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.
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.