#MentorTextMoment, Books

#MentorTextMoment: John Deere, That’s Who

As part of my writing process, I read dozens of books by other nonfiction authors. When I read, I make notes about the craft choices authors make in terms of voice, structure, POV, and other unique elements that add up to amazing books. I recently decided to share my notes (in a searchable format), so teachers and fellow writers can see what I find new and noteworthy. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.


The Book:


Author: Tracy Nelson Maurer, illustrations by Tim Zeltner

Publication Info.: Henry Holt, 2017

Ages/Grades: ages 4 to 8

Category: biography, STEM, STEAM, history, third-person POV, narrative

First lines:

Back in John Deere’s day, long before tractors and other newfangled contraptions, Americans dug the land with the same kind of plow that farmers had used as long as anyone could remember.”

Overview (from the publisher): “Back in the 1830s, who was a young blacksmith from Vermont, about to make his mark on American history? John Deere, that’s who!

Who moved to Illinois, where farmers were struggling to plow through the thick, rich soil they called gumbo? Who tinkered and tweaked and tested until he invented a steel plow that sliced into the prairie easy as you please?

Long before the first tractor, who changed farming forever? John Deere, that’s who!”

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

You know what stands out about this book? Diction, that’s what! Tracy Nelson Maurer sprinkles her story with a few select words, giving us the flavor of the period and hinting at the country setting. Phrases like “newfangled contraptions,” “buckets of praise,” and “tuckered out.” Words like ” ‘course” instead of “of course.” Used too frequently, this type of language could be distracting, but Maurer uses these colloquialisms sparingly. Such fun!

When it comes to research, I’m always curious how authors deal with unsubstantiated facts or sources that conflict with each other. It happens more than you might think. In JOHN DEERE, Maurer had to make some guesses about whether John knew about plows made of steel instead of heavy iron. She lets the reader know right in the text instead of saving it for backmatter: “It’s a fair guess that John already knew of other plow designs…” Seamless!

Finally, I love Maurer’s ending where she tells us why we should care about John Deere. He didn’t invent a tractor. Just a plow. But that plow allowed farmers to work faster than ever, turning the prairie into America’s breadbasket. And that’s why we should care about John Deere. Do you?

Additional resources for authors and educators:

  • Tracy Maurer has a wonderful list of activities on her website, including coloring pages, a teachers’ guide, and other links.
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#MentorTextMoment: SWEET DREAMS, SARAH

As part of my writing process, I read dozens of books by other nonfiction authors. When I read, I make notes about the craft choices authors make in terms of voice, structure, POV, and other unique elements that add up to amazing books. I recently decided to share my notes (in a searchable format), so teachers and fellow writers can see what I find new and noteworthy. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.


The Book:


Author/Illustrator: Vivian Kirkfield, illustrations by Chris Ewald

Publication Info.: Creston Books, 2019

Ages/Grades: grades 2 to 5

Category: biography, STEM, STEAM, third-person POV

First lines:

Before the Civil War, Sarah obeyed her owner.

Hurry up.

Eyes down.

Don’t speak.

Overview (from the publisher): “Sarah E. Goode was one of the first African-American women to get a US patent. Working in her furniture store, she recognized a need for a multi-use bed and through hard work, ingenuity, and determination, invented her unique cupboard bed. She built more than a piece of furniture. She built a life far away from slavery, a life where her sweet dreams could come true.

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

One of the most transformational moments in my own writing was when I started to think about the craft of writing picture books as poetry, not prose. As a beginner, I often equated writing nonfiction picture books with writing an essay, which resulted in long, plodding paragraphs. Yikes! In SWEET DREAMS, SARAH, Vivian Kirkfield, shows us the magic of occasionally using short sentences, more like poetry, to keep the story moving. (Her opening is a perfect example.)

Also notable is how she shifts between a traditional third-person narrator and Sarah’s own experience. The opening lines above provide a perfect example. “Hurry up. Eyes down. Don’t speak.” are clearly words that Sarah hears as she works, though we aren’t told this directly. Overall, Kirkfield’s third-person narration stays very close to Sarah, the main character, giving us glimpses into her thoughts.

