Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The End is in the Beginning

By Keila V. Dawson

 What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.” T. S. Eliot

In a narrative nonfiction biography, writers inform readers about the real life of a person. Just as in a narrative, the character’s goal is revealed; something they want to get, solve, find, achieve, etc. But a goal alone is not enough. Real events and facts that make up the plot are not enough. A writer must show their young audience why the person they chose to write about matters. That's done through storytelling, using a narrative arc

In beginnings, readers must understand the story problem or conflict. My January 2018 post Where to Begin addresses that.

The middle is about how the character reacts to that conflict and or their circumstances. Stakes are raised, choices are made, and the conflict increases. Facts are included that pertain only to the story being told. Extraneous information, unrelated but important facts end up in the back matter.

In WRITING PICTURE BOOKS, Ann Whitford Paul teaches us how to focus a narrative story in fiction by writing a story question. This applies to narrative nonfiction too. The story question should be related to the character’s goal. Paul instructs us to connect every scene to that story question. 

In endings, the story must resolve the conflict presented in the beginning and answer the story question.

Satisfying endings in narrative nonfiction can:


In looking at the mentor texts below, readers can formulate the story question from each beginning. Which type of ending mentioned above did each author use?


In Charlie Takes His ShotHow Charlie Sifford Broke the Color Barrier in Golf, Charlie's dream is to play golf in the PGA tour but black players aren't allowed to play in white clubs or in white sporting events.

Will Charlie be able to overcome discrimination play in the PGA tour?

Author: Nancy Churnin
Illustrator: John Joven
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company, 2018

In Miss Mary Reporting: The True Story of Sportswriter Mary Garber, Mary loved sports and wanted to become a sports reporter but her own mother, and others in the early to mid 20th century didn’t think a woman should work in that field. 

Will Mary convince people she can do the job and become a sports reporter?

Author: Sue Macy
Illustrator: C. F. Payne
Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2016


In Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation, Sylvia did not want to return to school. “Sylvia,” said her mother, “¿No sabes que por eso luchamos?” “Don’t you know that is why we fought?”

The story question is literally in the text. Sylvia and readers learn the answer.

Author/illustrator:  Duncan Tonatiuh
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams. 2014

In Emmanuel's Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu YeboahEmmanuel wants to work like everyone else but he was born with only one strong leg in a country where someone with a physical disability is expected to become a beggar. 

Will Emmanuel become the person he believes himself to be? 

Author: Laurie Ann Thompson
Illustrator: Sean Qualls
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade Books, 2015

Although Home is a concept book about the different types of homes where animals and people live, the author was still able to create an ending that is emotionally satisfying.

In what home does a ______ belong?

Author/illustrator: Carson Ellis
Publisher: Candlewick Press, 2015

In Follow the Moon Home: A Tale of One Idea, Twenty Kids, and a Hundred Sea Turtles, while searching for a problem to solve for a school project, a girl discovers baby loggerhead sea turtles die when they get lost on their way to the ocean during nesting season.

Will the girl save the sea turtles?

Authors: Philippe Cousteau, Deborah Hopkinson
Illustrator: Meilo So 
Publisher: Chronicle Books, 2016

In One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia, Isatou finds plastic bags cluttering her village are an eyesore and learns they are a danger to the livestock too. 

Isatou is one person, can she make a difference and declutter her village?

Author: Miranda Paul
Illustrator: Elizabeth Zunon
Publisher: Millbrook Press, 2015

Whether you are a pantster or a plotter, look for the end of your story in the beginning. 

I hope you share some of your favorite story endings and why the story questions and answers matter to you. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

A Writer's Best Friend...Monthly Challenge

By Janie Reinart
Embed from Getty Images


Alligator, hedgehog, anteater bear,
Rattlesnake, buffalo, anaconda, hare.
Bullfrog, woodchuck, wolverine, goose,
Whippoorwill, chipmunk, jackal, moose.
Mud turtle, whale, glowworm, bat,
Salamander, snail and Maltese cat.
Polecat, dog, wild otter, rat,
Pelican, hog, dodo, and bat.
House rat, toe rat, white deer, doe,
Chickadee, peacock, bobolink, crow.

Your challenge this month is to write about a pet. To help you get started, let's look at this book,

Charlotte and the Rock by Stephen W. Martin.

