Teacher to Teacher: Why I Use Picture Books as Mentor Texts
By Lynne R. Dorfman
If you are teaching the qualities of good writing, all you need are some picture books! Why picture books? Picture books provide the models that will help students grow as writers. They have vivid vocabulary—word choice is so important! They have beautiful illustrations or photographs, adding another layer to the text to motivate and engage our struggling readers and writers. Teachers can read them aloud in one sitting, but also return to them throughout the year as mentor texts to imitate. Students can also return to picture books independently to help them take a risk and try out something new. Sometimes, students will gather a set of books by an author to study one craft move that an author has used across some of the texts he has published.
Picture books can be used to connect reading strategies to an author’s craft. Consider looking at a book like Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes, Olivia Saves the Circus by Ian Falconer, The Troublemaker by Lauren Castillo, or Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts to discuss how authors reveal their characters to their readers. Then, in writing workshop, connect with these books to study narratives. How can we describe our characters? What do our readers need to know about them? Giving a set of picture books a close read to study character development is helpful to students when they write stories. Chapter books are great for helping students improve their reading skills, but trying to get students to develop their writing skills by imitating a Harry Potter book, for example, isn’t going to work very well. Picture books as “mentor texts” help students cultivate a mentality of “I can do that!”
You’re never alone as a teacher of writers when you have these savvy authors and mentor texts. They stand with you as if they (picture book authors) are in your classroom with you, helping you teach writing craft and structures to children. Picture books are wonderful stories with myriad life lessons that point the way to living in our social world. They are culturally diverse. If you share ten each month, you have shared one hundred books with your students!
I hope to get a picture book published one day soon. Rose Cappelli and I have submitted a manuscript about a remarkable human being. We are keeping our fingers crossed. The gentleman we wrote about isn’t famous – except, perhaps, in his hometown. But today’s kids need everyday heroes to read about. I truly believe that students need not only mentor texts for writing, but also mentors for living. Picture book biographies have introduced me to people like George Moses Horton, Peter Roget, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Trombone Shorty by Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews (autobiographical) gave me chills!
I have reflected on today’s problems, how to live my life, how to find topics to write about, how to think about mentorship – Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! By Dr. Seuss, Painting the Wind by Patricia and Emily MacLachlan, My Great Aunt Arizona by Gloria Houston, Walk On! A Guide for Babies of All Ages by Marla Frazee, A Sign by George Ella Lyons, The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson, The Library by Sarah Stewart, Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney – all from reading picture books! The list goes on and on!
Picture books are for children of all ages, even adults! They will capture your imagination and your heart. It is true that hardback versions can be expensive, but most picture books will also have a paperback version. For example, Miss Rumphius will cost you about $6.29 for a paperback copy. Old Elm Speaks: Tree Poems by Kristine O’Connell George is $6.99. I am not saying that chapter books should not be available or serve as read alouds, but I am saying that you can have a balance in your classroom – even if you are a fifth or sixth grade teacher. Picture books are challenging! They are rich in craft moves that your young writers can imitate and delightful for all the young artists and photographers sitting in your classrooms. Picture books make thoughtful read alouds, ways for students to grow emotionally as well as academically. I leave you with three questions:
- What picture books are you reading to your students?
- What reading/writing connections can they help your students make?
- How do you use them as mentor texts for writing workshop?
Lynne Dorfman reads picture books all the time! She is presently updating her collection for the second edition of Mentor Texts, co-authored by Rose Cappelli, for a second edition (hopefully, published some time in 2017). Lynne is a 1989 PAWLP fellow.