A final favorite is this book’s topic: invention! I find biographies about inventors to be so useful for students, in terms of teaching them persistence and the value of a growth mindset. What was it that Edison supposedly said? “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” That seems to be the path of all inventors (and creators like writers too), and Sarah is no exception.

Additional resources for authors and educators:

#MentorTextMoment, Books

#MentorTextMoment: The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown

As part of my writing process, I read dozens of books by other nonfiction authors. When I read, I make notes about the craft choices authors make in terms of voice, structure, POV, and other unique elements that add up to amazing books. I recently decided to share my notes (in a searchable format), so teachers and fellow writers can see what I find new and noteworthy. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.


The Book:


Author/Illustrator: Mac Barnett, illustrations by Sarah Jacoby

Publication Info.: Balzar & Bray, 2019

Ages/Grades: ages 4 to 8

Category: biography, first-person POV, metafiction

First lines:

Margaret Wise Brown lived for 42 years.

This book is 42 pages long.

You can’t fit somebody’s life into 42 pages,

so I am just going to tell you some important things.

Overview (from the publisher):

An exceptional picture book biography of Margaret Wise Brown, the legendary author of Goodnight MoonThe Runaway Bunny, and other beloved children’s classics, that’s as groundbreaking as the icon herself was—from award-winning, bestselling author Mac Barnett and acclaimed illustrator Sarah Jacoby.

What is important about Margaret Wise Brown?

In forty-two inspired pages, this biography artfully plays with form and language to vividly bring to life one of the greatest children’s book creators who ever lived: Margaret Wise Brown.

Illustrated with sumptuous art by rising star Sarah Jacoby, this is essential reading for book lovers of every age.”

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

Most picture book biographies use a narrative structure. There’s some sort of problem or goal introduced at the beginning. The main character attempts multiple times to solve the problem or achieve their goal. Typically the main character changes internally as part of the process (or society changes to accommodate the main character). And they achieve the goal or solve the problem at THE END.

So here’s the important thing about this book: it’s the first biography I’ve seen that employs a non-narrative structure, much like Margaret Wise Brown’s THE IMPORTANT BOOK, which Barnett mimics. Instead of starting with Margaret’s childhood and exploring her attempts to break into children’s publishing, Barnett riffs on the idea of what’s important about a person’s life. He also explores the idea of strangeness. Barnett’s non-narrative format is strange, but so were elements of Margaret’s life (as a girl she skinned her dead pet rabbit and wore the pelt!). And Margaret’s stories were often viewed as strange by snooty librarians who rejected them. But Barnett concludes that sometimes life is strange, so strange stories can feel true and important. And that’s what Margaret Wise Brown was all about.

Also notable is Barnett’s first-person narration and use of metafiction. He is clearly the narrator of the story, asking questions and injecting his opinions. His storytelling reminds me A LOT of his earlier metafiction, HOW THIS BOOK WAS MADE, in which he narrates the book-making process. A metafiction biography? Sure, why not?

I know this biography has generated a lot of discussion with some disputing whether it’s a biography at all. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Additional resources for authors and educators:

  • Go behind the scenes to learn about the making of THE IMPORTANT THING at this blog.
  • Discuss with your students: should some books be banned from the library, as Margaret Wise Brown’s were? Many favorites from Harry Potter to Captain Underpants often show up on banned books lists.
  • Writing activity: What is the important thing about YOUR life? How would you write your life in the style of this book (and THE IMPORTANT BOOK)?
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#MentorTextMoment: SONNY’S BRIDGE

As part of my writing process, I read dozens of books by other nonfiction authors. When I read, I make notes about the craft choices authors make in terms of voice, structure, POV, and other unique elements that add up to amazing books. I recently decided to share my notes (in a searchable format), so teachers and fellow writers can see what I find new and noteworthy. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.


The Book:


Author/Illustrator: Barry Wittenstein, illustrations by Keith Mallett

Publication Info.: Charlesbridge, 2019

Ages/Grades: ages 6 to 9

Category: lively voice, biography, narrative nonfiction, rhythm

First lines:

Misty night.

