Middle-Grade Narrative Writing: Using Mentor Texts to Describe Characters

Let’s Describe People and Places-PART 2!

character mentor texts

In my other post, “Middle-Grade Narrative Writing: Using Mentor Texts to Describe Setting (Snapshots)” I explained how a teacher could use examples or passages in mentor texts to help their young writers add details, description, and imagery to their narrative writing. This ability to “see” or visualize the imagery is called making a snapshot. Snapshots were first introduced to me by the way of Barry Lane’s The Reviser’s Toolbox. Characters really have five areas of focus when it comes to description: thoughts, feelings, actions, appearance, and speech. All of these areas can afford opportunities for students to learn how to do snapshots.

In review, a snapshot is a moment in narrative writing when you stop to describe a person or place in detail. There are many different writing moves to do this technique; however, the gist is the same: stop to inform your reader what the imagery is in your writing so they can become part of the reading experience with you. When you are designing a lesson on snapshots in either setting or character, I first like to start with adjectives and describing things my students know a lot about. Then, we can move on to the more abstract ideas of the imagination. The bridge between simple adjective description and more sophisticated writing resides in the use of mentor texts. I also like to practice all together in a whole group format using pictures. I love Nearpod for this type of practice because students can share adjective word ideas, and you can track whole group class participation. It is also pretty cool whole group collaborative writing. Here is my snapshots Nearpod presentation:

In the post, I will outline four different strategies for helping you to introduce snapshots for character description to your students with a variety of middle-grade mentor texts. I use mentor texts in my classroom to teach grammar, provide book talks to my students, and in writing instruction. Students then mimic the style of published authors and use their writing as a guide to help set up their own writing.

Snapshot Strategy #1: Describe the character in detail using first person narration

Young writers learn to do this type of work early on in the teaching of narrative writing because we ask them, “What do you see?” We teach them how to use adjectives, and we use teaching buzzwords like “Show, don’t tell.” We give them the language of sensory details through the power of observation. When the character in a story holds a mirror up to another person or themselves, they give us an opportunity to place ourselves into the story in question. At the heart of snapshots is the ability to become involved in the story through first person perspective.

It is important to note how this strategy can go awry. While this seems like the most straight-forward of strategies, I often see young writers plop character description in the middle of nowhere in their writing or it can even come across as random bits of information that don’t form a puzzle of a picture in the reader’s mind. Barry Lane in the Reviser’s Toolbox talks about the balance of scene creation with a snapshot, a thought shot, and use of dialogue. I urge writers to use a combination of these three skills in order to create balanced description.

Bob by Wendy Mass & Rebecca Stead

“This is what a smiling zombie looks like:

  1. Short.

  2. Green skin. Not grass green, more like inside-an-avocado green.

  3. No hair, unless you count one long eyebrow and the patchy fuzz growing on the top of his head.

  4. Pretty skinny. I can see one knobby knee sticking out of the chicken suit where a seam has come undone.

  5. Big melted-chocolate brown eyes.

  6. No eyelids.

  7. Smooth skin, at least the parts I can see.

  8. A nose.

  9. White teeth.

  10. Lips turned up at the ends. Like I said, it was a potentially fake smile.

“Is that a...chicken suit?” I ask. It doesn’t actually make him look anything like a chicken. In fact, don’t ask me how I even know it’s a chicken suit” (19-20).

Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams

“‘Why yes. Were you expecting someone else?’ Mrs. Hill says, checking over my course list. I can’t stop staring. Her cheeks are big and round with deep dimples. Her face is a caramel brown, and her hair is cut into a short, curly Afro, which is okay for her because she’s old. And this lady teaches my chorus class” (64).

The Moon Within by Aida Salazar

My Best Echo

Magda is better than my best friend

Strange maybe

Because we aren’t anything alike.

I wear my curly hair

Cola de caballo long

Or pulled back in a bun

And love the flowing cotton skirts

Girls have to wear to dance bomba.

She wears her bright brown hair

Short

T-shirt, jeans, and high-top Vans

Skater boy style

And hardly dances.

She only drums” (24).

Blended by Sharon Draper

“Mr. Kazilly, who teaches us both English and history, is a certified crazy man, at least in our opinion. He wears UGGs every day-even in the summer. I bet his feet totally stink at the end of the day!

His clothes are, well, let me describe them. He wears stuff like maroon capes and turquoise slacks, or stiff-collared button-down shirts with pinstripes. He’s got huge muscles, and he boasts about how he works out at the gym after school. He’s one of those people who might be noticed by a fashion magazine, maybe under the category of “Distinctive Teacher Style” or in an athletic magazine under the heading “Teachers with Six-Packs.” he likes colors-he calls them “hues”-so he might wear lavender and chartreuse together, partly for fashion, but I swear he dresses funky so we can have new vocabulary words” (30-31).

Snapshot Strategy #2: Use character description as a setup for conflict reveal

Conflict makes stories interesting. Tomi Adeyemi, author of Children of Blood and Bone, teaches her writing followers to “put your protagonist into a tree, and then throw rocks at them.” The rocks make the story interesting. Problems in life make the story interesting. Our conflicts teach us how to be better people. When we describe how a particular character handles the conflict, we are giving cues about their internal traits and who they are as people.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

“Circling Stella’s legs are long-ago scars from the chains she wore as a youth: her bracelets, she calls them. When she worked at a famous circus, Stella had to balance on a pedestal for her most difficult trick. One day, she fell off and injured her foot. When she went lame and lagged behind the other elephants, the circus sold her to Mack” (30).

Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams

“In my room, a mirror hangs on the other side of the closet door. No matter how many times I shut it, that door cracks. Now, as I check inside to make sure nothing’s been left behind, the mirror faces me. It hates me too.

We stand in a stare-off like Celie did in The Color Purple, this old movie that Mama watches every dang time it comes on TV. In the movie, gorgeous Shug Avery makes Celie face herself in the mirror to convince her she’s beautiful, even though Shug called Celie uglie in the first place. “You sho’ is ugly.” That’s exactly how Shug said it too. And here I am, facing myself like Celie. “Well?” I say. “Get on with it.”

Look at you, with that wide nose, my reflection says.

I pinch my nostrils down.

And those big lips.

I smash my lips tight.

And that nappy head.

I finger the tangles loose.

Don’t get me started on how black you are.

I want to say something, but what? That I think I’m cute? ‘Cause I’m not. That I have good hair? ‘Cause I don't. That I’m not dark? “Cause I am” (9-10).

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor

“The man was a human tree in height, towering high above Papa’s six feet two inches. The long trunk of his massive body bulged with muscles, and his skin, of the deeper ebony, was partially scarred upon his face and neck, as if by fire. Deep lifelines were cut into his face and his hair was splotched with gray, but his eyes were clear and penetrating” (34-35).

Snapshot Strategy #3: Use figurative language

Similarly to setting description, the easiest figurative language lessons to apply to this type of description are similes and personification, but metaphors are also very powerful in the use to character description. While they can be overused at times, a focused simile or metaphor can help the reader see the image of the character better in their minds. When I am doing mentor sentence work, I like to show young writers that good use of figurative language is built into the scene. It is an added detail, a little flair to the writing. Figurative language is like the embellishment on a design to make it even better.

Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi

But this woman was beautiful in the way that a bolt of lightning shattering the sky was beautiful. Almost scary. Definitely striking. She was slim and tall, with shiny black hair that was piled in soft curls on the top of her head. When she smiled, Aru saw a crescent of sharp teeth behind her red lipstick” (82).

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

“From the rafters above them, a woman screeched and howled as the Elders entered the house. Her shiny black hair flew about her head like a nest of long, writhing snakes. She hissed and spat like a cornered animal. She clung to the ceiling beams with one arm and one leg, while holding a baby tightly against her breast with the other arm.

“GET OUT!” she screamed. “You cannot have her. I spit on your faces and curse your names. Leave my home at once, or I shall team out your eyes and throw them to the crows!”

The elders stared at her, openmouthed. They couldn’t believe it. No one fought for a doomed child. It simply wasn’t done” (7).

Snapshot Strategy #4: Using character action to describe character traits

I love starting description with action especially early on in a story. When we give the reader motivation to follow the moves of the characters in the story, we make them feel like they belong as well. An example of this is in the below example in Other Words for Home, our protagonist doesn’t feel welcome, but the other character invites her to sit down. Another one is the action of Mason in The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle when he makes acrostic poems in class. The act of his poem-making create more detail and give the reader more information. Sometimes young writers don’t view these moments of action as snapshots, yet we learn the most by what our characters-and people-choose to do.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker

“This close, Peter could see that she wasn’t as old as he’d thought. Not much older than his father, anyway. A single gray streak bolted through her hair, but her skin was smooth. When she narrowed her eyes and snapped her fingers at his face, it dawned on him that the woman might be crazy” (68)

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

“My cousin Sarah is

Chunky platform sandals that

Clomp clomp

On the hardwood floors of the old house.

She is sparkly pink lip gloss

And nails the color of a sunset on a summer night

And jeans that have shiny sequins on the pockets.

Sometimes she is friendly,

Inviting me to sit next to her on the couch

Where she watches a television show about

American teenagers who wear fancy clothes and

Are trying to figure out

Who murdered their classmates” (77).

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

“She was not a nice person, but she cleaned up the floor. She was not a nice person, but she bandaged by foot in a white piece of cloth, and gave us two or her own clean shirts to wear. They hung past our knees. She combed or cut the tangles out of our hair, which took ages, and then she made a big pan of scrambled eggs” (41).

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor

MASON

Mammoth in size

Always with Benny

Sweaty

Only a little bit smart

Not very organized

Then I say the second poem.

BENNY

Born and adopted

Early riser

Not afraid of the dark

Not as big as Mason

Yippee

(69).

As I started collecting my mentor texts for character work, I got both excited and overwhelmed. I love looking at how characters describe appearance and actions, and I love snooping on writer’s craft when it comes to conveying feeling and response to conflicts. I now plan on keeping a running list of character descriptions as I am reading my middle-grade work when I am focusing on adding to my mentor text collection. This will be helpful in keeping my mentor text passages organized. Grab that running list here:

Writing Mindset Reflection: How do you teach character snapshots? When you introduce character description and character traits, what are must haves for your lessons?