The Joys of Sharing Expository Nonfiction Mentor Texts with Students + a Giveaway

I remember my dad watching “This Old House” on PBS when I was a kid. I used to roll my eyes whenever I walked into the room and saw it playing. Boring, I would say aloud. Fast forward to my early 30’s: I consumed more hours of shows like”House Hunters” than I should admit to publicly. Nearly a decade has passed since we moved into our house and I watch HGTV infrequently. When I do, I enjoy shows like “Rehab Addict” and “Fixer Upper.” I enjoy those shows because I get to learn something new about construction and remodeling. (Give us another decade in this house and I’ll need that knowledge!) Coming to shows these a few years ago made me realize that sometimes we may discover something new to enjoy when we dabble in something outside of our comfort zone.

Despite preferring narrative nonfiction books, I’ve come to enjoy reading expository nonfiction. Of course, that only happened after Melissa Stewart, author of more than 180 science books for children, invited me to be on a panel she chaired at NCTE called “Give Fact-Loving Kids a Voice: Using ExpositoryNonfiction as Mentor Texts.” Seeing as there was no way I would turn down the opportunity to present with Melissa Stewart, I began immersing myself in as many expository nonfiction picture books as I could get my hands on in advance of the presentation. 

According to Stewart, I’m not alone with my love of narrative nonfiction. She polled 1,000 librarians and literacy educators about the kind of writing style (i.e., expository, narrative, or both) they preferred. The results didn’t surprise me. 6% of respondents preferred expository texts, 54% of respondents preferred narrative texts, while34% of respondents liked both kinds of writing.

Did you know many elementary school students enjoy reading expository nonfiction? Stewart cited a variety of research in a recent blog post, “Expository Nonfiction: Some Students Prefer It,” which asserts that 42% of students prefer expository texts, 25% of students prefer narrative texts, while 33% of students enjoy both kinds of writing.

Even though many educators do not prefer expository texts, it’s important to provide lots of high-interest, well-written expository nonfiction books to students since doing so can provide an important entry point for students. In addition, much of the informational writing we teach students to do in writing workshop is expository in nature. Therefore, we can strengthen young writers by providing them with access to high-quality, expository nonfiction picture books. 

After Melissa made the case for providing students with expository nonfiction at NCTE, Alyson Beecher, Mary Ann Cappiello, Erika Thulin Dawes, Terrell Young, and I shared expository nonfiction mentor texts for fact-loving kids. Melissa shared the book list from the presentation on her blog. (She will be sharing the PowerPoint from our NCTE presentation on her website soon.) Here are three of the recently-published picturebooks I talked about plus three more expository titles I think are worthy of adding to your classroom library. (And speaking of classroom libraries, one lucky reader will have the chance to win all of the books below for their classroom/school library by leaving a comment on this post.) Rather than telling you about all of the craft moves you can teach with each one (and each one has MANY possibilities), I’m highlighting just one aspect of the book that makes it an exemplary mentor text for using with young writers.  

A Seed is the Start by Melissa Stewart (National Geographic Kids, 2018)

Leads are the first few lines or pages of a book that hook readers and make them want to read on. Endings are the final lines or pages of a book that conclude a piece and stay with readers. As a result, writing effective leads and endings are tricky business. In A Seed is the Start, Stewart beings with a definition lead, which is where she defines what is a seed is and how it leads to the growth of new plant life. Opposite of the definition is a page that shows how a corn seat grows from the time the seed coat splits open until the time it spreads its first leaves. The ending of Stewart’s book feels like a wraparound, which acts as a bookend to the lead, in that she states that “[I]fa seed lands in a good spot, it sprouts. Then it grows into a plant that makes more seeds” (30-31). There are several images of an apple seed going through the process of sprouting, developing into a young tree, becoming a big enough tree to produce flowers, and then becoming a tree that yields fruit with new seeds inside of each fruit.

If you’re tired of reading the same formulaic leads and endings in your students’ informational pieces, then this is an excellent text to show them since it’s an excellent way to define and show a concept (in the beginning) and how to harken back to it (in the ending).

