#MentorTextMoment

#MentorTextMoment: Moth

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:

Moth: An Evolution Story

Author: Isabel Thomas; illustrator: Daniel Egnéus

Publication Info.: Bloomsbury (June 2019)

Ages/Grades: 6 to 10 years old

Categories: third-person POV, lyrical language, narrative nonfiction, nature, #STEM

First lines:

“This is a story of light and dark. Of change and adaptation, or survival and hope.”

Overview (from the publisher): “Powerful and visually spectacular, Moth is the remarkable evolution story that captures the struggle of animal survival against the background of an evolving human world in a unique and atmospheric introduction to Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection.

Against a lush backdrop of lichen-covered trees, the peppered moth lies hidden. Until the world begins to change…

Along come people with their magnificent machines which stain the land with soot. In a beautiful landscape changed by humans how will one little moth survive?

A clever picture book text about the extraordinary way in which animals have evolved, intertwined with the complication of human intervention. This remarkable retelling of the story of the peppered moth is the perfect introduction to natural selection and evolution for children.”

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

There have been a few evolution picture books in recent years like I USED TO BE A FISH (Sullivan) and GRANDMOTHER FISH (Tweet and Lewis). But as far as I know, no one’s attempted to explain natural selection, the mechanism of evolution, at the elementary school level…until now.

Through stunning illustrations and simple, lyrical language, Thomas and Egnéus show students how natural selection happens over time in response to changes in an animal’s habitat. As a mentor text, the great power in this book is the balance of words and pictures. It forces authors to consider how much they can rely upon illustrations to carry the story. And how much they need to explain.

Additional resources for authors, educators, and parents:

#MentorTextMoment, Books, Nature

#MentorTextMoment: You Are Home

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:

YOU ARE HOME: An Ode to the National Parks

Author/Illustrator: Evan Turk

Publication Info.: Atheneum, 2019

Ages/Grades: ages 4 to 8

Category: apostrophe, lyrical language, list structure, expository, nature, #STEM

First lines:

“To the chipmunk in her burrow, sleeping beneath the leaves to keep warm; to the resilient bison in the steaming oases of an endless winter: you are home.”

Overview (from the publisher): “Award-winning author and illustrator Evan Turk showcases the beauty and importance of the National Parks in this gorgeous picture book that takes readers on an amazing tour across the United States.

Beneath the soaring doorways of stone,
and peaks that pierce the ceiling of clouds,
from every river, star, and stone
comes the eternal refrain:
you are home.

In simple, soaring language and breathtaking art, acclaimed author-illustrator Evan Turk has created a stirring ode to nature and nation. From the rugged coast of Maine to the fiery volcanoes of Hawaii, You Are Home reminds us that every animal, plant, and person helps make this land a brilliant, beautiful sanctuary of life.”

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

Why was lyrical voice the perfect choice for a list book exploring the National Parks? Here’s why. Reading YOU ARE HOME literally brings tears to my eyes through its meditation on the majesty of “America’s Best Idea” (the title of Ken Burns’s documentary about the National Parks.)  And that’s the same feeling I get when I visit the National Parks in person. Turk’s lyrical text perfectly captures his awe-inspiring subject. Imagine how the impact of this story would have changed if he’d used a humorous or serious voice.

Also notable: Turk balances his spare, lyrical language with extensive backmatter, providing more facts about the animals that appear in his artwork and a map to the National Parks featured in the book.

Additional resources for authors, educators, and parents:

  • Visit a National Park! Every fourth-grader and their family can get in free through Every Kid in a Park.
  • While you are there, check out the National Park Service Junior Ranger Program for kids of all ages. Complete the activity book during your visit and earn your patch or pin. Can’t visit in person? No problem. There are several badges you can earn online.
  • You also can check up on the wildlife through 20 webcams.
  • Evan Turk suggests drawing as a wonderful way to get to know a park. He created the book’s 20 drawings with pastel and black paper while hiking and exploring in person.
  • Turk’s book hints at the natural processes that formed many of these natural wonders, a great jumping off point for lessons about weathering and more.

     

     

#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.

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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.

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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?
#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: