Like many fellow INK bloggers, I don’t think about the Common Core while writing my books. Yet when I read the Common Core anchor reading standards, I get a sense that they are designed to get kids to explore some of the things that I DO think about when I write a book. Maybe that is not such a bad thing.
Take, for instance, structure. The reading standards (especially CCRA.R.5) ask students to think about how a piece of writing is structured and why the author might have structured it that way. I think about structure. I obsess about structure. Considering how to structure a book is the most fun, the most creative, and perhaps the most important part of my writing process.
Structure is a the-world-is-your-oyster kind of thing. The options for structuring a piece of writing to inspire, entertain, and inform are endless. I can be creative, literary, artistic, poetic, humorous, vivid, and suspenseful. I can use metaphor, imagery, narrative arc, voice, or any other tool I’d like. When I write, I’m like a curator at a museum. I get to decide what to focus on and how to present it. So half the fun is figuring out: What is the best way to tell this story? What interesting or clever structure will make this amazing material come to life for readers?
Let me give you an example. Since the release of two new books this year, I now have three books for young readers on volcanoes. Each has a completely different structure.
VOLCANO RISING, a picture book for young kids, age five to nine, focuses on the creative force of volcanoes, how volcanoes shape the landscape, building mountains and creating islands where there were none before. The book is organized around an idea: creative eruptions. I introduce the concept, explain it, and then give eight vivid examples. The book also has two layers of text. In the first, I employ lyrical language so that it’s lovely to read aloud. The second layer offers more detailed descriptions of fascinating creative eruptions for parents or teachers to share with kids or for independent readers to explore on their own.
WILL IT BLOW? is designed to be a fun, interactive way for kids age six to ten to understand and use cutting-edge volcano monitoring by drawing a playful parallel between volcano monitoring and
detective work. The book introduces Mount St. Helens as the suspect, and the chapters describe
clues that volcanologists gather. Each chapter ends with a real case study from Mount St. Helens’ 2004-2008 eruption where kids apply what they learned about clues to guess what Mount St. Helens might do next. WILL IT BLOW? offers pretty hefty scientific material presented through the lens of detective work.
ERUPTION! VOLCANOES AND THE SCIENCE OF SAVING LIVES is for older readers, kids age ten and up. It’s a no-holds-barred immersion into the destructive power of volcanoes and the intense challenge of predicting deadly violent eruptions. I follow a small team of scientists as they work on the flanks of steaming, quaking, ash-spewing volcanoes all over the world—from Colombia and the Philippines to Chile and Indonesia—as they struggle to predict eruptions and prevent tragedies. I chose some historical eruptions and some current ones to show how the scientists' work has evolved over time, and tried to weave together the scientific process with suspenseful, nail-biting material to pull readers through.
One topic, volcanoes, with three very different structures. What does this mean for what might happen in the classroom with my volcano books? Teachers could have students look at all three of these books and describe their structures and what they accomplish. To explore the structure of VOLCANO RISING, a teacher could ask: Why did the author chose the eight volcanoes that she features in this book? What is the purpose of the two different layers of text? How do the layers affect how the book might be used? To delve deeper into the structure of WILL IT BLOW? a teacher could ask: How is the theme of volcanology-as-detective-work reflected in the structure of the book? How does the opening chapter set the stage for the rest of the book? What is the common structure found in each chapter and what does that structure accomplish? For ERUPTION, students could explore: Why does the author tell the stories of several eruptions? Why those eruptions? What does each add?
Why stop with my volcano books? Students could check out three more volcano books and describe how they are the same and different. Teachers could even ask students to brainstorm ideas for three more ways one could structure a book about volcanoes. To me, structure is about both creativity and synthesizing information, so exploring structure can offer both hard-core analysis and a creative outlet.
I’m a little obsessed with structure, so teachers and students probably have lots to talk about by picking apart the structures of my books. My nonfiction picturebook biography THE PLANET HUNTER: THE STORY BEHIND WHAT HAPPENED TO PLUTO explains why Pluto is not considered a planet anymore by telling the true story of the astronomer behind it. I use the structure of a narrative arc, which is commonly used in fiction, with a character (astronomer Mike Brown) who wants something (to find more planets in our solar system), rising tension, a climax and a resolution. Teachers can explore narrative arc structure with students by having them find these parts in the story.
In my nonfiction picture book biography of Maria Anna Mozart –Wolfgang Mozart’s older sister who was also a child prodigy – I used the structure of a piano sonata, the type of music Maria Anna played most often, as the structure for the book. So in FOR THE LOVE OF MUSIC, I divided her story into movements and employed other other musical notations to highlight events in Maria Anna’s life. The Mozart children’s whirlwind musical tour of Europe is in a section called Allegro (the fast tempo of the first movement of a piano sonata). When Wolfgang climbs into a carriage headed for Italy, leaving his sister behind, the section is Coda (an ending.) In a section titled Fermata (in which everything stops), Maria Anna's piano warps in the frigid weather, and in Cadenza (a passage for a soloist to improvise), Maria Anna weeps for Wolfgang, who dies so young. Classroom discussions about this structure could address: How does the sonata structure shape the book? What constraints did using this structure put on the author? What did the structure add?
Basically, I think the standards open the door to asking readers to notice a book’s structure, to think about why a book is structured the way it is, to imagine how it could have been structured differently and to consider a variety of ways to structure their writing, too.
What might this look like in the classroom more generally? Talk about books with interesting structures. Find books on the same topic or subject matter with different structures and discuss how the structures differ and how that affects the book.
To develop writing skills, kids could brainstorm at least three different possible structures for a piece of writing. (I do this before writing my books, though I don’t limit myself to only three.) Student could write about the same topic more than once, employing very different structures. (I often write multiple drafts of different parts of my books, testing out different structures.)
Encouraging students to consider creative ways to structure a piece of writing can give kids a way to really engage with the material and make it their own. To me any topic becomes more interesting if I ask myself: How could I structure this to be the most interesting and most effective? If teachers encourage kids to think creatively about structuring their writing, students may engage more deeply with the material and, ultimately, write pieces that are more interesting to read.
P.S. While my books offer good opportunities to discuss structure, I think they can also spur discussions around other elements of the Common Core, such as theme (R.2), word choice (R.4), and point of view (R.6). To give teachers ideas on how to use my books to support Common Core learning, I have created a short, half-page Common Core Bookmark for each of my books based on the reading anchor standards. Click on a title to get the short guide:
If you happen like the format I created to distill my Common Core-related ideas about my books into a half-page bookmark, please feel free to use this blank version.