Summer night.

East River New York City night.

You hear that?

Hear what?

That. THAT!

Overview (from the publisher):

This groovy, bebopping picture book biography chronicles the legendary jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins’s search for inspiration on the Williamsburg Bridge after quitting the jazz scene in 1959.

Rollins is one of the most prolific sax players in the history of jazz, but, in 1959, at the height of his career, he vanished from the jazz scene. His return to music was an interesting journey–with a long detour on the Williamsburg Bridge. Too loud to practice in his apartment, Rollins played on the New York City landmark for two years among the cacophony of traffic and the stares of bystanders, leading to the release of his album, The Bridge.

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

Wittenstein explores the tremendous pressure on a musical genius like Sonny Rollins; the pressure of living up to his own name and reputation. It’s a theme I haven’t seen explored in other picture book biographies, but surely something to which children can relate. (Since we live in a time when there is often tremendous pressure on kids to achieve and keep achieving.)

So what does Sonny do when the pressure’s too much? He focuses on the work — the music — and he does so by playing just for fun on the Williamsburg Bridge. In music, a bridge is a section of the song that contrasts with the verse and chorus of a song, since the verse and chorus are repeated over and over again. Think of the bridge as a little respite from the repetition. So the Williamsburg Bridge is Sonny’s bridge in his musical career. And it leads to a breakthrough album called, The Bridge. Barry Wittenstein, you are a GENIUS.

This book is loaded with rhythm and rhyme, a perfect study in alliteration and assonance for writers of all ages.

Additional Resources:

  • Listen to The Bridge (or another jazz album) and consider how Wittenstein’s diction (word choice) and rhythm mimic the musical form. Note how Wittenstein’s short (sometimes one-word) sentences keep the beat of the book lively.
  • Write your own song, including verse, chorus and your bridge. Use a jazz song as a model if you can.
  • The publisher website has both an activity and educator guide for more ideas.
#MentorTextMoment, Books

#MentorTextMoment: HEY, WATER!


The Book:


Author/Illustrator: Antoinette Portis

Publication Info.: Neal Porter Books, 2019

Ages/Grades: ages 4 to 8

Category: lively voice, apostrophe, expository

Overview (from the publisher):

Hey, water! I know you! You’re all around.

Join a young girl as she explores her surroundings and sees that water is everywhere. But water doesn’t always look the same, it doesn’t always feel the same, and it shows up in lots of different shapes. Water can be a lake, it can be steam, it can be a tear, or it can even be a snowman.

As the girl discovers water in nature, in weather, in her home, and even inside her own body, water comes to life, and kids will find excitement and joy in water and its many forms. ”

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

Nonfiction author Melissa Stewart talks about “voice choice” in nonfiction. Want to see what a difference lively vs. lyrical voice can make? Read Antoinette Portis’s lively-voiced expository book, HEY, WATER! alongside Miranda Paul’s lyrical, circular narrative WATER IS WATER. Two very different books about the water cycle.

Additional Resources:

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#MentorTextMoment: Predator and Prey


The Book:


Author/Illustrator: Susannah Buhrman-Deever, illustrations by Bert Kitchen

Publication Info.: Candlewick, 2019

Ages/Grades: ages 6 to 9

Category: lyrical, compare/contrast, expository

Overview (from the publisher):

“Who wins, the assassin bug or the spider? The bat or the frog? The ant or the honey bee? The male firefly . . . or the female? The battle for survival between predator and prey is sometimes a fight, sometimes a dance, and often involves spying, lying, or even telling the truth to get ahead. Biologist and debut author Susannah Buhrman-Deever explores these clashes in poems and prose explanations that offer both sides of the story. With beautiful, realistic illustrations that are charged with drama, Bert Kitchen captures the breathtaking moments when predator meets prey. Readers who hunger for more about the art of survival will find an extensive list of references in the back. ”

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

I had to take my time to savor the brilliance of PREDATOR AND PREY. Dueling poems representing the POVs of both predator and prey on each spread…it’s just magical when structure and content are so perfectly aligned.

