Details, Details

In the spring, I worked with a group of 4th graders in a collaborative review writing residency.  It seems I never leave a residency without learning something. In this, I saw an old issue in a new light.

In my opinion, the hardest thing to teach children is “details.”  They know the word to be sure. When I asked, ” What do you think is missing in this paragraph?”

They answered the way I suspect they have hundreds of times, “Details!”

But when I asked the follow-up question, “So what details could we add to make this bit of writing come alive?”

The class what flummoxed. I thought it was difficult for students to find details in fiction writing, to find words that juiced up a bit of writing, made a character more imaginable, a setting more vivid. But it proved harder in nonfiction writing.  The children could come up with important criteria they wanted to cover-mentioning things to grab attention, why the characters were different, descriptive writing that was strong— but the specific examples that proved those points, well, that was a different matter.

It took a third draft, leaving blanks for places where I led targeted discussions, re-reading pages and asking, “Why do you think the author chose these words, gave information in this way?” or “Let’s look at this picture. What are the colors? Why were the chosen? What did the illustrator choose to put in the picture?”

Eventually, each class completed a collaborative review. Here are two of their collaborative reviews published in the Raleigh News and Observer/Charlotte Observer at the end of May:

Ji-li Jiang’s Red Kite, Blue Kite (Hyperion, ages 9 and up) makes your heart soar one minute and spiral down the next. These emotions are like the ups and downs of the kites that young Tai Shan and Baba, his father, fly before, during and after the Cultural Revolution in China.

At that time, people could be taken to labor camps if the government didn’t like what they said, thought or did. Tai Shan’s mother died when he was born, so when his father is taken to a camp, Tai Shan has to live close by with a woman he doesn’t really know. The boy and his father communicate across the distance by watching each other’s kites “swaying back and forth, up and down.” This phrase is repeated during the story when they feel free.

The author’s strong metaphors and similes and unusual words let readers sail through the story. When his father visits Tai Shan and “comes without a smile,” we sense the father’s upset and unhappiness.

When the author writes that the kites are “giggling” in a happier time, they aren’t laughing for real, but these words helped us imagine the joy in that moment. Readers will feel “Red Kite, Blue Kite’s” many emotions, both high-flying and plunging, in this story of hope and love.

Nicola Davies’ The Promise (Candlewick, ages 9 and up) is a picture book for children no younger than 8. Immediately readers enter a setting that the author describes as “mean and hard and ugly.” The people who live in this place are cruel, so is girl who tells the story, her heart “as shriveled as the dead trees in the park.”

Inside the front cover, Laura Carlin’s illustration shows a colorless, littered sidewalk, so before the story even begins, readers have a gloomy view of the city that the main character calls home. In the book’s final picture, Carlin shows the same sidewalk, but colorful birds flutter now in a vivid setting that seems closer to a rainforest than a city.

The difference is explained by the story between these covers. One dark night, the main character snatches a bulging bag from a frail old woman. She expects to find money or food, but there are only acorns. Those acorns and her promise transform the city and the girl, too.

The author’s words show as much change as the pictures. Davies begins with a chilling description of how “a gritty yellow wind blew constantly scratching around the buildings like a hungry dog.” But when the girl holds the acorns, she has “the forest in her arms.” Soon, she turns gardens “laced with broken glass” into green that spreads “through the city like a song.”

This is the kind of book that intrigues your mind, brightens your vision and touches your heart. We promise.

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