Mentor Text: excerpts from The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
- Descriptive Writing
I’ve shared pretty openly that there are a few parts of my practice as an English teacher that have made teaching during a pandemic easier. One of those things has been the fact that at our school, each of our courses has an overarching theme. Within those themes, we have pursuits that we’ve developed. (A semantics thing – to me, “unit” sounds like a pre-packaged, rigid thing. Pursuit feels better.) And inside those pursuits, we have a number of things that have worked in ideal circumstances that are easily adapted to whatever my classroom looks like as things change.
A pursuit I adore is Monster Season in Grade 9, as part of our theme of Storytelling: Imagination and Empathy. There’s lots of great stuff we do in there that explores how we use monsters in story. And I get to share Neil Gaiman’s wonderful Graveyard Book with students. It’s likely snuck into my top 5 books to do as a class for many reasons, but it’s his craft I want to share with you today. (Though if you want to teach inference, it’s amazing for that!)
In the novel, a young boy, Bod, is being raised by the denizens of a graveyard, being protected from a threat to his life, which means he doesn’t leave the graveyard very much. However, in the middle of the book, he spends some time at school. And we take a chance to use Gaiman’s writing as a mentor text.
How we might use this text:
Descriptive Writing – By this point in our novel study, we’ve had a number of chats about Gaiman’s craft. We are focusing on storytelling, and Gaiman uses his talents masterfully throughout this novel. But when Bod goes to school, there are a couple of brief pieces of character description we focus on, and use as mentor texts.
I’ve included for you the handout that I share with my students. It has two excerpts, one describing Bod, and one describing a bully he encounters in his time at school. They are compact and concise, and, I think, excellent mentor texts for our writers for character description. I’ve noticed that often, our writers feel a need to “over describe” a character. And since they’re often writing shorter pieces, disrupt their narrative to do so.
In the first passage, it’s important to note that Bod, who is being described, is intentionally making an effort to be nondescript. As a result, Gaiman focuses more on his personality and presence ( or lack thereof) to establish mood. When looking at the novel at a whole, it is written episodically, with a couple of years passing between each chapter. Bod is introduced to us again at the age he is in the chapter. In this way, description helps move the plot along.
In the second passage, Gaiman is introducing us to a short-lived protagonist for Bod. He only effects the story told in this chapter, though this story does serve as part of Bod’s development over time. As a result, he is painted in broad strokes, minimal physical description, and a focus again on personality and presence. As we discuss the characters introduced during Bod’s time at school, we discuss that they are somewhat universal in nature. The way that Gaiman describes Nick Farthing is successful because it describes a general type of person, avoiding specifics, which means our imaginations fill in the spaces with our own experiences with someone fitting that brief description.
Though the sheet I’ve included has some suggestions on what to focus on in these mentor texts, I’ve also asked students what they notice about the passages. That’s where these suggestions came from. Pandemic teaching has meant that not all students are there for the discussion, making handouts, shared digitally, vital parts of our process.
Having students write beside books we love in our classroom is a powerful practice. There are many lessons to be drawn from the books we love to share with students. Finding mentor passages, and taking the time to write beside master storytellers can only strengthen our students’ writing.
Do you have passages from your classroom “go to” novels you use as mentor texts? What other authors’ character descriptions are worthy mentor texts?
Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!