Considering Mentor Texts 3: The Power of Picture Books

(Note: this blog post and a few more this week is part of a series around mentor texts and digital composition. The blog posts are all being collected over at Mentor Texts in the Digital Writing Workshop)


I’ve long been a fan of picture books for older students for many reasons. They are perfect for teaching a specific writing skill. They are short enough to share and use in a single class period. Many students, even older ones, have fond connections with picture books and enjoy new discoveries in the classroom (which they might otherwise not find in the library on their own in middle school). And there is just such a great wealth of fantastic books for older readers coming out each year, it is a huge gap in literature if you ignore the possibilities.

I also have found that picture books, in particular, have the potential for becoming ideal mentor texts for digital writing projects with students. Certainly, authors and illustrators with picture books are not afraid to push against expectations and offer up creative ways to tell a story. Think about how many picture books (such as The True Story of the Three Little Pigs) break down that third wall and invite the reader into the narrative, or wreak havoc on our expectations of text — just like composing with digital tools can do. And the close partnership between image and text in picture books is something that most traditional novels can’t pull off, or at least, not in the same way.

Let me give you an example of how one particular picture book series set the groundwork for my students to create their own digital picture books, and one of the pieces of advice about the use of technology that I try to present to teachers is: Don’t fall into the trap of “this was built for this, and that’s all it can be used for.”

A number of years ago, I decided that I wanted my students to create science-based digital picture books.

We had limited technology at our disposal, but we did have some computers with MS Powerpoint software loaded on them. It may have been designed for presentations for businesses, and it certainly has been overused, but I saw Powerpoint in a different light. The slides could be pages, and animation, audio and other digital elements might provide some compositional tools for constructing a picture book with digital elements. Who cares what Microsoft built it for? We would use the technology for our purposes.

Now, back then, there were very few mentor texts out there for digital picture books. This is years before the iPad and other devices that have revolutionized the book publishing industry. This was the pre-App Age.

But there was one series of picture books that I knew had some potential. The Magic School Bus series by Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen with its many layers of information and its many iterations made perfect sense. If you know anything about the series, consider the many layers of narrative and informational text and images that are folded into a typical Magic School Bus book. You have the characters chatting in speech bubbles; you often have notebook pages with scientific information and discoveries; and you have complex illustrations loaded with informational ideas. We’re not even considering the television show, the video games and other multimedia offshoots of the series, but those all demonstrate just how effectively the books were put together. Multimedia versions were no doubt relatively easy to pull off.

We use the Magic School Bus series as a piece of literature (most of my sixth graders get a kick out of re-reading a series that they remember from childhood) and that leads them into creating their own science-based picture books, as a digital project. Some students even emulate the Magic School Bus concepts, using similar ideas as a launching pad for their own ideas. In this case, the books were to be about Cellular Mitosis, which they were studying in science class. My science teacher colleague and I were hoping that the picture book project would help with the difficult science vocabulary, and give them an opportunity to compose with digital tools.

As I have mentioned in other posts in this series, I strongly urge teachers to create their own mentor texts, too, and bring those into the classroom as a means to reflect on the experience and allow students to question the compositional choices. So, I created my own science digital picture book just ahead of my students. It was a fictional story about a piece of yeast who infects a banana, and the topic was compost. The yeast flew around the screen, landing on different items, and I had some sound effects, and audio narration.

Here is my digital book (note: we converted some books from Powerpoint to Video, too):


Here are two digital books created by students:

Some interesting elements emerged as students were creating their books, too:
* Some students realized they could create a sort of “lift the Flap” book by “hiding” images underneath other images, and readers could click the mouse to uncover some fact or information or even “easter eggs” (hidden features of the book);
* Books could be set up for reader interaction. We included weblinks embedded right into the books, including online activities and quizzes associated with the content of the books. Readers read the books, but then become part of the experience;
* Some years, we were able to print out the books (copies of which are now in our school library) and students were disappointed by what they saw. They had created their book to be alive on the screen, not the page, and so the “flattened books” lacked much of what made them special to students.

The Magic School Bus provided us with a means to envision a book of many different layers and possibilities, and as is often the case, the students took it from there.

Peace (in the book),


PS: Also blogging about Mentor Texts and Digital Composition this week are:

Bill Bass, Technology Integration Specialist in Missouri and author of the upcoming ISTE book on Film Festivals tentatively titled, “Authentic Learning Through a Digital Lens” will be blogging on his blog MR. BASS ONLINE.

Katie DiCesare, a primary teacher in Dublin who runs an incredible writing workshop will be blogging at her blog, CREATIVE LITERACY.


Tony Keefer, an amazing 4th grade teacher in Dublin, Ohio will be blogging at at ATYCHIPHOBIA.

Franki Sibberson, a librarian of many skills and knowledge, and also from Ohio, over at A YEAR OF READING

  1. I heard you talk about this project at NCTE a few years ago. I was just starting to think about digital writing so I think I was listening for very big picture thinking. Revisiting your experience with this project after I’ve learned more about digital writing is powerful. So much new to think about now that I have some experience to fall back on. So many of us have learned from this project. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: For the Love of Reading | Expat Educator

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