Learning from a Mentor Text: Dialogue in The Season of Styx Malone

Writing believable dialogue can be one of the trickiest things about crafting a middle grade novel. A lot can go wrong with dialogue. Here are some of the common pitfalls.

So-authentic-it’s-boring dialogue:

“Hi, Jesse,” said Tom.
“Hey,” said Jesse.
“What’s up?” asked Tom.
“Not much,” said Jesse. “How are you?”
“Decent,” said Tom. “Kinda bored.”
“Yeah,” said Jesse. “Me too.”

At this point, who isn’t bored? While we want dialogue to sound like real people talking, the key is to leave out all the boring bits that don’t move the plot forward. We want dialogue to sound like real people talking – but we want real-people talk at its most dramatic, its wittiest, its funniest, and its most interesting. Skip over the small talk.

Info dump dialogue:

“Hi, Tom,” said Jesse. “I’m on my way to meet Kayla for ice cream. She’s my friend from camp, which I attend every summer for six weeks. We used to be best friends with Mia, too, but Mia didn’t go last year, and the three of us grew apart. Kayla’s hair looks just like mine, so at camp, they called us the ponytail twins.”

At this point, Tom is thinking “Why are you telling me all this?” So are readers. Sometimes writers try to use dialogue to deliver information that the reader will need later. But that only works if it’s limited in scope and feels natural. Is there a reason for this character to be telling the other character all this stuff? If not – if it’s really just there for the reader – the dialogue falls flat.

Whose-voice-is-this-really? dialogue:

“When I woke up for the first day of second grade, the fog was hanging over the lake like a dream that hadn’t fully disappeared into my subconscious upon waking…”

When we’re writing in the voice of a kid character, that voice has to be believable. So unless your character happens to be a ridiculously precocious/pretentious seven-year-old, this doesn’t work. (That said, see Lisa Yee’s book MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS for an example of a book where mature language patterns & vocabulary work beautifully as part of the characterization.)

Talking-and-nothing-else dialogue:

Take another look at that so-authentic-it’s-boring example with Tom & Jesse above. The words being spoken aren’t the only problem. Nothing else is happening while that boring conversation takes place. Even with spicier dialogue, it can help a lot if characters are doing something while they’re talking – especially if the conversation goes on a while.

Complete-sentence-or-bust dialogue:

“Hey, can you come over later on?” asked Jesse.
“I can’t come over because I have to clean my room,” said Tom.
“Do you really have to clean it today?” Jesse asked.
“My mom said I have to or I’m grounded for the weekend,” Tom said.
“That is a real bummer,” said Jesse.

Real people don’t talk like this. We use incomplete sentences and language that’s more casual. Consider this rewrite:

“Hey, can you come over later?” asked Jesse.
“Nope. Gotta clean my room,” said Tom.
Tom nodded. “Or I’m grounded for the weekend.”

Can’t-tell-who’s-who dialogue:

“Dude! We need to go to the skate park today!” said Joe.
“Dude! We totally do,” said Tom.
Pete nodded. “Dude! That’s going to be awesome!”
“Totally,” said Joe.

These guys all sound alike. If their undistinguishable voices and speech patterns keep up, readers won’t be able to tell them apart. Want to know if your characters’ voices are different enough?  Copy and paste all of one character’s lines into a blank document. Copy and paste another character’s lines into another document. Then cut them apart and mix them up. Can you sort the lines by character just by the way they talk? Can a friend who doesn’t already know all the dialogue guess who said what?

Take a look at how Kekla handled the voices of different characters in THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE. These lines of dialogue are from Caleb:

“I said, I don’t want to be ordinary. I want to be…the other thing.”
“I know that song. We played it in band. It’s ‘Tarantelle.’”
“I think we got off on the wrong foot. I’m Caleb Franklin and this is my brother, Bobby Gene.”

And these are from Styx, who’s older and more worldly

“Actually, I’d like to make you a more attractive offer.”
“But I’m bringing all the expertise. Would you rather have two-thirds of nothing and a big problem on your hands, or would you rather have fifty percent of a whole lot, problem-free?”
“No relation. Neighbor, friend, mediator. I’ve come to discuss the matter of the gunnysack.”

There’s no way a reader is going to confuse the two, even if there are no dialogue tags to show who’s talking. And speaking of dialogue tags… sometimes, less is more. Back in school, some of us heard the questionable advice “said is dead” from teachers who wanted us to use more vivid dialogue tags. However well-intended this was, it can lead to passages like this:

“He’s here!” Kim shouted.
“I’ve been waiting all day,” Tim exclaimed.
“Not as long as I’ve been waiting,” Dad chuckled.
“I hope he likes the surprise party,” Tim worried.
“He’ll love it,” Kim asserted.