Or perhaps you would consider a pet bee.


Frida Kahlo and her Animalitos by Monica Brown is a playful biography "considering how Frida embodied characteristics of each of her beloved pets" (two monkeys, a parrot, three dogs, two turkeys, an eagle, a black cat, and a fawn.)

                    " Frida had a parrot named Bomnito. Like her parrot, Frida was colorful. "

This book, The Day We Lost Pet by Chuck Young is an endearing story. The language grabbed me.  The Kirkus Review says, "From the opening pages, with lines like “we were piles of skin laundry blending into a world of pales and fogs,” debut author Young transports readers into a world somehow familiar and simultaneously unlike any they have ever experienced."

                  "You loved Pet. And she went everywhere with you. You breathed each other's air. 
                       Some of her went into you and some of you went into her. I'm sure of it."

When I was little, I used to pretend that the little furry flowers on pussy willows were alive. What pet are you going to write about? Share your ideas in the comments. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Talking Mentor Texts with Jen Betton

Were there any particular mentor texts that inspired you in the creation of Hedgehog Needs a Hug (or any other upcoming books)?

Yes! I’d gotten to a point in my manuscript where the basic text on each page was there, but it needed a lot of polishing. My agent told me to work on showing emotion, without telling it. For example, an early draft of the story said “Hedgehog woke up feeling blue.” It later became “When Hedgehog awoke in his cozy nest, he felt down in the snout and droopy in the prickles.” As an author-illustrator I had to find the right balance between showing the emotion in the images and showing it in the text, and I tend to rely too heavily on the images, when sometimes a few additional words can make a big difference.

I looked closely at three books to learn more about emotive writing: Bear Has a Story to Tell, City Dog, Country Frog, and A Visitor for Bear. Each book taught me something different:

Bear Has A Story to Tell written by Phillip Stead and illustrated by Erin SteadHe sat up straight and cleared his throat. He puffed out his chest, and with all of his friends listening… Bear could not remember his story. "It was such a good story," he said, hanging his head. – Bear Has a Story to Tell

Bear Has a Story To Tell uses descriptions of physical posture to signal how the character feels. While some of this can be shown in the illustrations, these descriptions add a layer that might not otherwise come across.

City Dog Country Frog: written by Mo Willems and Illustrated by Jon J. Muth

Country Frog took a deep breath. "I am a tired frog," replied Country Frog. "Maybe we can play remember-ing games." City dog and Country Frog sat together on the rock. – City Dog, Country Frog

The emotive language in this book is so subtle – and it’s a story about death. There were just a few descriptions like, “taking a deep breath,” or “he sighed”. Otherwise it involved word choice of using words like remember, tired, or together to imply the impending separation.

A Visitor for Bear written by Bonny Becker and illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton

Verbs used in this story: Wailed, Roared, Ventured, Commanded, Rumbled, Murmured, Blubbered, Sniffled, Exclaimed, Cried, Agreed. All these words have so much more emotion than simply using “said.”

It is often much easier for me to see a problem in my text than it is for me to know how to fix it. But these mentor texts gave me a handle on techniques I could use to add emotional depth to the manuscript. There is a scene where Hedgehog approaches Turtle to ask for a hug, and Turtle is asleep. In my original manuscript there was no real text, just “Zzzzzzzz”. That became:

“Hedgehog trudged over to Turtle’s sun soaked resting spot. “Turtle?”
“Nevermind,” Hedgehog sighed, and he shuffled away.

Hedgehog Needs a Hug © Jen Betton

What do you feel is the BEST way for picture book writers to utilize mentor texts?
I think there are two ways I approach mentor texts: general and specific, and I think both are beneficial. General: I often pick up picture books I’ve seen online or at random and just read – this helps me 1) be aware of the current market, 2) have a subconscious feel for the type and structure of story that works, and 3) is just fun. Specific: often I have a problem that I’m actively working on – like using emotional language. And so I’ll go hunting for books that showcase that skill, and I’ll study the words in more depth. These books I’ll type out – copy the entire manuscript – because it’s easier for me to concentrate on the words that way. You can’t go wrong immersing yourself in picture books!

