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!

10 Replies on “Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: Learning from a Mentor Text

  1. I listed a few possibilities for biographies:
    John Laurens (abolitionist friend of Alexander Hamilton)
    Astrid Cleve (my great grandmother)
    Rose Lavalle (soccer star)
    Jane Mack (my mother-in-law and founder of pediatric clinics in inner city Bridgeport)
    Bryan Stevenson (founder of Equal Justice Initiative, author of Just Mercy)

    I thought of the story Bryan told toward the end of Just Mercy, about the time, as a kid, he had to apologize to another boy at church, might make a good angled story to introduce his interest in justice, punishment, and redemption. It’s probably too long to use as an introduction, though.

    On a hot summer Sunday in 1967, Bryan Stevenson and his family were just leaving the African Methodist Church in Milton, Delaware. Bryan, 8 years old, had been singing in the choir that morning, and now he and his family were waiting to say thank you to their pastor. Just ahead, another family had reached the pastor to say their Sunday greeting. Bryan saw one of the boys reach out his hand. “Th-th-th-thank y-y-y-you for y-y-y-your w-w-w-ords, P-p-p-pastor,” the boy spluttered.

    Bryan looked up at his older brother and giggled. He’d never heard someone talk that way before.

    Bryan’s mother jerked her head toward her son. “Bryan Stevenson, how dare you laugh at someone else’s trouble.”

    Bryan lowered his head. If there was one thing Bryan knew it was that his mama hated cruelty. But he knew something else, too. His mama didn’t believe in lectures. She believed in justice.

    “Bryan, after we say thank you to Pastor Stevens, I want you to walk up to that boy and I want you to say ‘I’m sorry.’” Bryan squirmed. This was going to be awkward. But his mama wasn’t finished. “Then I want you to give him a hug.” Bryan knew this was coming. Mama was big on actions, not just words. But his mama wasn’t finished. “And then I want you to say, “I love you.”

    “What?” This was too much. “But, mama, can’t I just say I’m sorry?”

    “No, ‘buts’ Bryan. When you break something, you fix it. You have to make that boy feel better.”

    Bryan thought this was going to be humiliating. He knew he shouldn’t have giggled, and he felt bad about hurting someone, but did this mean he had to do something so embarrassing? Still, he knew his mama meant business, so after saying his thank you to the pastor, he slowly approached the boy and his family. With his head bowed, he reached out his hand and mumbled, “I’m sorry for laughing.” The boy took Bryan’s hand and shook it. Bryan looked over his shoulder. Mama was staring at him. Her hands on her hips. Bryan looked back at the boy and took a step closer. He opened his arms and closed them around the boy. Then he turned his head toward the boy’s ear and whispered, “I love you.”

    To his shock, the boy hugged him back and said, without any stutter, “I love you, too.”

    As they walked toward home, Bryan’s mama put her arm around him. “Feels nice to make something right, doesn’t it, son?”

    Bryan looked up at his mama, “Feels good to be forgiven, too.”

    1. I had the chance to hear Stevenson speak at TED2012 and keep hoping that he’ll tell his own story in a picture book. (There’s already a great YA young readers edition of Just Mercy)

  2. This was a great exercise! Here are four that I came up with.

    Cliff Young Australian potato farmer- at age 61 won the Sidney to Melbourne Ultramarathon. 544 miles Never stopped to sleep.
    Storyline: Write about the race with flashbacks about his childhood as a boy. He said he could run that long because he had to round up the cattle when he was young and they were so poor they couldn’t afford horses.

    Mileva Einstein-Maric – Einstein’s first wife. Brilliant scientist in her time. Born with a displaced hip, life-long limp. So gifted that her parents were able to put her in an all boys high school.
    Storyline: Her parents were a bit embarrassed about her hip (disability). Write a children’s book about her early years or going to an all-boys school. What obstacles she had to face.

    Celtic Monks – 800 A.D. What was it like to live in a monastery?
    Mill on the river
    ring a bell to summons to dinner or prayer
    work on manuscripts in a scriptorium
    Leather satchels hang from the ceiling, writing is done on calfskins which have to be scraped and cut.
    Fasted twice a week.
    Storyline: a fictitious monk, historical fiction picture book.

    Christine Paxton – called Tissie – my mother’s mother, my grandmother
    Born on the Onward Ranch, Williams Lake, British Columbia, Canada 1895, one of eleven children.
    Mother, Agnes, died at age 42. Sent to live with the Borlands at age 3 or 4.
    Raised by the Borlands who were wealthy and gave her many advantages that she would not have had.
    Excellent horsewoman, her horse’s name: Morning Plume
    Excellent pianist, played for silent movie house and many dances.
    Engaged to Nassau, but ran off and married Herbert Spencer (she was pregnant, oops)
    Married 1912 at age 17.
    Contracted tuberculoses and her first born daughter dies from tuberculoses at age 21.
    Tissie helped Herbert start the William’s Lake Stampede.
    She rode her horse in many of the events. She helped make the crown for the Miss William’s Lake Stampede Rodeo Queen.
    Storyline: Being sent to live with another family after your mother died who gave her advantages she would not have had otherwise. Focus on piano lessons, riding a horse, and living in a sanitarium while she had tuberculoses, losing her first born daughter. (My mother had to stay with relatives while she was in sanitarium).

  3. I approached this exercise thinking about the Writers post from the first day – sometimes it’s good to start with a ‘wonder.’ I started with a few topics I wondered about which took me to a few people I now want to know more about (I currently know very little about any of the following people, so extensive research would be appropriate):

    Dr. Charles Richard Drew (known for work in blood banking)
    Possible angles for biography: organizing a paper route to distribute thousands of papers daily as a child; contributions to WWII through the improvement of blood banking in Britain; highlighting his work in human rights and equality in the US

    St. Catherine of Siena
    Possible angles for biography: instances in which she helped others as a child; her letters and teachings about the church now highly regarded; her involvement in politics as a woman and member of the church

    Rachel Carson (scientist and a leader of the modern environmental movements)
    Possible angles for biography: her interest in reading/writing as a child and use of writing to share an important message an adult; how her love of nature drove her work and sharing with the greater public; her findings on the way humans effect the world around them

    Joe Redington, Sr. (known for being the father of the Iditarod Race)
    Possible angles for biography: teaming with the US Air Force to provide search and rescue services to areas only reachable by sled; his experiences on the Iditarod trail as a musher; his passion for keeping alive the history and tradition of sled dogs in Alaska & why it is important to carry on traditions that many see as ‘unnecessary’ in modern times

    1. I really like the Joe Redington, Sr. idea. I would love to read that. I’m also interested in keeping traditions alive, so very appealing to me.

  4. I recently found a few books on NC women, so I looked through them to see if there were stories that would make good children’s books. I found quite a few.

    1. I would like to tell a story from Rebecca Bryan Boone’s point of view. As the wife of Daniel Boone, she was often left home for months at a time raising a large family. I wonder how she felt about that and what information exists about her life.

    2. I did a little bit of research about the songcatchers in the mountains of NC, when I was researching a MG historical fiction book I was writing. Olive Dame Campbell was one of these who went around with Cecil Sharp to collect ballads. I may write it from one of the ballad singers’ perspectives or maybe from her own perspective.

    3. Mary Martin Sloop was a doctor in the western part of the state. She was also important in educating the children of the mountains and the foothills starting up Crossnore school which is now known as a children’s home.

    I love stories that people may not know. I like to shed light on the forgotten or in the case of women, the overshadowed. The challenge will be to make these stories appealing to children. I will need to research them thoroughly to find the angle I want to use when writing them.

    1. For ten years also a Carolinian, and would be very interested in a story told from the perspective of Rebecca Bryan Boone!!! As a child I loved books about adventures with frontiersmen or pioneers. This most likely because I camped, canoed and portaged around the Adirondacks through my early teen years. (Father was an avid outdoorsman and small watercraft instructor for more than 30 years) The curiosity that jumped to my mind surrounds an abandoned railroad near Lake Lila, a remote lake in the Adirondacks. I dreamed of living there. So, a few minutes of research led me to the Mohawk and Malone Railroad which stopped operating as a passenger railway about 1963. It was initially built and owed by a Dr. William Webb. William Seward Webb bought lands around the Beaver in the late 1800s and created a wilderness estate called Nehasane Park. He contended in a lawsuit that the Beaver River was “a natural highway.”

      Given that small amount of information, I considered a few ways one could write an interesting story. I could research who the railroad served and perhaps tell a tale of its history by the progression of train stations from Herkimer to Malone. Or I could learn more about Webb and why a doctor (of what???) decided to build a railroad. What was Nahasane Park like then? What is super interesting to me is the progression of transportation technology/resources and how important that is in shaping our lives and communities. A small remote lake was more accessible 75 years ago, than today. A whole economy surrounded railroad towns, of which many are abandoned.

      Food for thought….and perhaps a tie in to NYS Social Studies standards or CCS.

  5. I made a list of 56people from history that I was interested in researching in order to choose one of them to write about. But that’s as far as I got. I feel like I need a lot more time to find out more about each one, or at least one that stands out for me at the moment, before I can choose an angle for writing. I’m hoping that the next set of invitations will help us do that :). Here’s my list:

    1. Malcolm X
    2. MLK
    3.Tania la Guerrillera
    4. Sojourner Truth
    5. Harriet Tubman
    6. Dorothy Vaughn

  6. A day late posting, but I also enjoyed this exercise. When I compared my biography list to that of my favorite authors, the lists were nearly identical. I hadn’t even thought about that while generating the list. Maya Angelou, Walter Dean Myers, and Langston Hughes. And then I delved into a few “hidden figures.” I wanted to know more about women who have won the Nobel prize. May-Britt Moser (brain mapping), Doris Lessing (literature), and Donna Strickland (physics) intrigued me. I’m now playing around with some ideas beyond my comfort zone.

  7. My interesting people definitely skew toward the modern biography and pop culture. I live in Baltimore, so my first two are interesting to me in part because of that tie.

    Bishme Cromartie – Baltimore native and contestant in Season 14 of Project Runway, activist for people of color
    Elijah Cummings – Maryland Congressman, Baltimore native
    Laverne Cox – transgendered actress, producer, LGBTQ+ activist
    Jonathan Van Ness – nonbinary comedian, hair dresser, author, member of the Fab Five on Queer Eye