Oh, the places you’ll go! Mentor texts for writing about a meaningful place

Each year, my students compose a series of brief writing pieces—each one describing a person, place, or thing. Currently, students are working on their “person” essay—a personal essay inspired by the beautiful mentor text, “The Stranger in the Photo is Me” by Don Murray. The essay is a meditation on memory and identity, and as students write their own essay, like Murray, they look at photographs from their own lives to help the unearth and reconnect with the people they once were. Students also read Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” as an additional mentor text for looking at the way memory and identity can be explored in writing.

So while students draft this essay, I’ve been looking for additional mentor texts for their next piece, the “place” essay. While both Murray’s and Didion’s essays include places—both physical and emotional—I wanted a few more mentor texts that really focused on defining a place through rich and vivid description. By writing about a meaningful place in their lives, students might also sharpen their observational and descriptive writing skills. My hope is that by focusing on how to write about a person, place, and eventually, a thing, students can then draw on these writing experiences and synthesize these skills when writing longer pieces later this year.

The only problem was that I was I wasn’t sure which mentor texts to use for place. Although I had a few I’d used in the past, my collection felt a little stale. So I put a call out on Twitter with this simple request:

As you can see, I posted this Tweet at 3:15 on a Saturday afternoon. I wasn’t sure what kind of response I’d get—it was the weekend, after all—but I should have known better. Within 24 hours, I had dozens of responses, many from the Moving Writers team, but many others from wonderful teachers from across the country. Suggestions included passages from non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and children’s books. The generosity of teachers to share their expertise, their time, their love for their work and their students—it will never cease to amaze me.

While you can explore the thread on Twitter, I decided to compile the list here in this post for easier reference. Below are the mentor texts and the teachers who shared them. (I’m also currently in the process of copying them into the Moving Writers Mentor Text Dropbox—some of the texts are linked to where I’ve saved them so far. When images were shared of mentor texts on Twitter, I linked to those Tweets, and if the text was easily available online, I also linked to those texts.) 

 

NON-FICTION

Mentor Text Shared by
“On the Way to Rainy Mountain” by N. Scott Momaday Lindsay Thompson‏
“Once More to the Lake” by E. B. White Karla Hilliard‏, Elizabeth Matheny‏
“Little Expressionless Animals” by David Foster Wallace Karla Hilliard‏
Shipwrecked at the Bottom of the World by Jennifer Armstrong Brian Kelley
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates Tricia Ebarvia
Any Bill Bryson Shana Karnes‏
Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealey Allison Marchetti‏
The Horizontal World by Debra Marquart Allison Marchetti‏
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote Michelle Kirk
The Watch that Ends the Night by Allan Wolf ElizabethOosterheert‏
On Writing by Stephen King (descriptions of writing places) ShelfieTalk‏
The Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski (Introduction) Amy Rasmussen‏
“The Memory Place” from High Tide in Tuscon by Barbara Kingsolver Kristin Runyon‏
“This English Path Has Killed More Than 100 People” by Robert MacFarlane Julie Swinehart‏
The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls Shana Karnes‏
“Living Like Thoreau” by Diana Saverin Lynn Hagen‏
“The Kitchen” by Alfred Kazin Tricia Ebarvia
“The Porch” by Rick Bragg Tricia Ebarvia

FICTION

Mentor Text Shared by
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (page 8 of handouts found here) Penny Kittle‏
Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Of Mice and Men (particularly description of the bunk house) by John Steinbeck Karla Hilliard‏, Alex Lyons, Jay Nickerson, Megan Kortlandt‏, Karla Hilliard, Lisa Dennis‏, Elizabeth Matheny‏
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling Shana Karnes‏, Hattie Maguire‏
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr Shana Karnes‏
The Secret History by Donna Tartt Shana Karnes‏
Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart Leigh Anne Eck‏
The Round House by Louise Erdrich K Cody‏
“Salvador, Late or Early” by Sandra Cisneros Megan Kortlandt‏
House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros Megan Kortlandt‏
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Jill Schwartzman‏
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry vickiboyd‏
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee Michelle Kirk, Lauren N Borrero, Ms. Lemire‏
“The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez Scott Bayer‏
Slow Regard by Patrick Rothfuss Sarah Addison‏
The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver Lauren N Borrero‏
“Araby” by James Joyce (opening) Tia Miller‏
Jackaby by William Ritter (opening) Virena Rossi‏
In the Woods by Tana French Tricia Ebarvia

POETRY

Mentor Text Shared by
Any Mary Oliver poetry! Shana Karnes‏
“XIV” by Derek Walcott Susan Barber‏
Poetryatlas.com Joel Garza
“A Red Palm” by Gary Soto Sarah Addison‏
“Columbus Hospital” by Eve Ewing Jay Nickerson‏
“Chicago” by Carl Sandburg Amy Clark
“Preludes” by T. S. Eliot Amy Clark
“Mango No. 61” by Richard Blanco Amy Clark

CHILDREN’S BOOKS

Mentor Text Shared by
Windows by Julia Denos Tricia Ebarvia
Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran Christie Nold‏
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen Lisa Dennis
A Chair for My Mother by Vera Williams CarolinePetrow‏
Crow Call by Lois Lowry Holly Reardon‏
The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier Leigh Anne Eck

Looking at the picture book suggestions, of course, reminded me of the ones I already had on my shelf:

With so many wonderful suggestions, the next question, of course, is how to choose. Allison and Rebekah’s list of “Questions to Help You Choose Mentor Texts” is a great resource in thinking about choosing mentor texts.

For this particular assignment, I want students to be exposed to the rich and varied ways that a physical place can be defined and described. Many times, a place can be defined through vivid imagery, as in the case with so many of the mentor texts suggested. One mentor text that I love, in particular, for this purpose is one that I remembered in during this process of collective brainstorming. The prologue of Tana French’s novel, In the Woods, is gorgeous—I used it a few years ago with my students and I can’t believe I could forget about it! The opening command to picture, to notice, to remember… the allusions to art and painting, the strong verbs, the pop culture references, the sounds in the air, the smells of the summer—the first paragraph overwhelms and excites:

Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 3.38.35 PM

Likewise, here’s Adichie’s description of Lagos in Americanah:

Again, strong verbs like assaulted and images of yellows buses full of squashed limbs stand out. So too do the questions and confusion, which also capture a sense of place—or, in this case, of displacement. In the following excerpt from Between the World and Me, Coates captures the place that is Howard University through its people in all their “seemingly endless variations”:

I want students to see that when we talk about describing a place—of capturing its core—that there are infinite ways to do it. What is it that they want to capture about a place? What feeling do they want to convey? What is their purpose? And then after studying these mentor texts, they can uncover some moves that might help them achieve that purpose.

Of course, this is an ongoing and growing list, one that I will probably come back to in the upcoming days. So if you have any additional suggestions, please share them below! And thank you again to everyone who has so generously shared their suggestions!

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2 thoughts on “Oh, the places you’ll go! Mentor texts for writing about a meaningful place

  1. All the Places to Love by Patricia MacLachlan is perfect for all ages. It’s a picture book but not just for young children.

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