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#MentorTextMoment: NINE MONTHS

91gi7j7qbelThe Book:


Author/Illustrator: Miranda Paul, illustrations by Jason Chin

Publication Info.: Neal Porter Books (Holiday House), 2019

Ages/Grades: ages 4 to 8

Category: lyrical, chronological expository

Overview (from the publisher):

“Join a family of three who spend nine whole months waiting, from a frosty winter through a sun-dappled summer, until finally . . . a baby is here.

A soon-to-be big sister and her parents prepare for the arrival of a new baby in the family. Alternating panels depict what the family is experiencing in tandem with how the baby is growing, spanning everything from receiving the news about the new baby to the excitement of its arrival.

In this pregnancy book unlike any other one out there, watch what’s actually happening through meticulously detailed, actual size illustrations, perfectly paired with a lyrical yet informative text, and culminating in a warm, joyful birth scene. ”

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

Beautiful back matter! Sparse, lyrical text paired with five pages of back matter that provides additional information line-by-line and oh so much more. It just goes to show you that you can keep your story very spare and simple without sacrificing content.

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The Book:


Author/Illustrator: Sheri Mabry Bestor, illustrations by Jonny Lambert

Publication Info.: Sleeping Bear Press, 2019

Ages/Grades: ages 5 to 8

Category: narrative nonfiction, layered text, cycle structure

Overview (from the publisher):

“Dragonflies are some the world’s most beautiful (and fascinating!) insects. And one many children can find right in their backyards! With a simple story, perfect for read-alouds, and colorful illustrations, this scientific look at a dragonfly’s life-cycle will captivate little entomologists. Informative sidebars are included that let children learn even more about these amazing insects.”

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

SOAR HIGH, DRAGONFLY!, uses a circular, seasonal structure, layered text, onomatopoeia, and strong refrain to celebrate this captivating creature.

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The Book:


Author/Illustrator: Laurie Wallmark, illustrations by Katy Wu

Publication Info.: Sterling, 2019

Ages/Grades: ages 5 and up

Category: narrative nonfiction, biography

Overview (from the publisher):

Movie star by day, ace inventor at night: learn about the hidden life of actress Hedy Lamarr!
“To her adoring public, Hedy Lamarr was a glamorous movie star, widely considered the most beautiful woman in the world. But in private, she was something more: a brilliant inventor. And for many years only her closest friends knew her secret. Now Laurie Wallmark and Katy Wu, who collaborated on Sterling’s critically acclaimed picture-book biography Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code, tell the inspiring story of how, during World War Two, Lamarr developed a groundbreaking communications system that still remains essential to the security of today’s technology.”

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

Often providing too much context in a biography would steer us off our story path. Here, Laurie Wallmark needed readers to understand the breadth and depth of Hedy Lamarr’s inventive nature. Instead of listing Hedy’s many inventions in the text, Katy Wu includes them in the illustrations (below). Perfect solution.

Additional Resources:

Laurie Wallmark’s site includes a curriculum guide and other activities. Click here.

#MentorTextMoment, Books

#MentorTextMoment: JUST RIGHT


The Book:


Author/Illustrator: Curtis Manley, illustrations by Jessica Lanan

Publication Info.: Roaring Brook Press, 2019

Ages/Grades: ages 5-9

Category: expository nonfiction, descriptive text structure, first-person POV

Overview (from the publisher):

“Do you wonder 
if humans
are the only beings who wonder
if they are alone 
in the universe?

Our sun is a star.
In the night sky are all kinds of stars,
and orbiting those stars
are planets like the ones in our own solar system.

Could those planets have life
like we do on Earth?

Planet Earth is not too big,
not too small, not too hot,
and not too cold. It’s just right.
Our very own Goldilocks planet . . . .

Follow a young girl
as she explores these questions
in this gorgeous book about the wondrous search
for another Goldilocks planet.

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

Do you know how difficult it is to explain the techniques we use to search for exoplanets? Curtis Manley’s use of analogy makes JUST RIGHT accessible for young readers, as he talks about planets “winking” and “waving” and what that means to planet hunters. Takeaway: When trying to describe difficult concepts, why not try analogy?