How Mentor Texts Can Help Writers Discover a Creative Process
by Rose Cappelli
Toad put his head very close to the ground and shouted, “NOW SEEDS, START GROWING!”
Frog came running up the path.
“What’s all this noise?” he asked.
“My seeds will not grow,” said Toad.
“You are shouting too much,” said Frog. “These poor seeds are afraid to grow.”
-from Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel
I guess you could say mentor texts are my thing. I’ve read hundreds of picture books and middle grade novels to mine strategies teachers can use to help students understand the structure and craft of writing. I’ve also used them extensively to help students find ideas for writing. One way is to encourage students to make connections to their own lives. A book like Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes might spark a story about a favorite pair of red boots, or a favorite teacher, or a time they felt bad about the way they behaved. I also make sure to include information from author’s notes in read alouds to help students better understand where ideas come from. For example, Sandra Markle based her story, Toad Weather, on an annual toad migration. Books like Ralph Writes a Story by Abby Hanlon and One Day, The End: Short, Very Short, Shorter-Than-Ever Stories by Rebecca Kai Dotlich are new favorite mentor texts that I use with students and recommend to teachers that demonstrate how stories can easily come from our everyday lives if we are willing to keep our eyes and hearts and minds open to possibilities. Before a story there has to be an idea. But, how can we use mentor texts to help students take that idea to the next level? How can we help them create a story, rather than a recount, that springs from everyday experiences? How can we help them nurture an idea and let it grow into the most wonderful story only they could write?
I recently found myself in a situation where I was challenged to come up with thirty story ideas in thirty days – the Storystorm Challenge hosted by author Tara Lazar. “I can do this,” I thought. After all, I’ve successfully participated in the March Slice of Life Challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers for several years, posting a “slice of life” daily during the month of March. But somehow I found it easier to recount something from my everyday life that made me laugh, think, wonder, or cry, than using everyday observations to spark a story idea. Thankfully, the ideas did not have to be fully formed. They could be in the form of a thought, notes about a character or a situation, plot points, a title, even a word. And, there was help along the way from authors who willingly shared their processes. Once I figured that out, I was on my way to filling up my notebook with seeds of ideas, probably most of them going nowhere, but hopefully some of them taking root and sprouting.
As I worked through the challenge, I thought about the students in our classrooms who might find it hard to write about their own experiences, but whose minds are filled with characters waiting for adventures, fantastic settings where story ideas live, and unusual solutions to problems. I thought about how we might show them different ways to use what they know (their own experiences) in combination with their thoughts and ideas. Once again, I looked to mentor texts to help me understand this creative process a little better.
I’ve heard many authors speak about the power of looking at a situation and simply asking, “What if?” Drew Daywalt was looking at a box of crayons one day and noticed that they were used unevenly. He wondered what the crayons might say about that if they could talk, and the idea for The Day the Crayons Quit was born. To write Matthew A.B.C., author/illustrator Peter Catalanotto wondered what might happen if everyone in a classroom had the same name. I’ve used this technique successfully with students by having them think of a familiar setting and then brainstorming “what if” scenarios that might happen there. For example, what if you came to school one day and all the classroom chairs were missing?
In Judy Schachner’s new book, Sarabella’s Thinking Cap, we meet a young girl whose brain is filled with ideas.
Some ideas came as a complete surprise to her, while other
notions were coddled and cared for like rare plants in a well-loved garden.
Fortunately, Sarabella finds a way to harness her ideas. This book would be a wonderful mentor text for students whose brains are always on the go with thoughts and ideas and wonders.
Another new mentor text that can be used to study creative process is Idea Jar by Adam Lehrhaupt. In this book, the author helps us understand that ideas (which may come from real life situations or our imaginations) can be collected, combined, and used to create stories in a variety of ways.
I don’t believe there is one writing process that fits all writers. Writers are individuals who need lots of choice not only with genre, but with how they develop ideas, think beyond their true-life experiences, and create. By studying mentor texts for process, we can help students find new ways to grow their story ideas.
Children’s Books Cited:
Catalanotto, Peter. Matthew A.B.C.
Daywalt, Drew. The Day the Crayons Quit.
Dotlich, Rebecca Kai. One Day, The End: Short, Very Short, Shorter-Than-Ever Stories.
Hanlon, Abby. Ralph Writes a Story.
Henkes, Kevin. Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse.
Lehrhaupt. Idea Jar.
Lobel, Arnold. Frog and Toad Together.
Markel, Sandra. Toad Weather.
Schachner, Judy. Sarabella’s Thinking Cap.
About the Author:
Rose Cappelli is a 1996 PAWLP Fellow. She is the co-author with Lynne Dorfman of Mentor Texts (Second Edition published May, 2017), Nonfiction Mentor Texts, and Poetry Mentor Texts. Rose is currently working on several picture book manuscripts which is helping her understand first-hand about creative process.
Rose, thank you for these great ideas and book suggestions! I agree that all writers don’t have the same process, and it’s so helpful to keep that in mind with our students of all ages. We’re looking forward to your presentation with Lynne at the PAWLP grad center on Saturday, the 3rd.