I’m teaching an online graduate course, The Teaching of Writing K-12, for Lesley University this semester. This week my students jump into information writing. Therefore, I thought I’d devote this week’s blog post to exemplary nonfiction mentor texts.
As many of you already know, my co-authors and I wrapped-up our “Diving into Information Writing Blog Series” last week. (Click here in case you missed it. – LINK TK) As Anna stated in her post:
[I]nformation writing as any kind of writing with the primary purpose of explaining or imparting information. (Though information writing and opinion/argument writing are often grouped together, the purpose of opinion writing is to convince readers of something, which necessitates a different kind of instruction.) Reports, feature articles, information books, informative websites, and lectures are some of the kinds of writing that fit in the information writing category. This genre is a fascinating one structurally, because it often contains snippets of other genres within it, including small narratives and essay-like sections, making it sometimes hard to recognize and define. The sky is the limit with it comes to information writing, so it’s important to balance instruction with a combination of grounding fundamentals and creativity-inspiring tips and mentors.
In primary grades, information writing is often referred to as an “All About” piece (e.g., “All About My House” or “All About Dogs.” Other kinds of informational writing include “How To” pieces (e.g., “How to Tie Your Shoelaces” or “How to Travel around New York City”). As students get older, informational writing tends to look more like articles, essays, or reports. As we go through school and enter into adulthood, informational writing is often the most common genre we read on a daily basis. Regardless of what type of piece it is, we know something is information writing because it is meant to explain something or impart information.
The following list of books, all published in 2015, represents a variety of information writing. All of these are texts that can pull double- and even triple-duty in your classroom, thereby allowing you to use a text during a read aloud time, which you can revisit during a writing minlesson and/or in a content area. To that end, I list two or three mentor text possibilities of the picture books below. My “possibilities” are by no means exhaustive. In fact, I only recommend books I feel are worthy of buying and using with students since they can be used as mentors to teach young writers how to do many things.
Aaron and Alexander: The Most Famous Duel in American History by Don Brown (Roaring Brook Press)
Publisher’s Summary: Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton were both fierce patriots during the Revolutionary War, but the politics of the young United States of America put them in constant conflict. Their extraordinary story of bitter fighting and resentment culminates in their famous duel. For young patriots who may not yet know the shocking and tragic story, Aaron and Alexander captures the spirit of these two great men who so valiantly served their country and ultimately allowed their pride and ego to cause their demise.
Mentor Text Possibilities: If you’re looking for a book that will help you teach the compare/contrast text structure to your students, then look no further than Aaron and Alexander. Brown spends the first part of the book comparing and contrasting their lives. Even though Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton were “two orphans, two patriots, two war veterans and two public servants of the nation” they were vastly different. The structure of the book helps readers better understand their similarities and differences.
Brown embeds full and partial quotes throughout the book (something that’s tricky for many kids to do well) in a way that feels natural. This is because the tone of the book is engaging. If your students need assistance with embedding quotations — full or partial — into their writing, then a close study of this book will help them.
Child Convicts by Net Brennan (Candlewick Press)
Publisher’s Summary: At the age of seven, children in eighteenth-century Britain were tried in court like adults. For crimes such as picking pockets or stealing clothes, they could be sentenced to death by hanging or transported to the then-perilous and isolated colonies of Australia. Life in the colonies was often as difficult and dangerous as the poverty from which many of the convicts came, but the dreaded sentence of transportation could also present opportunities. In a fascinating volume filled with historical photos and drawings, today’s young readers can consider anecdotes of youthful prisoners from long ago, whose new lives on the shores of Australia ran the gamut from the boy who became the first person hanged on its soil to the girl whose photo is now on the twenty-dollar note. Back matter includes a glossary, bibliography, index, and web resources.
Mentor Text Possibilities: When I think about the kinds of things I would teach upper elementary students in an information writing unit of study I think about all of the kinds of things that make Child Convicts a great read. It starts with a table of contents, headings/subheadings, captions, quotes (full and partial), text features (e.g., maps, photographs, timelines) that enhance the text, strong teaching tone, a glossary, and a reference list that includes a bibliography and image credits. While I love all of the texts on this list — and they all have many things you can teach young writers to do — Child Convicts is the one that has the most nonfiction elements of all.