When you’re using dialogue tags, said is often your best bet because it doesn’t call attention to itself, interrupting the flow of the dialogue. It’s common enough to be mostly invisible, so the focus is on the story – not your impressively varied dialogue tags. But sometime you don’t need dialogue tags at all. Take a look at how Kekla handled this conversation when Bobby and Caleb were at the pond with Styx and his foster sibling, Pixie. Pay special attention to the mix of dialogue, action, and Caleb’s internal thoughts…

“Are there even fish in here?” Pixie asked.
Bobby Gene’s voice floated from above. “We’ve never seen any.” He splashed around in the shallows.
“Why did you get the nickname Pixie?” I figured it was okay to ask since we’d been talking about names earlier.
“I picked it out.”
“I have a brother now. I thought we should match.”
It took me a while to work it out. Pixie and Styx. Pixie Styx?
“You’re a freak,” I informed her.
“I’m original.” She enunciated each syllable.
She grinned, as if she knew that secretly I was thinking: No one would ever call Pixie “ordinary.”
She grinned wider. “Shut up,” she said. “You know you like me.”
“Shut up,” I said. Because I did.

This dialogue hums right along. You can hear the characters’ voices and imagine them interacting, which is a result of that balanced mix of dialogue and action. Studying dialogue in a mentor text like this is one of the best ways to get an ear for how it works.

So here’s your assignment for today. Choose a few dialogue-heavy pages of THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE to mark up. Photocopy those pages, just for this exercise, if you don’t want to mark up your book. Get five different colored highlighters or colored pencils, and use them to highlight the following elements in those dialogue sections:

Color 1 – Characters’ dialogue in quotes
Color 2 – Dialogue tags like he said, she asked, etc.
Color 3 – Action that’s happening while the characters talk.
Color 4 – Internal thoughts from the narrator.
Color 5 – Other description mixed in with the dialogue.

When you finish, take a look at the balance. Then, take a passage from your own writing, or imagine a new conversation between some characters you make up (Kids at a soccer game? Moms with toddler at an ice cream stand? Astronaut pals making plans for the day?)  and try to create that same sort of balance in a written conversation. If you’d like to share what you wrote for today, feel free to visit this post on my blog (www.katemessner.com/blog). To leave a comment, you’ll have to click on the title of the blog post and then scroll down to the bottom. Happy writing!

The Season of Styx Malone: Looking at Characterization in a Mentor Text

Welcome to week 3 of Teachers Write! Hopefully, you’ve already had a chance to read our mentor text for this week, Kekla Magoon’s THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE. But even if you haven’t, don’t worry – our posts will be spoiler free as we take a look at some of the writing craft lessons found in these pages.
If you’re just finding us and aren’t familiar with this MG novel, here’s the jacket copy…
Caleb Franklin and his big brother, Bobby Gene, have the whole summer to explore the woods in Sutton, Indiana. Caleb longs to venture beyond their small town, but his dad likes the family to stay close to home.
Then Caleb and Bobby Gene meet new neighbor Styx Malone. Styx is sixteen, and he oozes cool. He’s been lots of different places. Styx promises the boys that together, they can pull off the Great Escalator Trade – a way to turn one small thing into more, and more, until they achieve their wildest dream. But as the trades get bigger, the brothers find themselves in over their heads. Styx has secrets – and Caleb fears their whole plan might fall apart.
In this madcap, heartwarming, one-thing-leads-to-another adventure, friendships are forged, loyalties are tested…and miracles just might be possible.
This novel is interesting right off the bat because it breaks one of the usual conventions by having someone who’s not the protagonist or narrator named in the title. Styx Malone isn’t the main character here – he’s the catalyst, the guy who makes the action happen for the narrator-protagonist, Caleb. Styx Malone isn’t the only character in kidlit who grabs a starring role in the title without being the protagonist. Maniac Magee, Yaqui Delgado, Ms. Bixby, Tyler Johnson, Zachary Beaver, and Fudge all made the titles of their books without being the main characters. In all of these novels, the title character is someone who has a profound effect on the protagonist’s life. In that way, the title of THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE sets up from the very beginning what’s to come.
The opening paragraphs reinforce that.
Styx Malone didn’t believe in miracles, but he was one. Until he came along, there was nothing very special about life in Sutton, Indiana.
Styx came to us like magic – the really, really powerful kind. There was no grand puff of smoke or anything, but he appeared as if from nowhere, right in our very own woods.
Maybe we summoned him, like a superhero responding to a beacon in the night.
Maybe we just plain wanted everything he offered. Adventure. Excitement. The biggest trouble we’ve ever gotten into in our lives, we got into with Styx Malone.

