More wonderful work with classroom teachers and we’re continuing to talk about finding mentor texts–texts that are at the instructional level of the student, engaging, and include the ‘thing’ that you’re trying to teach the student about writing. That’s a tall order so, naturally, teachers look for support. There are a litany of books written for teachers about mentor texts, many of which are great, and publishing companies sell supplements to their textbooks that include mentor texts, most of which are terrible. All those books have a real challenge, though: mentor texts need to arise organically from readers deeply engaging with reading and wanting to turn their writing into that type of thing they’re reading. Just because a published author–or me–says that a books is a great mentor text doesn’t mean that it will work for any teacher in any classroom with any group of students.
That said, I want to help. So I’ll offer a few picture books that I use as mentor texts. Picturebooks are great because the text is often short, the pictures can support student comprehension, and the writing is usually phenomenal because very few words have to do a lot of work. If you teach secondary students, the bonus of picture books is that they hearken back to a time when students liked reading and being read too (I didn’t spell it wrong, look!). And, as long as you do it often and select high-quality ones, they won’t feel talked down to.
Below the fold: perspective, genre, ellipses, and lists.
Perspective: A favorite is Duck Rabbit . Duck Rabbit is a quick read and frames a clear discussion of perspective. I could see using it when students are writing fiction to ask them to consider how an event they’ve written can be seen differently by two different characters. Similarly with nonfiction, students can consider how historical events, current events, or an individual’s decision could be taken many different ways by different people involved. A longer tale that works for this kind of study of perspective is Scieszka’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (which also has a bilingual version).
Genre: Wiesner’s Three Little Pigs works great for genre because there’s nothing like relying on a story everyone knows, and then breaking out–literally–of the limitations of the fairytale genre. There, the rules about how the story is supposed to unfold, how the page is supposed to be set up, are completely broken. And make for an excellent story. This picturebook can be a great example of how to break the rules of a genre in a way that makes the story better, not just confusing for the reader.
Tension through ellipse: The Adventures of Beekle by Dan Santat. A truly beautiful book that I want to use as wallpaper in my whole house. But as a craft lesson, Santat’s use of ellipses is powerful. They occur across page turns, which reinforces the craft technique, to enhance the tension inherent in Beekle’s adventures. Swimmy by Leo Lionni uses ellipses to a similar effect, so pairing can show this isn’t a one-off trick. (I’m sure there are others.)
Lists: I love lists. Lists can be transcendent when writers break the rules about lists, and then we don’t have to fight over the Oxford comma. The amazing standby for lists is the opening (PDF) of The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, which may not be suitable for all classes. Some picturebook lists include the variations on polysyndonton and asyndonton in The Most Magnificent Thing (a favorite, can you tell?). Last Stop on Market Street has an embedded couplet with a list, that also breaks rules, to describe the street scene when CJ steps off the bus on the last stop: “Crumbling sidewalks and broken-down doors,/graffiti-tagged windows and boarded-up windows.”