NOTE: This picture book is for an upper elementary (or older) audience.
Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the BEATLES by Susanna Reich and Adam Gustvason (Christy Ottaviano Books)
Publisher’s Summary: In 1957 in Liverpool, England, a young lad named John Lennon and his band played music at a local church fair. In the audience was Paul McCartney, who liked what he heard and soon joined the group. Paul’s friend George Harrison kept showing up at rehearsals until the older boys finally let him in. Eventually they found the perfect drummer, Ringo Starr, and the perfect name: The Beatles.
Told through a lyrical text and stunning paintings, this book spotlights four ordinary boys growing up amid the rubble of postwar England who found music to be a powerful, even life-saving, force.
Mentor Text Possibilities: There are many books about the Beatles. Fab Four Friends is an engaging read for kids who are being introduced to the Beatles for the first time. Reich’s word choice is deliberate; she explains words by utilizing a glossary in the back of the book, which is something we can teach writers to create if they don’t want to disrupt the flow of their writing with definitions.
Reich shares the ups and downs of the Beatles’ young lives with readers in a sensitive way. She does this by making deliberate choices about what kind of information to include and then does it with an appropriate tone for young readers. Any student faced with writing about unfortunately incidents in a person’s life will benefit from taking a cue from Reich.
Fur, Fins, and Feathers: Abraham Dee Bartlett and the Invention of the Modern Zoo by Cassandre Maxwell (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers)
Publisher’s Summary: Abraham Dee Bartlett knew from a young age that he wanted to spend his life working with animals. But in Victorian London, there weren’t many jobs that provided an opportunity to do that. Still, Abraham spent years gaining knowledge and pursuing his dream until he eventually became superintendent in the London Zoo. Driven by his compassion for the animals, Abraham dramatically improved the conditions of the zoo to ensure that the animals could be happy and healthy.
Mentor Text Possibilities: The first time I read through this book, I noticed there was a variety of punctuation (e.g., commas, dashes, and varied end punctuation) that helped include explanations and extra information throughout the text. To that end, the punctuation in this book created a unique voice, which makes for an inviting teaching tone throughout the text.
There’s a unique timeline, located in the book’s back matter. It has dates and explanations listed in two different colors, one of which represents the main events in Abraham Dee Bartlett’s wife and the other that represents the London Zoo and world event. This kind of timeline provides greater context for readers; therefore it can be shown to writers who are attempting to create a more intricate timeline.
Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate (Peachtree Publishers)
Publisher’s Summary: In the nineteenth century, North Carolina slave George Moses Horton taught himself to read and earned money to purchase his time though not his freedom. Horton became the first African American to be published in the South, protesting slavery in the form of verse.
Mentor Text Possibilities: Tate chronicles Horton’s life in a way that engages readers and makes them think deeply about the extraordinary life Horton as he went from a slave to a free person. Tate does this by using a storyteller’s voice, which is something you can study alongside students.
There are several quotations from Horton’s poems that are incorporated in the text. You’ll find citations for those excerpts in the back matter of the text. Pointing out the quotations and citations are an excellent way to teach students how to attribute credit (in their text and) in a bibliography.
NOTE: Peachtree created a teacher’s guide for Poet. Click here to view it.
Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder and Julie Morstad (Chronicle Books)
Publisher’s Summary: One night, young Anna’s mother takes her to the ballet, and everything is changed. So begins the journey of a girl who will one day grow up to be the most famous prima ballerina of all time, inspiring legions of dancers after her: the brave, the generous, the transcendently gifted Anna Pavlova. Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova is a heartbreakingly beautiful picture book biography perfect for aspiring ballerinas of all ages.
Mentor Text Possibilities: Every now and then I will read a beautiful, lyrical biography that does not weigh the reader down with dates and facts, but still conveys a rich portrait of a person’s life. Swan is one of those books. We learn about Anna Pavlova’s life through a poetic text in the body of the book. There is a two-page author’s note that conveys the specifics of Anna’s life. You could lead an inquiry with some of your more sophisticated writers to study the way Snyder tells the story of Anna Pavlova in a poetic way that employs the present tense, something you don’t see regularly in biographies.
Because of this book’s unique form, it makes an excellent text for making purposeful word choices (e.g., precise nouns, specific verbs). In addition, the sentence lengths are varied and there is some exquisite repetition in the text.