As leads go, this is one to hold up as an example. In just shy of a hundred words, Kekla a) establishes the voice of Caleb, our main character, b) sets up the idea that Styx will change his life, and c) makes a promise to readers about what this novel is all about – adventure, excitement, and trouble.
From the title and the very first page, we know that this Styx Malone character is going to transform Caleb’s life in some way. But if we’re going to fully appreciate that change, we need to know who Caleb is before Styx shows up. In answering that question, Kekla offers a master class in characterization. We learn that Caleb longs for a world beyond his small town. And we learn it in a dozen, subtle ways.
I woke up with the sunrise, like usual. Stretched my hands and feet from my top bunk to the ceiling, like usual. I touched each of the familiar pictures taped there: the Grand Canyon, the Milky Way, Victoria Falls, Table Mountain.

We learn so much from these 41 words. The repetition of “like usual” tells us that Caleb’s life has a predictable pattern to it. But wait! This is also a kid who’s taped pictures of faraway places to the ceiling above his bunk, so that they’re the first thing he sees every morning. He literally starts each day by reaching for them. This is a kid who is dreaming of places beyond Sutton. He dreams when he watches the news with his dad, too…
But every once in a while I would see something that made me want to reach through the screen and touch it, you know? Like to get closer to it, or to make it a little bit real. There was a story about dolphins one time. And a feature about a group of kids who sailed a boat around the world. Special things. Things you’d never find in Sutton.
Can’t you just hear the longing? Caleb’s voice is so strong here. You know? Special things. Things you’d never find in Sutton. And it lets readers feel that longing, too.
In this same, watching-the-news scene, we get an amazing sense for Caleb’s dad, too. They’re watching the same program, but they watch it so differently. Kekla used that contrast to create tension between the two that becomes a driving force in this novel.
The problem was, Dad was always talking about us being ordinary folks – about how ordinary folks like this and ordinary folks need that. He usually said all this to the TV, but our house isn’t that big and his voice is pretty loud so you can always hear him.
Ordinary folks just need to be able to fill the gas tank without it breaking them.
Ordinary folks go to church on Sundays.
Ordinary folks don’t care who you’ve been stepping out with; just pass the dang laws.

Don’t you just feel like you know Dad from the way he talks to the news?
These are brilliant opening pages, and Kekla returns to these themes and threads throughout the novel. That’s part of what makes it feel so real and cohesive.
Your assignment for today is to skim through your copy of THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE and look for the places that call back to those opening pages. How does the author use those images and ideas like the photos on the ceiling and the idea of being ordinary to build character, create tension, and move the story forward? Feel free to make notes on your own, or if you’d like, you can chat with other Teachers Write participants in the comments. To comment, you may need to click on the title of this blog post and scroll down to the bottom.

Rhyming Picture Books: Q&A with Hena Khan and Martha Brockenbrough

This week, we’ve been learning from two incredible rhyming picture books as mentor texts, and now we get to learn from the authors of those books!
What craft questions would you like to ask Hena Khan, author of GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS and Martha Brockenbrough, author of CHEERFUL CHICK?  Are you wondering how they revised their early drafts? Whether they use rhyming dictionaries? How they check to make sure the meter works in each line? Now’s the time to ask! 
Hena and Martha will be stopping by my blog today to chat and answer questions, so feel free to post your questions in the comments!

