This time of year, when I am visiting schools, I am less focused on what I write for kids than what they are writing. This week, during a wonderful visit to my home state of S.C., I visited with young authors who were making great strides in crafting interesting nonfiction. I'd like to pass along what I shared with them in a Writer's Group Session for grades 3 and 4.
One common assignment is for students to write about someone they admire. They often choose someone they know well: a parent, a friend, or a teacher, for instance. The first drafts of these pieces typically sound like lists. I like my friend because she is sweet. She is nice to me. She is good at sports. She shares with me. She cheers me up when I am sad.
Certainly, a list is a good way to start. But what really fires up these kinds of essays is scenes. For the second draft, I encourage the students to be specific. Choose a characteristic of the admired person and find an instance when this characteristic was expressed. The reader needs to experience what it is like to have this person in his/her life. We need to hear the details. Several short incidents can make a strong piece. These telling details and incidents show us both the character of the admired and the admirer. They loosen up the writing and add character to the piece.
When my mother showed me the letter, she . . .
When I was sad about my cat dying, my friend sat with me and . . .
Of course, an admired person may be a public figure, not a friend or family member. Scenes still apply. Digging for incidents just takes a bit more work.
When he was 14, he . . .
When she was turned down for school, she . . .
When she lost the election, she . . .
That's it. Make a scene. These moments of narrative within expository pieces make nonfiction interesting. I've seen the change they can make in a student's writing.
P.S. My new book is out. I feel like being a bit loud about it. If you read the book, you will see why. (Hint: honk, honk, hisssssssss!) This is not a shy, retiring book. It is:
Honk, Honk, Goose: Canada Geese Start a Family. Illustrated by Huy Vuon Lee and released by Henry Holt.
My thanks to the students of Lexington, S.C. and Gilbert, S.C. This week they gave me the pleasure of hearing it read and performed for the first time. I divided the audience into groups. Some had "honk." Some had "hee-honk." In unison, we hissed. I conducted the group and it was laugh out loud hilarious. Okay, so we were making a scene!