If Polar Bears Disappeared by Lily Williams (Roaring Brook Press, 2018)

Writers create a mood in their writing by making conscious decisions about the kind of punctuation to use. When writers make purposeful choices about their punctuation, their writing sounds the way they intend. In this book, Williams uses ellipses points to help readers slow down in certain parts or to help them think deeply in other parts of the book. Williams uses ellipses points in the lead, as a repeated line, “If too much of the sea ice melted…” throughout the book to transition readers from part-to-part, and near the end of the book to indicate a longer pause before continuing the thought.

Ellipses points are a unique way to transition readers from page to page or paragraph to paragraph. As Williams shows us, ellipses points AND a repeated line, can work together to create a desired effect, such as holding a book together and/or slowing down readers to consider something that pertains to the big idea of their writing.

Look at Me! How to Attract Attention in the Animal World by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018)

Headings are the name of a category that tells readers what a section of writing (and illustrations)will be about. In this book, the headings encourage readers to look at the feature that makes the animal unique. For instance, on the page spread that beings with “Watch me grow – and grow!” readers learn how animals make themselves look bigger and scarier when they feel intimidated.  “A brilliant warning” is a page spread talks about the ways different animals change their colors to encourage predators to leave them alone. “Got a light?” informs readers about animals that lure animals towards them through the use of light.  

Kids often need help spicing up their headings. Jenkins and Page’s book shows kids how to get creative, while still previewing what’s to come for readers in a meaningful way.

Now You Know How It Works: Picturesand Answers for the Curious Mind by Valorie Fisher (Orchard Books, 2018)

Diagrams are simplified drawings or visuals that show how something works or operates. Fisher’s book explains how items like a light bulb, a whistle, a toaster, a zipper, and even how a toilet works. While there is plenty of prose in this book, one of the most interesting features are the diagrams, which are expertly labeled so that young readers can get an understanding of how items work. Often times, Fisher added dotted lines, solid lines, or short arrows to show the flow, direction, or path of something that was pictured.

This is the perfect text to use if you’re looking for a book to help your students create effective and clear diagrams to teach readers something in a succinct way.  

Red Alert! Endangered Animals Around the World by Catherine Barr and Anne Wilson (Charlesbridge, 2018)

Print layout is the way text and illustrations are presented on the page. (NOTE: This book is a bit of a hybrid, but it’s mostly expository. However, there’s a story-like intro to each animal on each page.)

Red Alert is a choose-your-own adventure of sorts. You pick a place, choose a creature, and then learn about the animal, and find out how to help. Once you’ve made a selection, each page spread includes:

  • A circle at the top corner of the page that encourages you to meet the animal.
  • Readers are treated to a short story about the animal, be it a large-tooth sawfish, a red-headed vulture, or a giant panda.
  • Three to four facts follow.
  • There’s a box that explains the danger to the animal based on the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, Red List.
  • A corresponding page to link to the back of the book to learn how to help a given creature.

Kids can get creative when they’re writing informational texts of their own. You can encourage students to think deeply about how to convey a variety of information to their readers by varying the layout of information on the page.

Water Land: Land and Water Forms Around the World by Christy Hale (Neal Porter, 2018)

Back matter is the text that comes after the last page of the main text. Examples of back matter may include author/illustrator notes, fact pages, historical notes, and source lists.

Water Land shows kids, rather than merely tells them, what land and water forms look like by switching between bodies of water and land masses when one turns the page. (Click here to get a sense of how Hale does that in her book.) As a result, the majority of the text in this book is found in the back matter. Some of the items in the back matter of Water Land are a visual and written glossary of the water and land forms, examples of each of the forms around the world, and a map of where on earth one can find each form.

Encourage students to create sections of back matter than help readers by showing them how Hale only included information that would extend her readers’ knowledge about land and water forms.

NOTE: The terminology of craft moves in this post come from the glossary of my 2016 book, Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts.


  • This giveaway is for a copy of each of the following books: A Seed is the Start, If Polar Bears Disappeared, Look at Me!, Now You Know How It Works, Red Alert, and Water Land. Many thanks to Charlesbridge, HMH, MacMillan, National Geographic Kids, and Scholastic for donating a copy of each of these books for one lucky reader.

  • For a chance to win these six books, please leave a comment about this post by Monday, Decemberc10th 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, December 12th.

  • NOTE: You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter this giveaway.

  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, my contacts at each of the above-mentioned publishers will ship your books out to you.  (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITINGTEACHERS – JOYFUL EXPOSITORY BOOKS. 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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Congratulations to Kim Norgaard whose commenter number was selected to win these books!