Cheerful Chick: Learning from a Mentor Text

Martha Brockenbrough’s CHEERFUL CHICK, illustrated by Brian Won, is a celebration of both cheerleading and determination. It’s a great mentor text for us to study as we take a look at the way the topic and theme of a book guide decisions about rhyme and meter.
Remember the cheers you heard at basketball and football games? There’s probably one catchy cheer that comes to mind right away. For me, it’s this one:
We got spirit, yes we do!
We got spirit, how ‘bout you?
It has a peppy meter to go along with the rhyme.
DAH da DAH da DAH da DAH!
DAH da DAH da. DAH da DAH?
Martha kept that element of cheerleading in mind when she chose her rhyme scheme and meter for CHEERFUL CHICK. It’s written in iambic tetrameter, so each line is made up of four iambs. In other words, it goes like this:
da DAH da DAH da DAH da DAH….
Interestingly enough, Martha’s first draft of this book wasn’t written in rhyme. As an experienced writer, she knew about all the pitfalls of writing in rhyme and opted to try it in prose instead. But when she sent the manuscript to her editor, Arthur Levine, he suggested that this is a story that might actually work better with the added challenge of rhyme.
“Since I already had the character and story, though, the challenge was to come up with a rhythm and rhyme scheme that echoed the cheerleading protagonist’s nature,” Martha wrote in an April tweet thread.
She came up with a plan to give iambic tetrameter a try. When I look at how this book turned out, I can only imagine how much fine-tuning and revision went into making this work. But the end result is a book that captures the main character’s nature and rhymes without feeling forced or clunky. It reads like a cheer, which is perfect.
Cheerful chick worked day and night
Until at last her moves felt right.
And then she hatched her lifelong dream
To build a barnyard cheering team.
She got her muscles good and warm
And did her moves with perfect form:
Side splits, wing stands, super punches –
Chicken shook her feathers bunches!
That last line was fun, wasn’t it? When we were looking at Hena’s GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS yesterday, we talked about the care she took to make sure the rhymes felt natural and didn’t call attention to themselves, because that’s a gentle, lyrical story about colors. CHEERFUL CHICK has a more playful, humorous tone, so it’s fine (and fun!) if some of the rhymes stand out a bit more:
Ms. Cow knows all the wildest moves.
Just watch her stand on two front hooves!
Ms. Cow just stood and blinked and chewed.
And said, “I’m so not in the moooood.”
Even when the rhymes are more playful, the rhythm stays consistent, and that’s important for a read-aloud. Martha’s keen ear for meter comes from her college study of ancient Greek poems and dramas.
“It helped me see much better what Shakespeare is doing. Which leads me to my second point. Rhythmic writing does not have to rhyme. It will be lyrical and delightful because of the rhythm. See Shakespeare’s plays for this,” Martha wrote. “And there are lots of ways you can play with rhythm. With a forthcoming picture book, THIS OLD DOG, also edited by Arthur & illustrated by Gabriel Alborozo, I decided that every word the dog narrator thinks has one syllable. For me, this captures the voice of a dog. A good dog who likes long walks in the grass. Are you stuck with a picture book? Think about the rhythm of the language, and choose one in harmony with your character.”
On that note…here’s your assignment. We’re going to play around with some different voices today. Choose a character — a young person, a big old tortoise, a rowdy squirrel…whatever you want — and try writing a few lines in that character’s voice. It can be about anything – what the character loves, their plans for the day, their dreams for the future. But give some real thought to how the rhythm and word choice will reflect the character. When you’ve written a few lines, switch gears and write about the same topic but in a different character’s voice. How does that change how you think about meter and rhyme?

Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: Learning from a Mentor Text

Remember the old childhood rhyme where you’d make a church out of your hands, index fingers pointed together in a steeple?
Here is the church
And here is the steeple.
Open the doors
And see all the people
That old rhyme has a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that goes like this:
DAH da da DAH.
DAH da da DAH da.
DAH da da DAH
(da) DAH da da DAH da.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is dd0ca924-4134-44e5-a535-559dc35799e3.jpeg

Author Hena Khan’s beautiful picture book GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini, uses a similar pattern as it explores colors through the eyes of a Muslim child.
RED is the RUG
Dad KNEELS on to PRAY,
FACing toward MECca,
FIVE times a DAY.
We see this pattern predicted throughout the book’s lushly illustrated pages. It’s simple and predictable – perfect for this group’s preschool and early primary readers.
Blue is the hijab…
Gold is the dome…
White is the kufi…
Black is the ink…
Brown is the date…
Orange is the color…
It’s important to note that when you’re writing verse like this, the rhythm doesn’t have to be exact. An extra unstressed syllable at the beginning of a line isn’t a deal breaker. But the overall pattern still has to be there. It has to work when you read it aloud.
Reading aloud is a great way to find out if your rhyming picture book text is working, but it’s not perfect. Sometimes when we read our own work aloud, we can force a rhythm to sound okay by the way we read it.  If you really want to know if the meter is working, don’t just read it yourself. Hand it off to someone else to read aloud for you. Does the verse roll off their tongue in the rhythm you intended? Or do they stumble a little here and there? That will tell you where your meter might still need work.
Now let’s take a look at the rhyme in this book. One of the trickiest things about writing picture books like this one is that it’s not enough to find two words that rhyme. They have to be the right words.  And in this case, Hena had the added challenge of working with some very specific language that relates to Muslim traditions and culture – words like Eid, hijab, kufi, Quran, and deen. For some of those, she chose to use related words as her two rhymes:
White is a kufi,
Round and flat.
Grandpa wears
This traditional hat.
One of the biggest mistakes writers make in rhyming stories is forcing a rhyme with a word like kufi. In less capable hands, this page might have written to describe how Grandpa’s kufi was flat and not poofy. But that sounds forced and (wait for it…) kind of goofy. Silly rhymes have their place in the world, but not in a lovely book about faith and culture. So instead, Hena chose rhymes that work without being distracting:
Yellow is the box
We fill on Eid
With gifts of zakat
For those in need
Eid is an easier word to rhyme, so this works in a way that’s conversational and natural.
Knowing how tricky rhyming picture books can be, I asked Hena if she’d share a little more about her process.

“I first decided that it was going to be a concept book and that I would follow the pattern ‘red is,’ ‘blue is,’ etc,” she said. “And at some point I decided that each page would have a ‘glossary’ word (that wasn’t the case initially I think it was more mixed). I wanted to introduce the object or concept in a rhyming couplet! And then it was kind of a puzzle figuring it all out. I wanted to try to include many of the major aspects of Islam—prayer, zakat, fasting, along with some lighter cultural things like henna and lanterns. Some colors were determined by the object like gold being the dome or orange being henna, and others were more arbitrary.”

