Consider Avi's Newbery winning The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, a fantastic sea yarn in which the protagonist finds herself at the center of a mutiny:
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied her mother. “Some pigs were born last night.”
Mentor Text: Jangles: A BIG Fish Story
Jangles was so big, he ate eagles from the trees that hung over the lake, and full-grown beavers that strayed too far from home.
The story itself is an engaging narrative, with an ending that requires a bit of inferring on the reader's part. The story also begs the question, "What would you have done in his place?" Close rereadings can reveal simile, alliteration, personification, and many other wonderful literary devices masterfully woven into the tale.
And the illustrations! Fans of David Shannon know from earlier books such as A Bad Case of the Stripes and How Georgie Radbourn Saved Baseball that his pictures are lush and vivid and sculpturesque. Whenever I'm explaining to my students that their own illustrations should be saturated with color, Shannon's books are among the exemplars I share.
- To begin a Tall Tale unit, let children read a number of traditional retellings of Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, John Henry, and Slue-Foot Sue. Have them generate the critical attributes of this genre, explaining as well how it differs from (and yet takes cues from) legends, folktales, and myths. Find some online resources at 42explore.
- After reading Jangles: A BIG Fish Story, challenge students to write a Tall Tale about an animal of their choosing. You might consider supplying a simple story map based upon the mentor text which can guide students in their writing.
- Ask students to generate a list of some of their most memorable experiences (circus, baseball game, birth of a sibling, family reunion, recital, getting lost at the mall, etc.). Share the interview with the David Shannon at the Scholastic site. Discuss how personal experiences can often serve as the basis for writing fiction, and then have students choose one of their events to turn into a fictional account.
Another recent picture book which features a strong voice is Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper. Author Ann Malaspina tells the true-life tale of a young girl who dreams of being the first African-American woman to win gold at the Olympics. Her medals won while competing as part of Tuskegee Institute's famous Golden Tigerettes only increase her determination to reach that goal.
down the dirt road,
bare feet flying,
long legs spinning,
in the wind...
She sailed over
a tree branch
and kept on running.
to girls like Alice.
No place to practice.
No crossbar to raise.
Alice and her friends got busy.
Tying rags to sticks.
in the red Georgia clay.
Then her friends stood back
and let Alice jump.
- Check out the Teacher's Guide at Albert Whitman and Company for discussion questions, cross-curricular extensions, and ready-to-use assessments.
- In connection with biography readings for either Back History Month or Women's History Month, encourage students to rewrite key events from a famous person's life using the lyrical style of (fellow New Jerseyan) Ann Malaspina. Existing lines from chapter books can be reformatted into parallel structures (where possible), although I'd prefer for students to adapt those events or anecdotes they find most compelling.
- If you enjoy Malaspina's writing, which Kirkus Reviews called "spare and elegant free verse," then definitely check out Heart on Fire: Susan B. Anthony Votes for President, another spot-on writing exemplar for young authors, with superb illustrations by Steve James. Susan B. Anthony's law-defying act of voting is little known to students, but rivals the illegal actions of such "criminals" as Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. See the classroom guide for this book which was named to the Top Ten of the Amelia Bloomer Project.
In the tradition of this age old tale, Prairie Chicken Little by Jackie Mims Hopkins chronicles the over-reaction of one prairie chicken who thinks the sky is falling, or more accurately, a stampede is coming!
"Oh, no!" she exclaimed. "A stampede's a comin'! I need to hightail it back to the ranch to tell Cowboy Stan and Red Dog Dan. They'll know what to do."
So away Mary ran, lickety-splickety, as fast as her little prairie chicken legs could carry her.
- In the event that your students are studying other ecosystems such as as rain forests or polar regions, you could adapt this idea, challenging students to create a crisis or calamity, as well as appropriate creatures who would help spread the word. It's a pretty cool way to synthesize students' collection of random facts from a unit into a creative response. Can't you just see a penguin or a toucan as the main character?
- Fractured Fairy Tales are an all time favorite for kids to read, and they're fun to write as well. A recent post at the Peachtree Publishing blog provides some great titles to get you started.
- Have students research any of the animals from Prairie Chicken Little. Some of the real-life critters who populate this book sport some pretty amazing features. A good place to start? The Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society.
And if you haven't entered yet, be sure to get in on the raffle for one of three animal picture books happening on this blog (scroll to the bottom of that page).