Jen Betton loves to draw and write stories for kids! In Kindergarten she got into trouble for drawing presents on a picture of Santa, and has been illustrating ever since. Her picture books include, HEDGEHOG NEEDS A HUG, her debut as an author-illustrator, published with Penguin-Putnam, and TWILIGHT CHANT, written by Holly Thompson, published with Clarion. She lives in Dallas with her family, and you can see more of her work at www.jenbetton.com

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Mentor Text Author Study: Maria Gianferrari

As you wade into the waters of an author study, it may take you a while before you are swimming. Come on in! The water’s fine.

Upon reading the first piece of an author’s work, you test the waters with just one toe. As you read more, the cool water tickles your ankles and you notice common strengths between multiple works. You quickly submerge deeper, motivated by your findings. Pretty soon, you are swimming! This author shines in several ways and the work may possess common themes.

Just as the summer sun prompts us to dive right in, Maria Gianferrari’s work is burning bright. Since July of 2015, she has released six books and today marks the release of her seventh. Happy Book Birthday, Hawk Rising!

 Maria is not new to the Reading for Research blog, and for good reason. Her exemplary work leads by example, defining the very essence of what a mentor text is. Just by looking at the covers of her work, it’s easy to see that she is an animal lover, and many of her books feature dogs as important characters. But beyond her love for dogs and animals, we find a multitude of writing strengths to learn from.

Maria Gianferrari… Word Economizer

The economy of words is important in our world of 300-400 word picture books. Vivid verbs not only enhance visualizations and ignite interplay between text and pictures, but they also make language sing and promote action. Maria masters the economy of words in all of her work, and continues in her newest, Hawk Rising. A few of the verbs you’ll find:


And more…

Do you sense poetic value as these verbs are isolated? I see a picture of a hawk emerging in my mind!  The verbs alone tell a story. It is not uncommon to see this in all of Maria’s picture books. Challenge yourself and your students to find poetry in verbs as you study her work.

Maria Gianferrari… Language Capitalizer

As touched on above, verbs are one way that Maria capitalizes on language. But consider the similes in Terrific Tongues:

 “A tongue like a straw” or “A tongue like an air conditioner”

And Coyote Moon, which additionally features onomatopoeia:

“As quiet as a ghost” and “POUNCE!”

As well as sensory language, precisely placed amongst an already quiet, sneaky setting:

“Twigs crack.”

Or the use of metaphor in Hello Goodbye Dog, comparing a dog’s legs to vehicle’s brakes:

“Moose put on her brakes.”

Maria Gianferrari… Story Weaver

Growing up, I remember the stiff, emotionless nonfiction offerings that did not excite me to read or learn more. But when facts are infused with story, we become invested readers, not even realizing that we are learning at the same time. We are led by inquiry, through an innocent observer’s eyes.

In Hawk Rising and Coyote Moon, we want to follow the animals on their night journey and we wonder:

How do they hunt? Are they always successful? Will their babies starve? Will any creatures get in their way?

Whether fiction or nonfiction, Maria always weaves a story and inspires problem solving, too:

In Officer Katz and Houndini, it’s a problem-solving showdown between characters. Deputy Catbird designs traps and Houndini solves his way out. 

In Penny & Jelly: The School Show, Penny problem solves her way to finding the perfect talent show act. And truly, it is no different for her nonfiction animal characters, who problem-solve their way to a family dinner. Every traditional story features a character failing multiple times, but finding a solution in the end. This is the mark of a great story.

Keep your eye out for more mentor text greatness from Maria, as Operation Rescue Dog comes out in September! And in the meantime, Roaring Brook Press is sponsoring a giveaway in celebration of Hawk Rising. U.S. Residents may enter below:

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Maria Gianferrari's favorite pastime is searching for perching red-tailed hawks while driving down the highway. When she's not driving, she loves watching birdcams. Her favorite feathered stars are Cornell hawk Big Red and her late mate, Ezra, who together raised fifteen chicks since they began nesting in 2012. Maria is also the author of Hello Goodbye Dog and Coyote Moon, both published by Roaring Brook Press as well as the Penny & Jelly Books (HMH), Officer Katz & Houndini (Aladdin), Terrific Tongues (Boyds Mills Press) and the forthcoming Operation Rescue Dog (Little Bee). She lives in Virginia with her scientist husband, artist daughter, and rescue dog, Becca. Visit her at mariagianferrari.com, on Facebook or Instagram.