#MentorTextMoment, Books, Nature

#MentorTextMoment: When Plants Attack

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.

when-plants-attack_orig

The Book:

WHEN PLANTS ATTACK

Author: Rebecca E. Hirsch

Publication Info.: Millbrook Press, 2019

Ages/Grades: ages 9 to 14

Category: second-person POV, survey book, description structure, expository, sidebars, STEM, nature, scene building

First lines:

“In 1581 an explorer warned of an island in the South Pacific, known only as the Island of Death. On this island grew the Death Flower.”

Overview (from the author’s website): “In the wild, it’s eat or be eaten. Each living thing is on a mission to survive another day—including plants. And the measures they take can be downright deadly. Get a close-up look at meat-eating plants that trap unsuspecting mammals, African trees that enlist armies of biting ants as bodyguards, and an Australian shrub with prickly, poison-filled leaves that have landed unsuspecting humans in the hospital. But don’t get too close or . . . OUCH!

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

As soon as I brought this book into the house, my 12-year-old asked if it featured a pitcher plant (it does) and promptly took it out of my hands. It was weeks before I could get it back. Normally we think of picture books as a category for the youngest readers, but this book is a perfect example of how picture books can be “everybody books.”

First, is the subject matter. Hirsch knows how to hook older readers. Vampire vines? Tree-shrew toilets (pitcher plant). What kid wouldn’t be entranced?

Once the reader’s interest is piqued, Hirsch uses top-notch scene building to keep the reader turning the pages. Each chapter starts with a scene packed with sensory details, transporting the reader to far-off locations with its minute-by-minute action. Her writing allows you to “see” a mini-movie in your head. Hirsch also periodically uses second-person narration (“you”) to further connect with the reader.

Finally, Hirsch seamlessly weaves experts and their research into each chapter. I felt like each chapter was a mini “Scientist in the Field” book, giving readers a glimpse into the scientific method and the real work of both lab and field research.

Additional resources for authors and educators:

  • The books’ backmatter provides links to several videos of these plants in action. Here’s a favorite from The Atlantic.
  • The North Carolina Arboretum Society created has a fun-filled (and standards-aligned) educator guide for its Wicked Plants exhibit. A discussion of defenses begins on page 41.
  • For younger readers, Danielle’s Place has some really fun venus flytrap crafts and activities.
#MentorTextMoment

#MentorTextMoment: Hawk Rising

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.

9781626720961

The Book:

HAWK RISING

Author: Maria Gianferrari, illustrated by Brian Floca

Publication Info.: Roaring Brook Press, 2018

Ages/Grades: ages 4 to 8

Category: second-person POV, episodic narrative, fictional elements, STEM, nature, animals

First lines:

“Father hawk stretches wide his wings.

You stretch your arms as Mars rises red in the sky.”

Overview (from the publisher): “Early morning and a ruffle of feathers,

A shadow gliding through the backyard.

High above your house Father Hawk circles, sharp eyes searching for prey. From the front porch, you watch.

Swoosh!

He dives after chipmunks, crows, sparrows, squirrels.

Screech!

The sun sets low in the sky.

What’s for dinner?

A father red-tailed hawk hunts prey for his family in a suburban neighborhood in this thrilling, fierce, and gorgeous nonfiction picture book, Hawk Rising, illustrated by Caldecott medalist Brian Floca.

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

Maria Gianferrari’s lyrical text is stunning. There’s so much for writers to study especially the rhythm and musicality of her language. But here’s what really interests me: what purpose do the fictional elements in the story serve?

But wait, you say, this is a true story! It is — mostly. The fictional elements arise, in my mind, through the combination of the second-person POV and the illustrations. Gianferrari uses second-person POV to draw the child reader into the text. She gives the reader imagined actions throughout the day as the hawk hunts its prey, for example, “you watching” and “you yawning.” Many nonfiction authors have done this to wonderful effect, including Michelle Cusolito in FLYING DEEP, which narrates an imagined day aboard the Alvin submersible.

Yet unlike FLYING DEEP, HAWK RISING includes children, a girl and her sister, in the illustrations. Through Floca’s illustrations and the second-person POV, the older sister becomes the “you” in the story.

So what do these fictional characters add to the story? In modern, fiction picture books, the typical advice is the main character must be a child or child-like character, which serves as a surrogate for the child reader. Introducing child characters into this true story seems to be an extrapolation of this idea.

Second, I think the introduction of these characters adds to the tension in the story. Time is passing. The hawk tries and fails again and again to catch his prey. As night nears, we can imagine it will be the girls’ bedtime soon. Will the hawk catch its prey before the girls must come inside? Would the story have worked without the children in the illustrations? Maybe, but I think some of the tension would have been lost.

Fictional elements in true stories are a big topic of discussion in writer circles right now, notably, talking bugs, animals, plants, etc. in illustrations, as well as fictional narrators in otherwise true stories. In many cases, these elements inject humor into the story and allow authors and illustrators to flex their creativity. Who doesn’t love Miss Frizzle and the Magic School Bus? As long as the reader can tell (or is told) which elements are made-up, it’s probably fine. Just to be sure, I always suggest writers play fair with the reader, telling them what they’ve made up. You’ll often find this information in an author’s note.

Additional resources for authors and educators:

  • Curious City DPW has two activities: Spot the Hawk and a make-your-own Red-Tailed Hawk glider.
  • Check out the Cornell Lab’s red-tailed hawk cam.
  • Can your students separate fact from fiction? Grab a few books with fictional elements to spark a discussion with your students. Check out titles by Jason Chin (CORAL REEFS, REDWOODS), Bridget Heos (WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU’RE EXPECTING LARVAE), Bethany Barton (I’M TRYING TO LOVE SPIDERS), Miranda Paul (ARE WE PEARS YET?), Sara Levine (FLOWER TALK), Magic School Bus, etc. Ask students why they think authors and illustrators mixed facts with fiction?