Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Behind the Books: More about Mentor Texts

A few days ago, as I was proofreading a report my husband had written for work, I looked past all the technical jargon and started to think about how it was structured. (What can I say. I’m obsessed with structure.) Like many expository nonfiction book for kids, it had lots of subheads. It also had quite a few bulleted lists.

As I read through those bulleted lists, a strange thought occured me. They had a lot in common with the tidbits of text featured in The Guinness Book of World Records, The Time for Kids Big Book of Why, and Eyewitness Books. Marc Aronson and his Uncommon Corps colleagues call these data books. I call them fast-fact books.

Okay, I admit it, the content in my husband’s report wasn’t nearly as interesting as a Guinness title, but the connection was clear to me. And then lightning struck. Fast-fact books would make great mentor texts for students learning to write business-style reports. Making bits of information as concise and interesting as possible is an important skill for all students to develop. I’d love to see what happens when students give it a try.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Science-Literacy Connection

I was delighted to see these wonderful teaching ideas related to No Monkeys, No Chocolate on the Teachers for Teachers blog. I love the notion of encouraging readers to ask themselves "So what?" as they read a book and "Now what?" when they are done.

It never cease to amaze me when readers--kids or adults--see things in my books that I didn't even realize were there.

A few weeks ago, I was visiting GHR Intermediate School in Coventry, CT. A smart fourth grader told me that No Monkeys, No Chocolate reminded her of Wonder by R.J. Palacio. I couldn't see the connection and asked what she thought the two books had in common.

"Multiple points of view," she bravely responded. "The bookworm dialog in your book offers a different point of view from the main text, just like the alternating chapters in Wonder."

"Wow," I responded. "That's a great observation."

And it was. That girl was really thinking deeply about what she was reading and making stunning connections.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Fan-mail Friday

Over the summer, I decided it would be fun to look back through all the mail kids sent me during the 2014-2015 school year. I've picked out some of my favorites and will be posting one every Friday. They truly are inspiring.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Behind the Books: Who’s the King of Mentor Texts?

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I’m a huge, huge fan of books by Steve Jenkins. His topics are fascinating. His art is absolutely amazing. His design is unrivaled in the kidlit world. Seriously, he’s a genius.

Lately, though, I’ve noticed something even more remarkable about his body of work. Most of his books are about animals, and all the cool ways they survive in the world. The consistency of the art gives the books a unified look that immediately lets you know he is the creator. And yet every book is distinctive because he is constantly experimenting with the way he writes his manuscripts. He’s always trying new things, and often, that involves innovative approaches to structure. And that makes them ideal mentor texts.

Probably his best-known book is the Caldecott Honor title What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? It has a Q&A structure that makes the book seem like a game. Brilliant.

Thanks to the six nonfiction text structures espoused by Common Core, publishers are now actively seeking books with a Q&A structure. But What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? came out in 2004, a decade ahead of Common Core. Like I said, brilliant.

And what’s more, the book is also a good example of a Compare & Contrast structure. This wonderful little book has a lot going on, and kids will love using it as a model for their own writing.

Several of Jenkins’ other books use a similar Q&A structure, including How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly? and What Do You Do When Something Wants to Eat You? One of my favorites is his newest book, Creature Features, because he brings a wonderful new twist to the Q&A structure. The text consists of brief letters to the featured animals and then their responses. This unique structure means that the book is also a good mentor text for letter writing. Creature Features is well worth the purchase price because it can be used in so many ways.

Jenkins has written many books with a Compare & Contrast structure: Move!; Actual Size; Prehistoric Actual Size; Time to Eat; My First Day, and Biggest, Strongest, Fastest are a few that immediately come to mind.

Living Color and The Beetle Book have a Description structure.

Never Smile at a Monkey has a Cause & Effect structure as well as a Compare & Contrast structure.

How to Clean a Hippopotamus, which makes good use of a graphic/comic-style format, has a Problem & Solution structure.

What about Sequence structure? Later this year, Jenkins has a book called How to Swallow a Pig that appears to fit the bill. How-to books make great mentor texts for students, and now kids will have a fun model that goes beyond recipe books or books with instructions for folding paper into origami. If I were you, I’d pre-order How to Swallow a Pig. Seriously.

