So far, all the books I’ve discussed have had a large, simple main text with general information and smaller, longer text features that provide additional details. There is a second, though probably less common, way of employing layered text.
In books like Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin (illus. by Mary Azarian; Houghton Mifflin) and The Bumblebee Queen by April Pulley Sayre (illus by Patricia Wynne; Charlesbridge), the main text offers a compelling narrative. Blocks of text set in a smaller typeface and/or tucked in out-of-the-way places provide details that are interesting but might interrupt the story’s flow if they were integrated into the main text.
While the reading level of the two kinds of text is generally similar in these titles, the tone is distinctive. Buddies may enjoy alternating between reading the main storyline and the fact blocks, and may even want to use different voices as they read the two styles of text. This will help them see that the two kinds of text serve different functions in the storytelling process.
Snowflake Bentley, winner of the Caldecott Medal, is a wonderful biography of Wilson Bentley, a Vermont farm boy whose fascination with snowflakes led to a lifelong pursuit to photograph and study their crystal structures. The lovely woodcut illustrations, simple, graceful main text, and scattering of fact-filled sidebars work together beautifully to create a truly special book.
If you live in a place where it snows, have the buddies read and discuss the book on a snowy day. Then take the students out while snow is still falling. Have each team of buddies work together to catch snowflakes on black construction paper and look at them with a magnifying glass. Ask the students to make detailed drawings and/or descriptions the snowflakes in a notebook. When the class goes back inside, have buddy teams share their drawings and/or descriptions with one another. Ask the students how the snowflakes are similar? How are they different? Make a list on chart paper.
Gentle, informative, and appealing, The Bumblebee Queen features lyrical main text that describes the somewhat surprising life cycle “story” of a bumblebee queen, from her awakening from winter hibernation to her death in late autumn. More straightforward text cleverly set off by a bee’s dashed flight path offer related facts in greater detail. Precise ink drawings with watercolor washes illustrate the text with clarity, simplicity, and skill.
After reading and discussing the book, encourage the buddies to carefully look for signs of bees and wasps on the school playground, at home, or at a local park. This activity can be done at any time of year if you show students photos or samples of bee and wasp nests. Can the children identify some of the bee and wasp species that live in your area?