Picture books are my all-time favorite teaching tool, especially when working with multiple ages. A well-written picture book is a whole pouch of seeds waiting to be planted. For your visual learner, pictures cover pages from edge to edge. For your auditory learner, a feast of well-chosen words awaits. And picture books cover a rainbow of topics and genres, so you’re sure to find something to spark the interest of your kids.
Perhaps my favorite use of picture books is to inspire writing because.....
- Picture books are short. We want to make the most of our time during busy homeschool days, and since picture books can be read in one sitting, they’re perfect for the job. We can read the book through once, typically in 10 minutes or less, and then re-read sections we want to highlight as we guide our emerging writers to explore various techniques.
- Picture books authors have to choose words with care. When an author is limited to about 32 pages, she has to select her words really, really carefully. Otherwise, the young readers and listeners on our laps will be asleep before we get to the last page. The same is true with “older” pre-teen and teen readers. A picture book for the purpose of teaching writing, must be engaging enough to hold the interest of everyone. After all, it was C.S. Lewis who said, “A children’s story that is only enjoyed by children is a bad children’s story.”
- Picture books are written with younger readers in mind, but that doesn't mean older readers won't learn anything from them. What it does mean is that they make ample use of literary techniques such as descriptive language, similes and metaphors, and voice. Picture book authors have a gift for serving up bite-sized portions of amazing language and vocabulary. Just enough that we feel satiated but not overwhelmed.
One of my favorite books to use is Owl Moon by Jane Yolen. It’s chock-full of vivid writing and literary devices & tools with which we want our children to make friends. I’ve outlined three that are easily spotted in Owl Moon, including examples from the text. Because good writing weaves literary elements together, these overlap, but that's the beauty of this book!
Simile & Metaphor
Well placed similes and metaphors blend seamlessly into the writing to compare something, possibly unfamiliar, to something familiar. To create a picture for the reader, to bring the reader into the emotion of the story. Similes and metaphors are powerful tools when used well. It’s often the difference between showing the reader what is happening, rather than just telling them.
- The trees stood still as giant statues.
- Somewhere behind us a train whistle blew, long and low, like a sad, sad song.
- And when their voices faded away it was as quiet as a dream.
- The moon made his face into a silver mask.
- Then the owl pumped its great wings and lifted off the branch like a shadow.
I like to play a game with my kids when we’re exploring similes and metaphors. We find similes and metaphors in the text (showing) and then rephrase it so that it is no longer showing, but telling. Here are some examples from the text that "show" and my "tell" is in italics.
- The trees stood still as giant statues. The trees were tall.
- Somewhere behind us a train whistle blew, long and low, like a sad, sad song. We could hear the train whistle blowing.
- And when their voices faded away it was as quiet as a dream. When their voices were quiet, it was silent.
- The moon made his face into a silver mask. His face looked shiny in the moonlight.
- Then the owl pumped its great wings and lifted off the branch like a shadow. The owl flew off the branch.
Then, we reverse it. I give them a simple sentence such as, “I ate ice cream.” And they rewrite it to be more descriptive by including similes and metaphors.
- The ice cream dribbled down my arm like raindrops plopping from the sky.
- I licked the ice cream round and round the cone like a merry-go-round, faster and faster until I caught every last dripping drop.
- I bit the bottom off my cone and it was a faucet, dripping strawberry ice cream into my open mouth.
Descriptive language covers a large area of writing because really, doesn’t all good writing rely on the perfect description?! Here are just a few examples I pulled from Owl Moon. Once you read the book, you’ll see that every line, every phrase is full of beautiful description.
- Our feet crunched over the crisp snow and little gray footprints followed us.
- The shadows were the blackest things I had ever seen. They stained the white snow.
- My mouth felt furry, for the scarf over it was wet and warm.
Now it’s your turn. Play charades where the only answers are strong verbs. Are you galloping, shuffling, sauntering, trudging, sipping, gulping, teetering? Or pull out a magazine and leaf through it. Find a picture of a scene or something that interests you. Describe it using strong verbs and adjectives.
In Owl Moon, Jane Yolen is consistently bringing us back to the setting. She gives us details right from the beginning that show us what a cold, bright, clear winter evening it is. Go on a scavenger hunt through the book to find these.
Your turn. Go outside and find a comfortable place to sit. Describe the setting in such a way that your reader will feel like he is there. Keep in mind all the ways you take in your surrounding, through your senses.