Some schools already do author studies of Steve Jenkins, but I think EVERY school should. His fascinating topics will captivate you readers and inspire them to play with structure, format, and point of view in their own writing.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Why I Love School Visits

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending three days with the students of Memorial School in Hopedale, MA. For two days, I did large group presentations for most of the students, and they went  well. The students had been well prepared by their teachers, librarian Laurie Wodin, and literacy specialist Nancy Verdolino. The children were enthusiastic and engaged, and they asked great questions.

But on the third day, a little bit of magic happened. I was doing single-classroom writing workshops with the third graders, and we were discussing voice in nonfiction writing. After guiding them through a series of games and activities to help them understand what nonfiction voice is and how to incorporate it onto their own writing, I ask them to transform the voice of piece of writing I give them.

This workshop is challenging for third graders. Usually, I feel confident that students get the concept, but the writing activity can go either way. Sometimes they struggle to use their own words rather than just copy the initial text. But sometimes the results are amazing.

One class at Memorial School did particularly well, and one big reason for that is that their teacher wrote right along with them. Her actions showed the class that she valued what I was doing, and those students worked really hard.

There were many great writing samples at the end of the activity. But one of them was truly breath taking.

Here's a photo of Landon, a truly talented young writer.

And here's what he wrote--in just 5 or 7 minutes:


Friday, April 10, 2015

Fan-mail Friday

Over the summer, I decided it would be fun to look back through all the mail kids sent me during the 2014-2015 school year. I've picked out some of my favorites and will be posting one every Friday. They truly are inspiring.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Massachusetts Reading Association: Science of Readers Theater Handout

What is Readers Theater (RT)?
RT is a reading activity that employs theatrical techniques without the hassle of props, costumes, or sets. Instead of memorizing lines, students read directly from scripts, using intonation, facial expressions, and gestures to create characters that transport the audience into the story.

Obvious Benefits of RT

·         Builds fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

·         Studies show gains carry over to new and unpracticed texts.

Additional Benefits of RT

      ·         Promotes cooperative interaction among students.
·         Improves listening and speaking skills.
·         Helps even the shyest students develop self-confidence when reading out loud.

Why Readers Theater Works
·         Children are natural performers and love using their imaginations
·         RT allows emergent, struggling, and more advanced readers to participate in the same performance with equal success.
·         It gives repetitive reading a purpose. They want to do well at the performance.

Adding Science to the Mix
·         Students are more likely to retain science concepts when they’re incorporated into a fun activity.
·         Students feels feel a connection to “their” creature, see the world from that animal’s POV
·         Students gain a deeper understanding of animal behaviors and lifestyles
·         Students learn how living things interact
·         Students become more aware of the roles plants and animals play in their environment.

Science-themed picture books that are well suited for RT adaptation:
Animals Asleep. Sneed Collard. (Illus. by Anik McGrory.) Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Beneath the Sun. Melissa Stewart. (Illus. by Constance R. Bergum.) Peachtree, 2014.

Dig Wait Listen: A Desert Toad Tale. April Pulley Sayre. (Illus. by Barbara Bash) Greenwillow, 2001.
Down, Down, Down: A Journey to the Bottom of the Sea. Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin, 2009.

Feathers: Not Just for Flying. Melissa Stewart. (Illus. by Sarah S. Brannen) Charlesbridge, 2014.
Frog in a Bog. John Himmelman. Charlesbridge, 2004.

Home at Last: A Song of Migration. April Pulley Sayre. (Illus. by Alix Berenzy.) Holt. 1998.

How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly? Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. Houghton Mifflin, 2008.
Move! Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

No Monkeys, No Chocolate. Melissa Stewart and Allen Young. (Illus by Nicole Wong) Charlesbridge, 2013.

Rain, Rain, Rain Forest. Brenda Z. Guiberson. (Illus. by Steve Jenkins.) Holt, 2004.
A Rainbow of Animals. Melissa Stewart. Enslow, 2010.

Under the Snow. Melissa Stewart. (Illus. by Constance R. Bergum) Peachtree, 2009.

What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
When Rain Falls. Melissa Stewart. (Illus. by Constance R. Bergum) Peachtree, 2008.

