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.


  1. I've been sitting here reading how you disect each story and the categories you put them in. You have such a clear clean cut way of defining them, and I'm getting more ideas from your expository way of thinking, for one of the books I have been wrestling with for years. I've had so many visuals floating around in my head, and not being able to pin them down with text, but these books by Steve Jenkins may be just what I need to look over. Thank you very much for this inspsirational post. I'm so anxious to look at my story in a whole new way with this guidance. I see a total new twist coming. Thank you again, Melissa!

  2. I'm glad you found this post useful, Virginia. It might also help you to stop thinking of your manuscript as a story. If you are writing expository nonfiction, you are not writing a story. You are sharing ideas and information, but you are not telling a story.