Mentor Text Wednesday: Creepy Pair of Underwear!

Today’s post comes from Amy Estersohn, a middle school English teacher in New York and a 2016 recipient of the NCTE/ALAN Gallo Grant.  She writes comic book reviews for noflyingnotights.com and blogs on books and teaching at teachingtransition.wordpress.com

Mentor text:

Creepy Pair of Underwear! by Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown

Writing Techniques:

  • Elaboration
  • Story Structure
  • Effective Repetition

Background:

Whether it’s Goosebumps or Neal Shusterman’s Unwind, readers love creepy stories.  Creepy stories seem just that — designed to entertain and delight readers, not to Teach Something Important or Convey an Idea.

Spoiler alert:  The picture book Creepy Underwear isn’t all that creepy.  And it Conveys an Idea.  But it also provides several entry points for older readers and writers.

Elaboration: I asked students to brainstorm possible objects that would make good “creepy” stories.  Their responses: apples, pencils, fidget spinners, toys, coffee, books, and more.  After some brainstorming, I shared my own creepy story-in-progress with them:

Yeah…. I wrote a story about a creepy fidget spinner.

I showed students how I was inspired by the details about the Creepy Underwear (not to give too much of this story away, but let’s just say Creepy Underwear has a talent for glow-in-the-dark and reappearing in strange places) to make sure I centered my creepy fidget spinner in my story.  I even borrowed the phrase “ghoulish, greenish glow” from the story.  I also gave students a list of questions I had considered while I was writing my own creepy story:

  • What does my creepy object look like?
  • Does it talk?  If so, what does it say?
  • How do others react to seeing or hearing the creepy object?
  • Does my creepy object have any best friends? Worst enemies?
  • Where did my creepy object come from?

We can inspire students and ourselves to give these figments of our imagination developed histories.

Tone: This story is wonderful for teaching and discussing the slippery nature of tone.  At one point in this story, Jasper Rabbit determines a second creative way to dispose of the Creepy Underwear, and the narration says, “He was still a big rabbit.  He wasn’t scared or anything.”

A younger reader in a read-aloud shouts at this page, “No, look at him!  He’s still scared of the underwear!” while a more mature reader might parse this moment for analysis, since the image and gestures in the illustration suggest the opposite of the text.  I’d also pay attention to voice and word choice here, since the inclusion of words like “still” and “or anything” suggest the kind of “Am not/Are too!” defensiveness that younger children are known for.

Writers can practice using this tone by mimicking the sentence structure  and substituting in examples from their own lives, like:

“Sally was just going to check her Snapchat for a few minutes before starting her homework.  She wasn’t going to start obsessing over her followers or anything.”

“Brian was late to school for the fifth time this month.  The line at Dunkin Donuts was longer than usual — it wasn’t his fault or anything.”

Effective Repetition: This book uses repetition, symbolism, and place to show how Jasper Rabbit’s grows up  and how his attitude towards the Creepy Underwear change over time.  At the beginning of the story, Jasper goes to the underwear store with his mother.  At the end, he returns by himself with his own allowance money.  At the beginning of the story, the narrator describes the underwear’s “ghoulish, greenish, glow.”  At the end, the underwear has a “gentle, greenish, glow.”

We see this kind of trick in music all the time – in Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” the last repetition of the chorus layers in beats that were present elsewhere in the song.  (In classical music, this moment is called a fugue, but I hesitate to bring up classical music and Taylor Swift in the same sentence.)

In writing, it’s a little trickier, because we have to be intentional about what words we’re repeating and why.  Perhaps the easiest way to practice this technique is to have writers make their last sentence the same as their first sentence, but with one small change.

I hate to break it to readers that Creepy Pair of Underwear isn’t actually *that* creepy, but readers young and old will get a kick out of using this story to improve and reflect on writing.

 

 

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