How to Select Perfect Mentor Texts That Transform Young Readers and Writers

 //  Jul 1, 2015

How to Select Perfect Mentor Texts That Transform Young Readers and Writers

When you’re a children’s literature fanatic, like I am, you surround yourself with fellow book lovers. Recently, I had the opportunity to collaborate with one of my book buddies, Karen Biggs-Tucker, to present a collection of our favorite titles. Together, we pondered our selection criteria. Carefully selected mentor texts, usually picture books, are an integral part of my literacy instruction. During reading workshop, I think aloud as I read and invite my students to join in the conversation to better comprehend the text. When we read a mentor text with the eye of a writer, we think and talk about craft and structure. In this post, I’ll share four of the characteristics we identified when choosing mentor texts to spark comprehension conversations or notice the writer’s and/or illustrator’s craft techniques.

Engaging Characters

I’m always searching for books with characters that my students can call friends. I want them to be able to relate to the characters’ emotions or actions and think about how it would feel to walk in that person’s (or animal’s) shoes. This not only helps my students comprehend stories, but it also nudges them toward understanding and expressing their own feelings. Together, we study how authors reveal insights into a character and make an anchor chart listing the following ways:

  • Narration
  • Conversation
  • Illustrations
  • Thoughts of the character
  • Thoughts of other characters
  • Actions

(Walther, 2015, p. 116)

Then, we notice and discuss examples during our interactive read alouds. We meet characters like Janine. by Maryann Cocca-Leffler  who is excluded from a party because she is different but, instead of being upset, she throws her own party and invites EVERYONE! We converse about how Janine reacted to the actions of her peers. Then, to gain more insights into the characters, we read the back flap and learn that Maryann wrote this book about her daughter, Janine, who has bravely navigated her life with disabilities.

Rich Language

When children are immersed in texts with rich language, they begin to use that language in their conversations and, eventually, in their writing. An example of such a text is One Word From Sophia by Jim Averbeck, Illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail. In this story, Sophia desperately wants a pet giraffe and presents her arguments (along with pie charts and graphs) to her family. The author has included a humorous, and informative, glossary at the end of the book leading to further discussion about the wonderful world of words. Introduce you students to Jim and Yasmeen by checking out their websites or following them on Twitter @jimaverbeck  @YasmeenMay.

Intriguing Illustrations

At a recent conference, I had the pleasure of listening to children’s author and illustrator Tom Lichtenheld speak about why he loves creating books for kids. One of his many reasons is that kids are innately skilled at understanding visual storytelling. So, when he’s working on his illustrations he carefully crafts them to create interest, draw the reader into the story, color a mood, add magic, or simply make kids (and adults) laugh. In one of his most recent offerings Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry you can find examples of each of his criteria to notice with your students and discuss how they might do the same in their own illustrations. Then, you can take them to Tom’s website to learn more about his work or send him a note on Twitter @tlichtenheld.

Memorable Themes

At the beginning of the year as we build our literacy community, I select texts that illuminate themes such as accepting differences, working together, or being kind. We discuss how

the theme of a story quietly ties together the characters, setting, and plot and may reveal author’s purpose. Guiding students as they uncover the theme leads to a deeper understanding of the text. Kadir Nelson’s book If You Plant a Seed is a perfect example. In this story, Rabbit and Mouse plant seeds, but their selfishness leads to trouble. They discover that planting a seed of kindness is much sweeter.I pair this text with Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson as we bond with each other and learn how to use kind words and actions.

You might be wondering what else I look for when selecting books. Here are a few more characteristics Karen and I discussed: kid appeal, originality, texts that broaden children’s horizons by opening windows to other times, places, or situations, and those that mirror the diversity we find in our classrooms today. I’d love to hear what you look for as you select books to share with your learners. Join me at ILA and we’ll chat more about this topic!