“When it came to the meter and rhyme, I did it by ear, and then started to count syllables to make sure the lines were somewhat even. I read it aloud and listening to where the stresses of the words fell. I wanted to vary it so it didn’t sound monotonous.” 

Hena shared her first finished draft with me — and noted that this early rhyme is one that makes her laugh now. Notice how much more natural and poetic her revised lines (above) feel compared to this: 

Yellow is a box filled with stuff, 
Zakat, for those who don’t have enough.

Hena is a pro when it comes to revising rhyme. But sometimes, less experienced writers put rhyme first and story second. That’s something Chronicle Books editor Melissa Manlove talked about when I asked her about common pitfalls with rhyming picture books.
“So often I see a plot that’s driven by rhyme, or a pace that’s driven by rhyme, or syntax that’s driven by rhyme. Rhyme should at most be the background to those things, not the thing that changes the writer’s choices. If you think of a narrative as a path the readers follows, then plot determines where the path goes, pace determines how straight it goes there, and syntax is a big part of who’s acting as guide. Rhyme should be no more than the texture of the path underfoot.”

On that note, I’ll send you off with a short assignment. Remember last week’s writing about gratitude, using Traci Sorell’s WE ARE GRATEFUL: OSTALIHELIGA as a mentor text?  I’m going to ask you to reimagine that idea as a rhyming picture book. Make a list of some of the words you know you’ll want to include – elements of a tradition or culture or season. And then have a go at it, using Hena’s GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS as a mentor text. You can try the same rhyme scheme if you’d like, or use a different one. When you finish a few lines, read out loud and see how the meter’s working out.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at a different rhyming picture book – with a different purpose – to see how another writer made choices about meter and rhyme.
When you can, please take the time to read these two interviews with Hena, too!

Writing in Rhyme (is a lot trickier than you might think!)

This spring, Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame set the children’s Twitterverse on fire with a casual tweet about how bad he thought most rhyming picture books were. Aside from Seuss and Boynton, he hadn’t read many he liked. His complaint was met with an avalanche of tweets suggesting the good rhyming picture books. They’re not all bad, you know. So why do rhyming picture books have such a tough reputation?
The truth is, it’s just plain hard to write in rhyme. Think about it. How often do the exact words that express what you want to say happen to rhyme? Not very often, I’ll wager, which is why writing in rhyme sometimes leads authors to choose words that are…not just-right words. Here are some examples of that…
The Overly Simplistic Rhyme:
I like to write in rhyme.
I do it all the time.
The Not-Really-a-Rhyme-Rhyme:
If you like to read rhymes
You should read some of mine.
The Weirdly Forced Rhyme:
When you write in rhyme, you must count each syllables
That’s laying good groundwork, like soil that’s tillable.
(I mean, really… not much rhymes with syllable!)
Even writers who are great at coming up with natural rhymes often stumble with meter in a picture book. Contrary to popular belief, meter isn’t just about counting the syllables in each line.  It’s about paying attention to stressed and unstressed syllables. Most of us learned about this when we studied Shakespeare in school and talked about iambic pentameter…that da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM pattern that rolls off our tongues so easily. It’s a line of verse made up of five feet, with each foot made up of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.
The sun comes up to greet our summer days,
And bathe the sky in pink and purple rays.
When you’re playing around with meter, it’s absolutely essential to read out loud. You’ll figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what possibly works but feels a little shaky. (The truth is, I was thinking about pink and orange rays when I started writing this, but orange is one of those tricky words that different people pronounce different ways. For some, it has two syllables – Or-renge – while for others, it’s just one — Ornge. That can mess up your meter, depending on who’s reading.)
At any rate, compare that couplet above to this one, where I’m being sloppy with meter.
The sun rises and illuminates the summer sky.
I gaze out at the horizon, take in its beauty, and sigh.
The rhyme works, but the meter doesn’t. So even if you like the word choice, it’s clunky to read aloud.
Now that I’ve written you some examples of bad rhyming text, it’s time to look at some great ones! I love our mentor texts for this week because they’re both beautifully crafted rhyming picture books, but they’re totally different from one another.

