One of my favorite things is discovering a new mentor text. That moment—sometimes just a couple of pages into a first reading—when I realize that a book is magic and demands to be shared with kids. Bliss.
I love to pore over that new book, reading like a writer, squeezing out all the possibilities it holds for inspiring and instructing young writers (and myself).
Sometimes I have to buy that book immediately, to add it to my collection. For some books, it’s not enough to know I can access it from the library. It’s not enough to write the title on a list so I don’t forget. I need to have my own copy within reach at all times, because it’s just that beautiful.
Rabbit and the Motorbike is one of those books.
Written by Kate Hoefler and illustrated by Sarah Jacoby, Rabbit and the Motorbike is a story about friendship and learning to live life to the fullest.
I have (and would) read this book aloud to writers of all ages. It has so much depth, while at the same time, the big ideas are accessible to even our youngest readers. It is the intentionality of author Kate Hoefler and illustrator Sarah Jacoby that make it a brilliant mentor text for close study within a reading and/or writing narrative unit.
The themes of this book are communicated so clearly, making this text ideal for supporting writers who are learning to identify themes in their reading and to embed themes in their writing. There are many possibilities for unpacking the craft moves used by both the author and the illustrator.
In this post, I’ll describe the ways I would use Rabbit and the Motorbike as a mentor text for instruction with writers in upper elementary grades through middle school. This is an example of the thinking work I do in advance of sharing a mentor text with students, anticipating what students might notice and planning for the questioning I will do to help them name those craft moves. My goal is always to get kids to the HOW, because that is the level of understanding they need to be able to try strategies out in their own writing.
I would begin by simply reading the text. For me, this is us gathered together on the carpet, regardless of grade level. It’s essential that students can see the pictures, because there is as much craft in the illustrations as in the text. I would ask students to listen with something general in mind, such as:
What is this book really about? How do you know?
I would give students time to talk in pairs or small groups, sharing their thinking, pointing out parts of the text that help them to make meaning. As a group, we would briefly synthesize our thinking about the themes they picked up on during this initial reading. We would revel in the beauty of the book, and we would make a plan to come back to study it more closely.
On our second reading, we would have a more focused task. We would be reading like writers, noticing HOW author Kate Hoefler and illustrator Sarah Jacoby help us to understand what the book is really about. What are the moves they are making as writer and illustrator that shine a spotlight on the themes of the book?
This would be an interactive reading, with students jumping in to name the craft moves they are starting to see, asking for sentences and pages to be reread so we can hear them again. My questioning would follow their noticings, and would sound like:
- Where do you see that in the text/illustrations?
- I wonder if we’ll see that anywhere else. Let’s keep an eye out as we continue reading.
- What might that mean?
- Why is that important?
- Why might she have done it that way?
We would begin charting those moves—nothing fancy, just a list at this point of those noticings we want to hold on to. (I have a plan for what we’ll do later with this list, but for now, I would just capture their ahas.)
It’s not about hitting everything at once; we’re working in layers. Noticings will build on each other as students begin to understand how the craft moves work. We don’t ever want to dissect a book to the point where we lose meaning and joy. Making a list like the one below gives me an opportunity to think through what kids might say, as well as how I might respond to get them from the WHAT to the HOW.
I anticipate students might point out many of the following moves:
- Clear character arc from page one. As readers, we know right away what Rabbit’s wish is, and it’s the opposite of what his life is. We expect him to make his dream happen by the end of the book.
- There are lots of places where Kate Hoefler uses repetition of a two word sentence for emphasis. “Every night.” “Every day.” “Quite long.” These short sentences, paired with full page illustrations that mirror the tone of the statements, let the reader know how big Rabbit’s wish is.
- The illustrator uses light and dark as well as color to mirror how Rabbit is feeling.
- Dog’s character is a foil to Rabbit’s at the beginning of the story. The intentional use of opposites draws the reader’s attention and reinforces Rabbit’s desire.
- When Rabbit’s life is small, the pictures in the book are also small. They don’t take up the entire page; there is intentional white space around the spotlight illustrations. Later in the book when Rabbit leaves home to explore, the pictures take up the whole page. We see sky and horizons. We see a variety of perspectives (e.g. bird’s eye view).
- There is very little dialogue in the book. In fact, there is only one line: “‘The world is beautiful,’ Dog would say, ‘if you’re brave enough to see it. Even new places can feel like long-lost friends.’” As readers, we pay close attention to this dialogue, because these are the only words spoken. Words of the Wiser, if you’re versed in Notice and Note strategies.
- When Dog dies, Rabbit can’t rely on his friend to provide the excitement of his stories any more. This creates a problem Rabbit will need to solve another way. Character struggle.