The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and R. Gregory Christie (Carolrhoda Books)
Publisher’s Summary: In the 1930s, Lewis’s dad, Lewis Michaux Sr., had an itch he needed to scratch—a book itch. How to scratch it? He started a bookstore in Harlem and named it the National Memorial African Bookstore.
And as far as Lewis Michaux Jr. could tell, his father’s bookstore was one of a kind. People from all over came to visit the store, even famous people—Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, and Langston Hughes, to name a few. In his father’s bookstore people bought and read books, and they also learned from each other. People swapped and traded ideas and talked about how things could change. They came together here all because of his father’s book itch. Read the story of how Lewis Michaux Sr. and his bookstore fostered new ideas and helped people stand up for what they believed in.
Mentor Text Possibilities: Readers are introduced to a famous landmark, the National Memorial African Bookstore, and the man behind it, Lewis Michaux, Sr. The narrator’s tone is compelling since it comes as the voice of Lewis Michaux, Jr. who was a child during the height of his father’s bookstore, which coincided with the time of the Civil Rights Movement. Some of Michaux Sr.’s slogans (e.g., “Knowledge is power. You need it every hour. Read a book!”; “Don’t get took! Read a book!”) for selling books are featured in bold print throughout the book and are highlighted again on decorative endpapers. That said, if you’re looking for a book to help students understand how to craft informational writing that has voice, then this is a book you’ll want to study alongside your students since Nelson writes in a way where she creates voice through her sentences, through her use of punctuation, and through the details she chooses to include.
The Boy Who Fell off the Mayflower or John Howland’s Good Fortune by P.J. Lynch (Candlewick Press)
Publisher’s Summary: At a young age, John Howland learned what it meant to take advantage of an opportunity. Leaving the docks of London on the Mayflower as an indentured servant to Pilgrim John Carver, John Howland little knew that he was embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. By his great good fortune, John survived falling overboard on the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, and he earned his keep ashore by helping to scout a safe harbor and landing site for his bedraggled and ill shipmates. Would his luck continue to hold amid the dangers and adversity of the Pilgrims’ lives in New England? John Howland’s tale is masterfully told in his own voice, bringing an immediacy and young perspective to the oft-told Pilgrims’ story. P.J. Lynch captures this pivotal moment in American history in precise and exquisite detail, from the light on the froth of a breaking wave to the questioning voice of a teen in a new world.
Mentor Text Possibilities: This 64-page picture book contains the personal story of John Howland who made his way to America on the Mayflower as John Carver’s manservant. While the publisher states it’s for students ages 7 – 10, I think older students will be intrigued by this first-person account of the journey to the New World. The book reads like a novel in that it has different sections that almost feel like chapter titles (e.g., London, The Mayflower, America). With the exception of the London portion of the book, the Mayflower and Amerca sections of the text contain sub-headings to help readers navigate the text.
When young writers take on writing about someone’s life, they’re unsure of where to begin and end. This book can help students think about the time frame they wish to focus on in their writing. The book takes place over the course of Howland’s first year in America. It ends with him contemplating a return to England via the Fortune, the ship that followed the Mayflower a year later. The book ends with Howland deciding to stay in Massachusetts. It is only in the Author’s Note where readers learn it was good he didn’t return to England on the Fortune since it was taken by French pirates. In the author’s note, we learn that Howland married two years later and lived for 50 more years, having had ten children and 88 grandchildren. It is in the author’s note where readers come to understand that Howland, who came to the New World with so little, died with so much.
There are numerous things we can teach students to do as writers since this is a text-heavy picture book.
The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls (Arthur A. Levine Books)
Publisher’s Summary: For most children these days it would come as a great shock to know that before 1967, they could not marry a person of a race different from their own. That was the year that the Supreme Court issued its decision in Loving v. Virginia.
This is the story of one brave family: Mildred Loving, Richard Perry Loving, and their three children. It is the story of how Mildred and Richard fell in love, and got married in Washington, D.C. But when they moved back to their hometown in Virginia, they were arrested (in dramatic fashion) for violating that state’s laws against interracial marriage. The Lovings refused to allow their children to get the message that their parents’ love was wrong and so they fought the unfair law, taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court – and won!
