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Literary Nonfiction: Models for Writing

Franki Sibberson

I have never felt as comfortable with nonfiction writing in my elementary classroom as other genres. The products never have much variety. Somehow, students' nonfiction writing always ends up sounding like "report" writing.

When I reflect on past years, I realize that I didn't work hard enough to find mentor texts for my students that would help them see the possibilities in nonfiction writing. Instead of studying the writing, we often spent more time thinking about nonfiction text features, and the way information could be organized on a page.

This year, I am sharing texts with my students that help them hear the language of good nonfiction. I am on the lookout for books that my students can learn from as writers of nonfiction.

I have been collecting nonfiction picture books as well as books filled with short pieces that we can study and learn from. Because my students are comfortable with the idea of learning from mentor texts, adding these books may raise the level of nonfiction writing. I am hoping that this year, the nonfiction pieces will not all sound the same, but that students will find their own voices as nonfiction writers.

Here are some of the picture books we are studying as mentor texts, with an emphasis on the language the authors use, rather than text features:

Living Color by Steve Jenkins is a book about the way animals' colors help them survive. The book is organized by color and short paragraphs tell a bit about each animal mentioned. Jenkins uses great sentences to teach readers about the way colors help different animals. For example: "The blue-winged grasshopper is a dull gray color until it suddenly opens its wings wide and reveals two bright blue patches. This sudden flash of color can startle an attacker and give the grasshopper a chance to escape." All of Steve Jenkins' books are worth reading as mentor texts in nonfiction. Another of my favorites is Dogs and Cats

Pocket Babies And Other Amazing Marsupials by Sneed B. Collard III is a fascinating book about marsupials. The first several pages give readers background information on this classification. The rest of the book talks about specific animals, as well as how we can protect these animals. The writing is engaging, and each page can be used in different ways to learn about good nonfiction writing.

Each page of How Big Is It? by Ben Hillman shares information about something "big." Topics include the Giant Squid, Tsunami, and "the biggest weirdest flower." The author shares information about the size of the object or animal, and often compares it to other common known objects. For example, "Measuring a disgusting 10-12 inches, this hair beast is the size of a dinner plate." The author packs a great deal of information on each page and uses terrific comparisons and humor to teach the reader.

In Tracks of a Panda, Nick Dowson presents information about the panda in narrative form. The story of the panda and her cub is told while interesting facts are added on each page.

It's a Butterfly's Life by Irene Kelly is a must-have. Irene Kelly's work is fun and inviting. Kelly uses surprising language to teach us about butterflies. For example, "You may not be able to taste a cupcake by standing on it, but a butterfly can!" Not only is this book full of evocative language, but the layout is also inviting.

A Seed Is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Ashton and Sylvia Long is as good as their previous book, An Egg Is Quiet. The page layout is unique and works well. Information is spread across the page, but the font and illustrations make it feel more inviting than your typical nonfiction text. I adore the subheadings that the author uses. Headings such as "A Seed is Adventurous" and "A Seed is Generous" say so much with few words, and the information on the page builds on each idea in the subheads. Words like "adventurous" or "generous" aren't ones you would usually associate with seeds. I can't wait to share this book with my students as part of writing workshop and discuss the way the author uses words in interesting ways.

Construction Zone by Cheryl Wilis Hudson is full of amazing photographs by Richard Sobol. The book tells the reader what it is like to be in a construction zone. Bold words stand out to explain interesting things about construction. Great text goes along with each picture -- "High above the ground, construction workers balance on planks and beams like circus tightrope walkers."

Empire State Building: When New York Reached for the Skies by Elizabeth Mann is the story of this historic building. There is a great deal of text on each page but the captions alone are worth studying -- these are strong sentences that meld well with photos from the past.

America Is... by Louise Borden brings together information as well as the feeling of America. She uses verse to tell us so much about our country. The pages are organized by topic and the language is thought-provoking.

Pumpkins is another wonderful book by Ken Robbins. Robbins takes us through the process of growing pumpkins. Robbins' photos make this book one that you immediately pick up, but it is the language of his writing that makes it worth adding to a literary nonfiction collection.

I hope to continue to add to my collection of nonfiction books with interesting word choice and sharp writing. I know that my students' nonfiction writing will only improve if I have good models to share with them. On future shopping trips, I will look for nonfiction books that:

  1. use great language;
  2. are by authors that students will come to know (like Ken Robbins and Steve Jenkins);
  3. have interesting leads and/or transitions between topics;
  4. are told in a narrative format; and
  5. are organized in unique ways on the page.

By adding a variety of books to my collection, my students will be better able to make good decisions about their own nonfiction writing.


Franki Sibberson

Franki Sibberson is the Lead Contributor for Choice Literacy. She has worked for over 30 years as a teacher at different grade levels and school librarian. Franki is the co-author with Karen Szymusiak of many books and videos on teaching reading in the intermediate grades. You can keep up with Franki on the popular blog she writes with Mary Lee Hahn, A Year of Reading.