Where Are the Night Animals? Mary Ann Fraser. HarperCollins, 1999

Additional Resources
Readers Theater scripts on my website:

Stewart, Melissa. “Science Books + Readers Theater,” Science Books & Films. American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C., May/June 2008. Internet page at:

Shepard, Aaron. “RT TIPS: A Guide to Reader’s Theater.” Internet page at:

Moran, Kelli Jo Kerry. “Nurturing Emergent Readers Through Readers Theater.” Early Childhood Education Journal, April 2006, pp. 317-323. 

The Power of Reader’s Theater: Instructor, January/February 2003, pp. 22-26, 82-84.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Behind the Books: All Writers Depend on Mentor Texts

Whenever I do a book signing, there are a few people who tell me that they dream of writing a book for children and ask how they can get started. I always give the same two pieces of advice: (1) join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and (2) read 100 books in the genre they would like to write. I first heard this second tip from Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park back in 2006, and I couldn’t agree more.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized what I was doing from an educator’s point of view. I was suggesting that the aspiring authors use mentor texts. A hundred of them.

Educators know that using children’s literature as a model for student writing can be powerful. But the truth is that ALL writers can benefit tremendously by reading and studying the techniques employed by other writers. I often use mentor texts as I’m thinking about elements like voice and structure.

While I was writing Feathers: Not Just for Flying, I struggled to find just the right voice. I can remember asking myself, “How did April Pulley Sayre craft the light, lovely voice of Vulture View?”
To understand her process, I knew I had to put myself in her shoes, so I typed out the text of the entire book. Seeing the words, phrases, and sentences in manuscript form gave me enormous insight into how language devices can play off one another in books with a strong lyrical voice. 

When I realized that No Monkeys, No Chocolate would have a structure in which one piece of information builds upon another, I looked closely at the cumulative structures of The House That Jack Built and The Gingerbread Man. Even though these classic stories are fiction, they helped me see possibilities for my own manuscript.

 I also looked at an assortment of books with layered text, including Beaks by Sneed Collard , When the Wolves Returned by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, my own book A Place for Butterflies, and several books by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. In each case, the layers were executed differently and served a different purpose. Understanding the range helped me see how I could use layers to the best effect in my own manuscript.

Do mentor texts have to come in book form? No way! The bookworms in No Monkeys, No Chocolate were inspired by Statler and Waldorf, the two old guys in The Muppet Show balcony. While discussing the show with my nieces, I thought about the purpose of the two curmudgeonly characters—they comment on the action on the main Muppet Show stage and added humor. I instantly realized that my book needed a similar element, so I created characters and wrote dialog as a third layer of text. It solved a major problem with the book by allowing me to reinforce complex science concepts in a fun way.

No matter how much experience we have as writers, mentor texts can guide us as we strive to stretch in new and exciting directions.

Monday, April 6, 2015

A Great Idea

Last week I spent two wonderful days at Brewster School in Durham, CT. When I walked in the door, I was greeted by this display.

What a great idea! Kudos to teacher-librarian Mrs. Lussier for thinking of this fun take on the title of my book No Monkeys, No Chocolate that gets students thinking about the value of books and the people who create them. Here are close-up views of some of my favorite responses:


Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Behind the Books: A Place for Birds, Take 2

When A Place for Birds came out in 2009, I was thrilled. Reviews were great. Sales were strong.

But as the years passed, things changed for many of the birds in the book. Some populations rebounded, while others faced additional losses.

My editor knew that I continued to collect materials related to the book after it was published. (It's hard to let go of a topic I care about.) And she told her publisher. They realized it would be relatively easy to revise the book and decided to do it.

While I updated the text on every spread, the biggest change involved adding a brand new example. In recent years, scientists have realized that millions of birds die each year when they accidentally fly into windows. My editor agreed that we should add this to the book and commissioned a new piece of art.

Because the publisher had received feedback from sales reps that the original cover was too location specific (The background is obviously the Chicago cityscape.), they also decided to change the book's cover. I really like the new one, and I hope it draws a new audience to the book.

I’ve also updated the educational materials that go with the book, so the new Teachers Guide is aligned to both The Common Core standards and the Next Generation Science Standards. Teachers can also download related activities to do with their students. So in the end, everyone wins.