- More character struggle when the motorbike arrives. Rabbit tries to hide it, to ignore it. The leaves and the birds gather on it and then leave. These are signals that Rabbit should also leave.
- The seasons are changing over the course of the story. Different seasons are symbols. . .
- At the beginning of the book, an illustration shows Rabbit on the back of the motorbike being driven by Dog. Near the end of the book, Rabbit is driving the motorbike and Dog is riding on the back. This illustration shows the change Rabbit has made.
- By the end of the story, it is Rabbit who is full of stories. Before he was listening, and now he is telling. He didn’t think he could—he was so afraid—but he learned that he could. As readers, we know to pay attention to character change in a story.
- The illustrations show a young cat watching Rabbit when he finally rides down the road on the motorbike. This same cat greets Rabbit when he returns at the very end, eager to hear Rabbit’s stories. It’s a circular ending, with Rabbit now in the role of mentor to a new friend.
By the end of the second reading, students will begin to see patterns they did not notice before. It’s exciting to comb back through the text on subsequent re-readings, on the hunt for one pattern at a time. (This also keeps those minilessons mini!)
- The road and the sounds of the road keep coming up again and again! First it’s the road that is moving while Rabbit is still, and then Rabbit and the motorbike listen to the distant sounds of the road. By the end of the story, “. . . Rabbit and the motorbike were the distant sound of the highway that others heard,” and “. . . Rabbit was the wind that carried the leaves.” The road must stand for something important. . .
- The howl repeats! First it’s Dog howling at the moon, then it’s the howl of the motorbike’s engine that Rabbit hears in his dreams, and then it’s Rabbit who is howling at the moon as he travels through the desert. That howl must be a way to show. . .
- There are natural objects that repeat across the text: the wheat, leaves, wind, birds, flowers. Each of these have been intentionally planted in the text and illustrations, and their changes mirror Rabbit’s evolution across the story. How do those repeating objects/images become hints about theme?
These patterns can be named and create strategies on our shared anchor chart as we revise it over time, getting progressively more precise. For example, repetition is a strategy. Within this text, writers can find repetition of sentence structure, objects/imagery, and character actions. As readers, we pay attention to repetition. We notice when that repetition shows a change. Conversely, we notice when there is only one of something important, such as a single line of dialogue in a book.
Once we’ve noticed and named the way that repetition draws our attention as readers to the themes of Rabbit and the Motorbike, writers have concrete examples of how they might use repetition to highlight important parts of their own stories.
Imagery is another strategy students will identify. Why might Kate Hoefler have chosen wheat as imagery on that first page when the reader meets Rabbit? How is the imagery of wheat different from the leaves (in motion) that pop up across the story? Let’s take another look at the places in the text where leaves show up. . .
Story arc is a third category into which these noticings might be organized. What do we know about the ways a character’s desires connect to theme? What about the ways characters struggle and ultimately solve their problems? The length of a picture book makes this important concept concrete and easy to notice and name for young readers and writers.
That original chart of noticings from reading number two morphs over subsequent re-readings into an organized anchor chart of craft moves to support a reader in identifying themes and a writer in embedding themes in their own writing. There is power in modeling how we synthesize our thinking over time and across readings (or even multiple texts) by co-creating and collaboratively revising our charts as we go.
My strategy for questioning is to follow kids’ lead and keep pushing them back into the text. When a student notices a pattern, I ask:
- Why might the author/illustrator have done it that way?
- What does that help you to understand as a reader about theme?
- What ideas does that give you as a writer?
- How might it look in your own piece?
My stance is one of inquiry, supporting young readers and writers in making meaning and drawing significance from mentor texts that they can apply to their own work.
For writers who are becoming increasingly sophisticated and intentional, studying a text like Rabbit and the Motorbike offers specific strategies for intentionally planting seeds to their own themes within texts (and illustrations). For some writers, they will take away the idea of character change over time as a part of their story arc. For writers who already have that concept under their control, they will move to imagery or repetition as additional techniques for reinforcing their theme(s).
I might not dig into all of these layers whole group, depending on grade level and readiness of writers. I might do two readings of the text with all writers, and then I might do a third or fourth reading for the more nuanced craft moves with a small group of writers who are demonstrating readiness for extension. Or, I might return to the text later in the unit for a subsequent reading when more writers have tried out initial strategies and are ready for more. There are so many possibilities for a text as rich as this one.
As prepared as I feel to use this mentor text, having done this thinking work in advance, I know that students will notice even more. Those brilliant insights that pop out of the close study—faces all lit up with the joy of discovery—that’s another one of my favorite things.