Last month in this column, we introduced some of the ways in which writers for young people model the substance of their “big picture” thinking, how they sift and shape new ideas and evidence from their research to create a particular lens for their readers. In addition to offering insight into the different ways authors approach a particular subject, writers also model specific styles and techniques that demonstrate a command of the written word, connect with and hook readers, and explain and contextualize important concepts.
Here are some ways authors typically engage readers through their writing styles:
- Strong Introductions. Engaging leads can grab readers from the start. They also help to instill curiosity, create a sense of immediacy, and make readers feel a connection to the subject. This connection may be obvious or subtle. In American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 (Clarion, 2003), Jim Murphy establishes the setting as he describes a hot and humid Philadelphia on August 3, 1793. “The sun came up, as it had every day since the end of May, bright, hot, and unrelenting.…Dead fish and gooey vegetable matter were exposed and rotted, while swarms of insects droned in the heavy, humid air. In Philadelphia itself an increasing number of cats were dropping dead every day, attracting, as one Philadelphia complained, ‘an amazing number of flies, and other insects.’ Mosquitoes were everywhere, though their high-pitched whirring was particularly loud near rain barrels, gutters, and open sewers.” (p. 1). But Murphy does more than simply paint a portrait of a foul-smelling city at the height of summer. He plants clues for readers, who may or may not be aware that mosquitoes carried the yellow fever virus.
- Varying Sentence Structure. Prose writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, benefits from a writer’s careful attention to sentence structure, and the ways in which varying lengths creates a sense of rhythm, dramatic appeal, and emotional tension. Robert Burleigh does this in Night Flight (S & S, 2011), his verse biography of Amelia Earhart, when he writes: “Everything she has ever learned courses through her blood./Now or Never. All or nothing.” Readers feel the suspense equally through the sentence structure and the content of the sentences. Jean Craighead George also accomplishes this masterfully in The Wolves are Back (Dutton, 2008). “Where had they been? Shot. Every one. Many years ago the directors of the national parks decided that only the gentle animals should grace the beautiful wilderness. Rangers, hunters, and ranchers were told to shoot every wolf they saw. They did.” Readers feel the impact of those shots in the short, staccato sentences.
- Similes and Metaphors. Some are quick to associate similes and metaphors with the flowery language of poetry and fiction, and consider them a luxury that informational text cannot afford. But similes and metaphors help young readers understand newly encountered concepts. When a simile or a metaphor is clear, and the comparison is made to something familiar to children or young adults, it allows readers to attach new information to their pre-existing schema. Consider the comparisons that zoologist Nicola Davies makes in in her picture book Big Blue Whale (Candlewick,1997). The author uses similes to describe the whale’s skin: “It’s springy and smooth like a hard-boiled egg, and it’s as slippery as wet soap.” Simile is also used to establish a sense of scale, as the whale’s ear is “as small as the end of a pencil.” Deborah Hopkinson employs the use of simile in her verse picture book Annie and Helen (Random, 2012): “Helen was like a small, wild bird, throwing herself against the bars of a dark silent cage.” The comparison is concrete and clear, and conveys to young readers a new way to consider emotion, and how trapped Helen Keller could have felt without sight, hearing, or speech.
- Alliteration and Onomatopoeia. Poetry and fiction are not the only arenas in which writers can have fun with language. Alliteration and onomatopoeia are particularly effective in nonfiction picture storybooks that can be read aloud in one sitting. The repetition and approximation of sounds provides young listeners and readers with a sensory experience with which to connect to the new information they are learning about, while making the reading experience playful and pleasing. April Pulley Sayre frequently employs the use of both alliteration and onomatopoeia in her nonfiction picture book writing. In Here Come the Humpbacks! (2013), she writes: “The mother and calf swim over underwater hills and valleys. They see seaweed and sailfish and squid. They pass turtles and trash.” Here, alliteration creates imagery for readers. In Trout are Made of Trees (2008, both Charlesbridge), Sayre uses both devices to recreate life in a stream: “Crane flies, caddisflies, shrimp and stone flies shred leaves. Rip and snip!”
- Verse. Nonfiction need not be written in the traditional format of prose paragraphs. Many picture book and even chapter-length nonfiction books are written in verse. Marilyn Nelson’s Fortune’s Bones (2004) and Carver (2001, both Front Street), are wonderful examples of full-length biography in verse. The author provides readers with rich information about her subjects. This information, in combination with the white space on the page, asks readers to consider the gaps that are an inherent part of any life story, particularly for enslaved men such as Fortune. Doreen Rapport’s collection of picture-book biographies are told in verse format, along with quotes excerpted from the written or spoken words of her subjects. The juxtaposition of verse, blank space, and pull-quotes offers readers ample opportunity to consider the subject as the narrative is constructed.
- Strong Conclusions. Clear conclusions do more than simply wrap-up the main idea of a work of nonfiction. Conclusions can carry readers out of the book and into the world, prompting action. They can prompt inquiry, reminding readers of what else there is to learn about a subject. Conclusions can also establish one final emotional connection to readers. Consider the last paragraph in Russell Freedman’s Who was First? Discovering the Americas (Clarion, 2007). “Perhaps one day soon, somewhere in the Americas, someone walking across a field will discover a surprising new clue—an ancient stone tool made with care and left in that very spot by a human being who was alive once. Behind that ancient tool will be a hand reaching out of the past and taking ours.” (p. 81).
The more students consider a writer’s craft in nonfiction, the more they will see that elements of good writing overlap. The above examples of similes included alliteration. Strong introductions and conclusions are often comprised of several of these elements working together. Good writing occurs in the combined use of these stylistic moves. Reading nonfiction with an eye for these choices, and discussing a writer’s craft in class with a connection to the content of the texts, will allow your students to see the interplay between reading nonfiction and writing nonfiction.
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