Martha Brockenbrough’s CHEERFUL CHICK, illustrated by Brian Won, is about a little chicken who dreams of being a cheerleader, so the rhythm of this picture book is just as rollicking as any football field cheer. It’s playful, bouncy, and fun.
Once inside a chicken’s nest
A dozen eggs, all Grade-A best,
Lay still and warm, their contents sleeping,
All but one…who came out peeping.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is dd0ca924-4134-44e5-a535-559dc35799e3.jpeg

Hena Khan’s GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS is a  lyrical, beautiful celebration of culture that looks at colors through the eyes of a Muslim child’s family and religious traditions.
Red is the rug
Dad kneels on to pray,
Facing toward Mecca,
Five times a day.
When I read those two beginnings aloud, the words roll easily off my tongue. The language feels natural and musical…effortless. But writing a great rhyming picture book is anything but that. Tomorrow and Wednesday, we’ll take a closer look at how these writers did what they did.
Your assignment today? Try writing the beginning of a picture book in rhyme. Just a few lines is fine. Tomorrow, we’re also going to talk about how to check your rhyming picture book for meter, so you’ll need something to work with. And don’t worry about getting it wrong! Writers learn from experimenting, making mistakes, and trying again. When you’re writing in the dark, trying something new, you’re being a pretty great role model, and you’ll understand a lot better how your students feel every day.

Writing Informational Picture Books: Q&A with Traci Sorell and Patricia Valdez

This week, we’ve been learning from two amazing nonfiction picture books, and today, their authors join us to answer some questions!

Got a question about writing craft for Traci Sorell or Patricia Valdez? Feel free to post your question in the comments. Traci and Patricia will be stopping by to respond throughout the day!

Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: Learning from a Mentor Text

One of the things I love about nonfiction picture books is that they come with so many different structures and styles. Yesterday, we took a closer look at Traci Sorell’s We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, which takes a look at the tradition of gratitude in Cherokee culture. Traci is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation, so while this is an informational picture book, it’s also very personal in its perspective.

Today’s mentor text is Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor, a picture book biography of zoologist Joan Procter. It’s written by Patricia Valdez and illustrated by Felicita Sala, and it’s one of my favorites when it comes to this format.

There are countless ways a writer can approach a picture book biography. Traditionally, we think of a biography as the basic story of a person’s life, from cradle to grave, and some picture book biographies do follow this format. But many more capture just a part of that person’s life, looking at their work in the world through a particular lens. It’s especially important to consider this approach if you’re writing about someone who’s already been the subject of numerous books. The world might not need another book about Ben Franklin’s basic life story, for example, but there’s still plenty of room for books that explore a lesser-known but fascinating aspects of his life, such as Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France by Mara Rocklifee and Iacopo Bruno (Candlewick, 2017) and Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention by Barb Rosenstock & S.D. Schindler (Calkins Creek, 2014).

Some of my favorite picture book biographies fall into what I’d call the “How the Seeds Were Planted” category. They look at a person’s major accomplishment and then look back to that individual’s childhood to see where the first sparks might have been kindled, where the seeds for that great project came from. Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor is one of those books and does a brilliant job connecting the dots to help young readers understand how a girl who loved reptiles grew up to be a famous zoologist. (And this approach has the bonus of showing young readers that the seeds for their own great accomplishments of the future are being planted right now, too!)  Let’s take a look at how Patricia does that…

The book opens with young Patricia having a tea party. But it’s not an ordinary tea party! Her guests are the lizards she kept as pets. Right away, we have an interesting, kid-friendly image to begin the story. How can you not love a kid who throws tea parties for lizards? And look at how Valdez brings us into the time period of the early 1900s…

Back in the days of long skirts and afternoon teas, a little girl named Joan Procter entertained the most unusual party guests.

She could have given a date – “One day in England in 1905…”  but that would have felt stuffy and more like a research report than a story. The best picture book biographies paint pictures of a person’s life with language that’s vivid and fun. I love the alliteration in these lines…

Slithery and scaly, they turned over teacups. They crawled past the crumpets.

Isn’t that fun to read?

In this story, we get to see Joan as she grows – as a young naturalist, taking notes on her lizards in her bedroom, as a sixteen-year-old, walking the baby crocodile she’s just been gifted, and being mentored by a curator a the Natural History Museum. The story could have started with Joan’s accomplishments as an adult, but by approaching it this way, Valdez allows young readers to make a connection with someone their own age in the opening pages, which makes it more likely they’ll stay with Joan, following her story as she grows into the famous naturalist she eventually became.

The story goes on to share Joan’s work with Komodo dragons as an adult, but at the end, it calls back to that opening tea party. On the very last page, Joan, an adult now, is shown surrounded by children at a tea party she hosted at the zoo’s reptile house, with her Komodo dragon, Sumbawa, as the guest of honor. This return to a variation on the opening image brings readers full circle and wraps the book up in a most satisfying way.

That passage, like all the others in the story, is based on historical documents and Joan’s actual writings.

(Note that at the time this was written, they thought Sumbawa was female, that’s why he’s referred to as “she” in the article.That’s one reason authors have to double-check even primary sources! We learn more about history as time goes on, and we always want the most current information.)

Anyway, these are the sources that sparked that lovely beginning-to-ending connection for Patricia.

