#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.

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The Book:

JOHN DEERE, THAT’S WHO

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.
#MentorTextMoment, Books, Science/Math

#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.

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The Book:

SWEET DREAMS, SARAH

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: