Gall; The Secret School, by Avi; My Teacher is an Alien, by Bruce Coville; and Substitute Teacher Plans, by Doug Johnson. Share these titles with your students, and then engage them in discussion around the following questions: How is the substitute teacher portrayed in each book? What patterns do they notice? What stereotypes? How do the students respond to the substitutes? Are those descriptions and responses realistic? What would your students do in similar situations? How might they challenge some of those stereotypes? What stories might your students write about a substitute teacher that made a difference in their lives?


Further Explorations

Online Resources

Liz Garton Scanlon’s website and social media


Audrey Vernick’s website and social media


Chris Raschka on social media


Substitute Teacher Appreciation Week



Allard, H. (1985). Miss Nelson is missing! Ill. by J. Marshall. New York: HMH Books for Young Readers.

Avi. (2003). The secret school. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Coville, B. (2005). My teacher is an alien. New York: Aladdin.

Gall, C. (2011). Substitute creacher. New York: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Havill, J. (2001). Jamaica and the substitute teacher. Ill. by A. S. O’Brien. New York: HMH Books for Young Readers.

Hopkinson, D. (2017). A letter to my teacher. Ill. by N. Carpenter. New York: Schwartz & Wade.

Johnson, D. (2002). Substitute teacher plans. Ill. by T. Smith. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

Sayre, A. P. (2018). Thank you, Earth. New York: Greenwillow Books. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry here.

Taback, S. (2011). Postcards from camp. New York: Nancy Paulsen Books. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry here.

Thaler, M. (2009). The substitute teacher from the Black Lagoon. Ill. by J. Lee. New York: Scholastic.


Grace Enriquez About Grace Enriquez

Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.