If you’re looking at your copy of the book right now, you’re probably noticing that this “last page” isn’t really the last page of the book at all. So let’s talk about back matter…

Back matter is the rest of the story and the related bits of information and resources that come after the primary narrative ends. Pretty much all of my favorite nonfiction picture books have back matter. In Traci’s We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, it consists of a page of definitions of things mentioned in the story, from shell shakers and stickball to the Trail of Tears, along with an author’s note and a page on the Cherokee syllabary.

At the end of Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor, Valdez shares a more formal version of Procter’s biography – one that includes all the dates and details that perhaps weren’t visual enough to be part of the main story. This is a way to add that cradle-to-grave version of the biography after the fun, kid-friendly story. It’s followed by a bibliography, which is included in nearly all picture book nonfiction. Other back matter might include timelines, maps or charts of relevant information, and lists of books, websites, and museums for readers to explore if they’d like to learn more about the topic.

So here’s your assignment for today: Make a list of five people whose lives you find interesting. They can be famous historical figures or little-known people who have amazing stories. And then, for each one, try to imagine three different ways you might write a picture book biography of that person, other than the cradle-to-grave model. For example, in writing about George Washington, one might choose to focus on Washington the Soldier, or Washington the Enslaver, or on one small chapter in Washington’s life that changed its course. Got the idea? If you need to take a little reading & research time, go right ahead. And then spend a little time brainstorming angles for your own picture book biographies!

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga – Studying a Mentor Text

Before I share this morning’s Teachers Write post, would you take a minute to celebrate with me? I have a new book in the world today!

Ranger in Time: Night of Soldiers and Spies is the latest in my Scholastic chapter book series about a time-traveling search and rescue dog and takes Ranger back to the days of the American Revolution. If you’d like a signed, personalized copy of this new book or any of my other titles, just call The Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid at 518-523-2950. I’ll be signing there on Friday, and they’ll happily mail your books so they arrive next week. You can also order online & just make a note in the comments about how you’d like it signed. I’m happy to personalize books for your class or school, and if you mention that you’re part of Teachers Write, I’ll do a special inscription for you as a fellow writer! 

Okay…now on to today’s mentor text! 

Often, when we hear the word “mentor” we think of larger-than-life figures like Albus Dumbledore. But the truth is, finding a mentor is as simple as asking the question “How are you doing that?” And as writers, we can ask that question of books we love as well as people. We call those great books “mentor texts,” and we can learn so much from them by spending a little time picking them apart and looking at how they’re built.
Today, we’re going to take a closer look at We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, written by Traci Sorell and illsutrated by Frané Lessac. It’s a beautiful and lyrical picture book that’s won a pile of awards, including a Sibert and Boston Globe Horn Book Award Honors.

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga
Written by Traci Sorrell &
illustrated by Frané Lessac

One of the first questions a writer of nonfiction has to ask herself is “How do I want to tell this story?” Let’s take a look at how Traci structured this look at the tradition of gratitude in Cherokee culture.

She leads with a clear, simple explanation of the book’s title and its refrain: Otsaliheliga.

And from there, the book winds its way through the seasons, looking at expressions of gratitude in fall, winter, spring, and summer. Each season begins with a similar refrain…

When cool breezes blow and leaves fall, we say otsaliheliga…

As bears sleep deep and snow blankets the ground, we say otsaliheliga…

When showers fill streams and shoots spring up, we say otsaliheliga…

As the crops mature and the sun scorches, we say otsaliheliga…

That structure – grouping the many expressions of gratitude by season – gives both author and reader a way to organize all of that information, and all of those vivid images. It’s a structure that was actually inspired by a mentor text that Traci read when she was studying picture books herself.

“I loved the structure and concept in Joann Rocklin’s 2015 fictional picture book, I Say Shehechiyanu, illustrated by Monika Filipina (Kar-Ben). It follows a child’s first experiences through the four seasons as a new sister, going to school, etc. with her saying the Jewish blessing ‘Shehechiyanu’  each time something new is experienced.”

The books are very different from one another – one fiction and one nonfiction – but that structure provided the foundation on which Traci could weave the language that paints Cherokee culture.

You’ve probably already noticed some of that carefully chosen language in the lines shared above – the way the alliteration of phrases like “cool breezes blow” and “showers fill springs and shoots spring up” evoke what’s happening in nature in that season. Did you notice the way, when you read the words “bears sleep deep,” those rhyming long-e sounds force you to slow down? Just like nature slows down when it’s time for creatures to hibernate. While this is a work of nonfiction, it’s also utterly poetic – something that makes for a magical read aloud.

In fact, if you have the book, read it aloud right now. (It’s okay. I’ll wait…) And as you do, jot down the phrases that feel particularly evocative, the places where the word choice really sing. What did you notice?

