You know, I had my blog post for this week all mocked up. The rough edges were in, I was filling in the details and ironing out the formatting. It was supposed to be about my go-to mentor texts for starting units – a handy little collection. Neat and tidy.
And then, as it tends to happen in our profession, my teaching feet were knocked out from under me.
We were wrapping up a mini-lesson on endings in personal narrative writing. We had collected some noticings, discussed how they worked, and charted strategies on the board. Notebooks were rustling as kids were going back to their drafts to play with their own endings. Some would add reflection while others might try to tie back to where they started. It felt like I’d taught this lesson a million times. And then a student looked over her notebook pages at me and asked, “but what if there isn’t a happy ending?”
I pulled up a chair. I was ready for this question; I’d tackled it before. I started to direct her back to some of our mentors, but she pushed back. “No, what if I don’t have an ending like this?” she sighed, starting to sound a little exasperated. “These are happy endings,” she waved her hands over her folder of texts we’d studied. I noticed that another student had looked up and was listening. He nodded in agreement; he was struggling with the same question.
I’ll admit, that wasn’t something I’m used to hearing. I usually get the question “Why is everything we read so depressing?” about the literature we study. And it’s true. It seems like in middle school and high school, we’re always trotting out the books about death and dying, but she was still seeing these as having “happy endings.”
“What if I don’t have an ending like this?”
Her question had a weight to it that told me this was more than just a question about craft.
So, I asked who else was feeling the same way, and got a few more head nods. While the rest of the class plugged away on their drafts, we huddled together around a table. It turned out to be one of those conferences where I asked more questions than I gave answers, and I am so glad that I did.
The stories they were wrestling with in their notebooks reflected the real traumas they were enduring. And, oh, I was so right about the weight of that question. The reason, I realized, they were seeing our mentor texts as having “happy” endings was because they were all told from the other side of the grief process. My students were struggling with this because they hadn’t made it through yet. They were angry. They were confused. And they didn’t know how to wrap that up in a story because they hadn’t wrapped it up in their heads yet.
Normally, I’d be tempted to confer with this student about how to choose which story to tell. I’d gone there before. Sometimes, I’d tell them, we’re not ready to tell a story that’s still too raw. Sometimes we need space to come back at a story once we’ve cleared our heads a bit. Something about this teaching point didn’t sit right this time, though. Maybe it was the weight of the stories they were telling. I knew that they weren’t just choosing a story from their brainstorming; they were telling The Story. And I needed to honor that.
I told them I needed to think on this some more, and after wracking my brain and reaching out to my network of incredible thinkers, I came up with the most unlikely answer: picture books.
I’m no stranger to using picture books in high school classrooms, and I know that they oftentimes wrestle with heavy topics, but I wasn’t sure if that would they would be able to pull double-duty by honoring my students’ grief and giving them a mentor for the un-tidy endings that we were searching for.
Fox by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks
When you pick this book up, your reaction might be, “KIDS read this?!?” It is dark and a bit twisted, but it offers incredible opportunities as a mentor text for some really advanced craft study. For the purpose of this lesson, though, it also offers a mentor text for a character who has made tremendous mistakes and is facing a very bleak future. It doesn’t solve anything in an overly artificial neat-and-tidy kind of way; rather, it honors the fact that sometimes we are in a place where we are not okay. That on its own is powerful, but it also offers writers a model for how to write an ending that reflects the weight of the situation, offers a glimmer of hope, but doesn’t tie anything up too neatly.
Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson
Sometimes I feel like, if I’m struggling with finding a good mentor text, I can count on Jacqueline Woodson to rescue me. Much like Fox, this book’s narrator must confront a tremendous mistake. There’s no easy out or problem solved by the end, but it allows readers to wonder about the protagonist’s potential for future growth.
Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson
I have a confession to make with this one: I once recycled this book. On purpose. I was going through a stack of books I’d picked up at a library sale, and when I got to the ending of this one, I chucked it right into the recycling bin I was so disgusted with it. There is nothing happy about this book, and I still don’t like it much, but now I recognize that it has some potential as a mentor. There is a point at which the narrator offers the perspective of death being a transition into a better place, which is something each reader/writer will have to wrestle with themselves, but the final paragraph offers a powerful mentor for a decidedly unhappy ending.
These three offered us the best mentor opportunities for those un-tidy endings, but there are lots of picture books out there that aren’t afraid to confront really difficult, dark issues. I’ve also started the following list of picture books that, although may have an ending that is tidier than my students wanted this time, still pack a lot of mentor text potential, especially in helping writers to latch onto a symbol for hope or growth.
What You Know First by Patricia MacLachlan
An Angel for Solomon Singer by Cynthia Rylant
Gleam and Glow by Eve Bunting
Smoky Night by Eve Bunting
The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson
The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein
What would you add to this mentor text collection? Have you used picture books to help students deal with trauma? Or have you found ones that model an un-tidy ending? Help me grow my collection in this important work. Comment below or find me on Twitter @megankortlandt.