Mentor Texts: Finding the Bounty in a Book Chapter

books with stickies

Some books are so well-crafted that each chapter has the strength to stand alone. Books like The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, Wonder by R.J. Palacio, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse or Maniac McGee by Jerry Spinelli offer up chapters like jewels for reading and writing teachers.

One of my goals this summer was to read with an eye toward sharing shorter pieces of text. The #bookaday challenge pushed me to read more all summer long.  As a result of summer reading, I always return to school with a long list of books to recommend to my middle grade students.  This summer, however, when I sat down to read I always had a package of Post-it flags nearby (I even carry the flags in my purse if I am reading in the wild with a book!). My goal — to flag great short mentor texts — has helped me focus on the richness of individuals chapters.

I just finished reading Marjorie Agosin’s poetic I Lived on Butterfly Hill. The novel tells the story of eleven-year-old Celeste Marconi who lives in the seaside town of Valparaiso, Chile. Set during the violent rise of the dictator Pinochet, the book details Celeste’s escape to North America for two years and her parents exile into hiding. The author, whose own family escaped Chile, provides rich detail about life during upheaval.

Looking at my copy of I Lived on Butterfly Hill I see a host of multi-colored flags marking mentor sentences and chapters. Early chapters in the book vividly describe the beauty of a Chilean seaside town. In later chapters, author Agosin details the austere snowy winters of coastal Maine. The chapters can be explored individually for figurative language, cultural flavor and story arc. For more complexity, readers can compare the chapters to understand the importance of perspective and carefully chosen descriptive language.

At the start of summer I began a list of great mentor chapters.  One of the nice things about zooming in on chapters is the view it offers across texts. For example, earlier in the summer I read 90 Miles to Havana by Enrique Flores-Galbis. Inspired by the author’s own experience fleeing Cuba, 90 Miles to Havana tells the story of three bothers evacuated during Operation Pedro Pan in 1961. Here too I marked excellent stand-alone chapters to share as mentor texts. But now, I will offer a couple of those chapters in concert with chapters from I Lived on Butterfly Hill as a means to examine hardship and survival from different yet similar perspectives.

My summer reading offered several outstanding chapters about flight and survival so I will add chapters from Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan — as one main character flees the Nazis — and even chapters from Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool since the main characters are both fleeing personal loss when the book begins. A focus on chapters can yield a bounty of mentor texts and the means for building thematic short text collections.

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