Mentor Text Wednesday: Inspiration From a Master

Mentor Text: Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

Writing Techniques:

  • Creative Writing
  • Voice
  • Humour
  • Considering Audience

Background:

A beloved part of my day is right before my daughters’ bedtime, when we read. I have a six year old and a four year old, and each is currently obsessed with a different book. My oldest is in the early stages of Pottermania, as we read, for the second time, the beautiful new illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Our youngest, like her sister before her, has been repeatedly requesting Neil Gaiman’s gorgeous little novella Fortunately, the Milk.

If you’ve not read it, do so. It’s a hilarious little book. Left alone, without his wife’s support, a father goes to the corner shop to pick up milk for his children’s breakfast. He takes a long time. Upon his return, he spins a fantastic tale explaining his delay. Initially abducted by aliens, he escapes only to be caught by pirates, is rescued from them by a stegosaurus in a time travelling hot air balloon, which they take to a primitive jungle in the past, a land populated by vampires, meeting back up with the same batch of aliens, before making it home with the milk. The illustrations, by Skottie Young in the version we have, make it clear that Dad is likely making this whole tale up, using things in his sight in their kitchen. Yes, it’s essentially a kiddie version of The Usual Suspects, but it’s awesome. My girls love it, and I love reading it to them.

As I was reading it for the umpteenth time in a row, I realized that it had the makings of a fun mentor text. I’d love to read it with my students, and have them then write me a really good, really long excuse or explanation, using the stuff they can see around the room as inspiration. I think it would be a pretty entertaining activity.

How we might use it:

Creative writing – What makes this a great mentor text, in my opinion, is that you can use it to force a storytelling conceit. Make up an excuse using the stuff you see in this room. Incorporate what you see into your narrative in creative ways. In fact, I feel it’s a great way to encourage creativity, as the material is right there. Students wouldn’t need to pull things out of the air to inspire them, just figure out how to use the ideas.

I love the idea of being able to guide a writer through writing goofy little vignettes. I picture my room, and the stuff that’s there. I have a picture of my daughter flying a kite. A writer could have gotten dragged way out of their way by an out of control kite. Simple, but potentially silly.

And there’s also the question of transitions. Gaiman uses Professor Steg, the stegosaurus inventor of the time-travelling hot-air balloon to get the dad from place to place in the book. Having writers create a plausible, yet silly device like this gets me kind of excited about this potential activity.

Actually, the potential for silliness is what fires me up about this idea as a whole. Many of the best creative writing activities come from a silly place, don’t they?

Voice – One of the things I like about Gaiman’s writing is how wonderfully he’s able to summon voice. It may be because I’ve read this book so very many times, but I feel like I can hear the father’s voice so clearly in the writing. He’s clearly making up the story he’s telling, enjoying the way he’s exaggerating things, enthralling his children.

It would be fun, I think, to have our writers write like this. Like the father in the story, they’d be telling a story that is foolish and fake, but they’d be trying to deliver it with a straight face, albeit on paper. Again, Gaiman’s book gives us a nice structure for them to follow to generate that voice.

Additionally, the book actually features multiple voices. Most established is the father, but the story actually begins in the voice of his male child. This serves to establish the father’s character, but the boy has a voice too. It’s actually used quite well as the boy interrupts his father a couple of times throughout the book to question the tale being told. I think it would be neat to have our writers include the Doubting Thomas voice as they write, especially as it serves to bolster the main voice in the piece, that of the father.

HumourFortunately, the Milk is a silly story. Silly stories use humour. Humour is pretty tricky for many of our writers. The conceit of the piece, as I’ve already mentioned, scaffolds some of the humour into the piece quite organically. Additionally, the voice of the father is pretty funny, primarily because he’s “trying” to be serious.

Gaiman uses humour throughout though. The other child awaiting milk, a daughter, interrupts the story as well. Once she asks for ponies, which her father adds later, quite obviously, only to placate her. Gaiman throws a little pop culture criticism into the book via the daughter as well, noting her reaction to the vampires.

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Young’s illustration of the vampire she’d prefer via skottieyoung.com

“I think there should have been some nice wumpires,” said my sister, wistfully. “Nice, handsome, misunderstood wumpires.

(Wumpires are vampires. Gaiman plays on the usual speech issue vampires have.) Clearly, she’d prefer a Twilight-esque bloodsucker!

There is a running joke, involving the naming of things by inventors, primarily buttons, which are named after relatives like Professor Steg’s Aunt Button. Showing writers how to weave in a small detail like that, and then call back to it later in the narrative would be a nice mini-lesson we could pull from this activity.

Considering audience – My daughter is four. My oldest fell in love with this book around the same age. My wife and I are reading them the book… frequently. I foresee them coming back to it when they learn to read.

This is one of Gaiman’s books for younger readers. It’s not quite as dark as Coraline nor as long as The Graveyard Book. It was written with kids my daughters’ ages in mind. Giving our writers a similar parameter would be a good exercise. They’d have to consider whether the tale they were crafting was appropriate for their intended audience. This would actually be a useful thing to consider, as I consider what tends to happen when I give my high school aged writers a chance to write things that are intended to be humourous. Almost straight to the places they shouldn’t go.

As a parent, and well fan of animation, I notice that Gaiman does that thing that we see so frequently in children’s entertainment. There are bits in there that work for the kids, but are in all likelihood intended for the parents. Good writing for children does this, knowing that the target audience won’t be experiencing the text on their own, they throw jokes, or references, into the piece that will give the grownup being dragged through another kids’ thing a chuckle. Encouraging our writers to do this would be important, as developing writers, writing for a child audience, often focus solely on that group, and not the folks who read the piece to the youngsters.

I have become a much bigger Neil Gaiman fan in the last couple of years. It was a neat to realize that there was a point when I was reading a Gaiman board book to my youngest, Fortunately, the Milk to my oldest, The Graveyard Book with one of my classes and one of his more mature titles on my own. A versatile and wonderful writer, there is so much in his work we can use to inspire our writers. I’m looking forward to bringing this book of his into my classroom as a mentor text for my writers.

What books are you reading to your own kids, if you’ve got them, that you could use as mentor texts in your classroom? What authors do you think have a lot to offer our writers via mentor texts? What elaborate made-up excuse do you have for things?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy

–Jay

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2 thoughts on “Mentor Text Wednesday: Inspiration From a Master

  1. I was linked to this article during my secondary methods ELA class. I have always adored Neil Gaiman’s writing, so I was pleased to see him here! Brava!

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