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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Tales to Tell: Exploring Author's Voice Through Picture Books

When we read a truly wonderful picture book, one whose words resonate as much as the pictures themselves, we should take the opportunity to stand back and ask ourselves, "How did the author do that?" And more importantly, How can we get our students to find their own strong voices in writing?

If we recall the opening lines of some favorite middle-grade novels, we discover that the author's voice begins to take form in just the first few words. 

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:

“Not every thirteen-year-old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty.  But I was such a girl, and my story is worth relating even if it did happen years ago.”

Or consider the ominous first lines of Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White:

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied her mother. “Some pigs were born last night.”

As both novels progress, we immerse ourselves in the narrator's point of view, falling in step with the rhythm of words, the tone, and the exacting word choice.

But neither picture books nor our students' own writing has the luxury of 200+ pages to build voice. It needs to happen much sooner.Here are three picture book exemplars to get us started.

Mentor Text: Jangles: A BIG Fish Story

David Shannon's recent picture book Jangles: A BIG Fish Story harkens back to the day of the traditional Tall Tale. Tall Tales, characterized mainly by their penchant for hyperbole (that is, their tendency to exaggerate to the point of lying!) developed a boastful and boisterous voice over time, due to the fact that many of the original Tall Tales were spread orally. Each subsequent teller would add his or her own embellishments (as well as quaint colloquialisms), resulting in crowd-sourced versions of the tales that were rich in both authentic voice and vocabulary.

Jangles: A BIG Fish Story would serve as an excellent introduction to this literary genre. Author and illustrator David Shannon writes in a style that harkens to the boasts of the Tall Tale tradition:

When I was a kid, Jangles was the biggest fish that anyone had ever seen - or heard! That's right, you could hear Jangles. He'd broken so many fishing lines that his huge, crooked jaw was covered with shiny metal lures and rusty old fishhooks of all shapes and sized. They clinked and clattered as he swam. That's why he was called Jangles.

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.

Compare that with the beginning of Jerry Spinelli's Maniac Magee (another Newbery Medal book):
“They say (he) was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart was a sofa spring. They say he kept an eight-inch cockroach on a leash and that rats stood guard over him while he slept…They say.”

And to be sure, you'll find the "They say..." phrase in Shannon's book as well, since, while the facts of any Tall Tale might not be verified empirically, they must undoubtedly be true, since so many people agree on them.
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.
Mentor Text: Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper
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.
Tall Tale boasting would be inappropriate for this genre, of course, because as Dizzy Dean (and others) would say, "It ain't bragging if you can do it." Instead, the prose here is more lyrical, and almost poetic:

Alice Coachman raced
down the dirt road,
bare feet flying,
long legs spinning, 
braids flapping
in the wind...


She sailed over

a tree branch
and kept on running.

Students will come to appreciate the power of repetition, parallel structure, and flow in such lines as:

Fields shut.
Tracks shut. 
Doors shut
to girls like Alice.
No place to practice.
No crossbar to raise.

Alice and her friends got busy.

Knotting rags.
Tying rags to sticks.
Planting sticks 
in the red Georgia clay.

Then her friends stood back 

and let Alice jump.

Illustrations by Eric Velasquez (trust me, you know this guy; we all have chapter books in our classrooms bearing his work) fill each page, providing not only energy and emotion, but historical context as well.

  • 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.
Mentor Text: Prairie Chicken Little
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!
Listen to this text's unique voice as the story begins:

Out on the grasslands where bison roam, Mary McBlicken the prairie chicken was scritch-scratching for her breakfast, when all of a sudden she heard a rumbling and a grumbling and a tumbling.

"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.

The onomatopoeia, the rhymes, and the word choice (such as "hightail it") combine to create a voice that matches both the book's setting and its levity. The book's fun is well supported by Henry Cole's splendid pictures. You might recall seeing his handiwork in Three Hens and a Peacock, mentioned here in a previous post.

  • 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.
Do you have a favorite picture book to teach author's voice? If so, share it below!

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).


Nikki Lutzke said...

Oh my gosh! Jangles looks great! I'm putting this on my list of must reads!

I'd love to have you swing by my blog:

Thanks for the inspiration!

Nikki :)

Nikki Lutzke said...

Jangles looks amazing and is on my must-read list!

Thanks for all the great sharing you do, especially when it comes to mentor texts!

I'd love to have you check out my blog!