Here’s one more assignment for today. Try a little writing of your own about gratitude. Choose a season and using Traci’s structure as a mentor text, write a few lines about that season and what it means in your world, what you’re grateful for, and perhaps how you express that gratitude. Consider a repeated refrain. Consider word choice. Make that season sing.

Picture Book Nonfiction: What Do You Wonder?

Good morning, and welcome to Teachers Write! I’m so glad you’re writing with us this summer. Together, we’ll be working on our craft through five amazing mentor texts this summer. We’re going to start with a focus on informational writing.

Sometimes, when we’re trying to help writers choose a topic, we ask them questions like “What are you good at?” or  “What do you know a lot about?” Nearly every writer has heard the age-old advice, “Write what you know,” and while that can be a great starting place, perhaps a better question for writers of non-fiction is “What do you wonder about?”

Every one of my informational picture books has started with that sense of wonder, that big curiosity that makes us ask more and more questions. And then the answers beget more questions still.

The spark for one of my first picture books came on a school field trip. I was snowshoeing in the Adirondacks with my seventh grade students when our naturalist guide  pointed to a set of a tiny tracks that led to a hole in the snow and whispered, “Look! We’ve had a visitor from the subnivean zone!” I listened, enchanted, as she described the secret network of tunnels and caves under the winter snow. On the bus ride home from the field trip, I scribbled the beginnings of picture book, and many drafts later, Over and Under the Snow was published, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal.

Another flash of wonder hit one afternoon while I was reading a book about Charles Darwin that included a quote from the famous naturalist’s autobiography.

“One day on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one.”

If you’re anything like me, this passage fills you with questions, not the least of which is, “What kind of person thinks it’s a good idea to keep a beetle in his mouth for safekeeping?” But I had other questions, too. What kind of beetle was it? And how exactly did it get Darwin to spit it out?  Question led to question, and I discovered that later experts thought it was probably a bombardier beetle, which is known to shoot a hot chemical mist out its rear end when it’s threatened or annoyed.  Pretty neat trick, right?

That made me wonder even more. Just how many insects had secret super powers like that beetle? Lots of them do, it turns out, and that’s what my November 2019 picture book is all about. It’s called Insect Superpowers: 18 Real Bugs that Smash, Zap, Hypnotize, Sting, and Devour. Jillian Nickell brilliantly illustrated insects-with-powers that can rival any comic book superhero. And yes…Darwin’s beetle made the cut.

Talk with any author of nonfiction and deep down inside (or not so deep, for some of us) you’ll find a curious kid. And that’s very much the case with the creators of our mentor texts for this week, Traci Sorell, author of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, and Patricia Valdez, author of Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor.

Traci Sorell, who is an enrolled Cherokee Nation citizen, moved from Oklahoma, where her tribe is located, to Southern California. That’s when she realized how invisible the Cherokee and other Native Nations were to most Americans. “No one in my new community knew or understood that I was a dual resident of the Cherokee Nation and the United States,” Traci shared in this Celebrate Science nonfiction post.

 “Even the tribes from the San Diego area didn’t figure into the local news or community events, and they certainly weren’t included in the school curriculum. Talk about identity crisis.”

Hungry to learn more about her tribe’s history and contributions, Traci majored in Native American Studies in college and pursued advanced degrees to learn more. We Are Grateful: Otsaliheligaillustrated by Frané Lessac, is a book about the Cherokee tradition of gratitude that certainly fits into that “Write what you know” category. But it was also fueled by Traci’s curiosity,  and that same sense of wonder has led her to the two picture book biographies of Native women she’s writing now. 

Patricia Valdez, author of Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor (illustrated  by Felicita Sala) is a scientist as well as a writer, and curiosity has served her well in both callings. Her book started with the Komodo dragon at the National Zoo.

“My family visited him often at the zoo, and I read articles to learn more about these fascinating reptiles,” Valdez writes in this Kidlit411 interiew. “One article briefly mentioned that Joan Beauchamp Procter was the first person to describe Komodo dragons in captivity in the 1920s. I immediately had to learn more about this woman. I found out that she cared for reptiles her entire life, since she was a little girl. She also designed a state-of-the-art Reptile House at the London Zoo, which is still in use today. Plus, she pioneered new techniques to perform surgeries and care for the reptiles. She even took a Komodo dragon for walks around the zoo and helped dispel the myths surrounding these animals.”

Tomorrow, we’ll take a closer look at where that curiosity led the authors of our mentor texts and how exactly they worked to craft books that inspire that same sense of wonder in their readers. But we’ll wrap up today’s post with a short assignment:

What do you wonder about? Spend ten minutes making a list. It can be anything from Komodo dragons to how babies learn to what happens in our brains when we cry. Anything you’ve ever wondered about. Because wonderings can be the best beginnings for writing. Ready…set…wonder!