Mentor Text Possibilities: “First comes love. Then comes marriage.” They are phrases we know so well and it’s how Alko choose to open The Case for Loving. Readers are immediately brought into the world of the Lovings because the book is based on the fact that love, marriage, and having a family are basic rights which the Lovings were denied. From page one, readers are hooked and invested in this story.
The Case for Loving contains a variety of information like dates, details, examples, and quotes that helps convey information about the Lovings Supreme Court case in a way that’s accessible to children. In addition, some phrases in the text are crafted in a way to have a strong effect on readers (e.g., “Brand-new ideas, like equal rights for people of all colors, were replacing old, fearful ways of thinking.”).
The back matter of this text includes author’s and illustrator’s notes, a source list, and suggestions for further reading. The source list, in particular, is worthy of sharing with students since it contains a variety of sources (e.g., magazines, newspapers, books, film, and web).
The Fantastic Ferris Wheel: The Story of Inventor George Ferris by Betsy Harvey Kraft and Steven Salerno (Christy Ottaviano Books)
Publisher’s Summary: The World’s Fair in Chicago, 1893, was to be a spectacular event: architects, musicians, artists, and inventors worked on special exhibits to display the glories of their countries. But the Fair’s planners wanted something really special, something on the scale of the Eiffel Tower, which had been constructed for France’s fair three years earlier. At last, engineer George Ferris had an idea―a crazy, unrealistic, gigantic idea. He would construct a twenty-six-story tall observation wheel.
The planners didn’t think it could be done. They called it a “monstrosity.” It wouldn’t be safe. But George fought for his design. Finally, in December 1892, with only four months to go until the fair, George was given permission to build his wheel. He had to fight the tight schedule, bad weather, and general disapproval. Against all odds, the Ferris Wheel turned out to be the talk of the Fair, and proof that dreaming big dreams could pay off. Today, George’s Ferris Wheel is an icon of adventure and amusement throughout the world.
Mentor Text Possibilities: This book is a biography, but it’s also a text about the first large-scale observation wheel, which was invented by George Ferris. Some of the illustrations almost feel like text features since they include measurements to help readers better understand the scale of the observation wheel George wanted to build. As a result, one could point out some of these illustrations in the text as a means to help writers make deliberate choices about text features they can employ to help them emphasize key points.
I’m always on the look-out for strong leads and endings and this book has both. The lead hooks the reader and gets him/her thinking about a young boy who daydreams about wheels from the first page spread. The ending circles back to a young boy (who we now know is George Ferris) daydreaming about waterwheels. It closes with a message that reminds readers that the world needs people who can turn their dreams into inventions.
Several publishing houses are giving away one copy of each book listed above. Many thanks to Candlewick Press, Chronicle Books, Eerdmans, Lerner Books, Macmillan, Peachtree Publishers and Scholastic for donating a copy for TWT readers. For a chance to win this copy of one of the titles above, please leave a comment about this post by Monday, November 23rd at 11:59 p.m. EST. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Wednesday, November 25th. NOTES: I will draw the winners’ names and assign the books at random unless you state, in your comment, which books you’re most interested in using in your classroom and why. Preference will be given to those (whose names are chosen) who mention specific titles in their comments. Most publishers only ship books to people in the United States, while others will ship worldwide. Please leave your geographic location, if you do NOT live in the United States and/or have a U.S. mailingaddress, when you leave a comment. Listing the name of the book does not guarantee you’ll win a copy of it if your name is one of the ten chosen since multiple people might request the same book(s).
If you are the winner of the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – 2015 NONFICTION. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
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I used a random number generator to pick the winners for this giveaway. Here’s who will be receiving a new book:
1. Aaron and Alexander: The Most Famous Duel in American History goes to Amy H.
2. Child Convicts goes to Holly Hanson.
3. Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the BEATLES goes to Dan Redding.
4. Fur, Fins, and Feathers: Abraham Dee Bartlett and the Invention of the Modern Zoo goes to Maureen Lockie.
5. Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton goes to Mary Gunn.
6. Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova goes to aebartlein.
7. The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore goes to Danielle Mancinelli.
8. The Boy Who Fell off the Mayflower or John Howland’s Good Fortune goes to Janie.
9. The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage goes to Julia.
10. The Fantastic Ferris Wheel: The Story of Inventor George Ferris goes to Michele Knott.