Friday, March 22, 2019

Mentor Text from Master Storytellers

I’m finishing up our TeachingAuthors series on mentor texts.  It has been insightful to read the entries from my fellow TAs.  

Naturally, the books that I’ve considered mentor texts are all nonfiction books.  Writing nonfiction is not about stringing together a bunch of facts.  It is about curating an endless number of facts, distilling them in a meaningful way that tells a powerful true story like it has never been told before.  

In a way every nonfiction book I’ve ever read has been a mentor text.  If I read a paragraph that is particularly striking, I reread it and consider how the author got the information across.  But here I will point out a couple of authors and give examples from the books.  

One of the authors that I have long admired is Russell Freedman (who passed away about a year ago).  His books are serious but never boring.  For example in the Newberry medal winning book Lincoln: A Photobiography, the first paragraph of the book says, 

“Abraham Lincoln wasn’t the sort of man who could lose himself in a crowd.  After all, he stood six feet four inches tall, and to top it off, he wore a high silk hat.”   

These first two sentences give us a vivid picture of the man along with great facts.  

In one of Freedman’s picture books, The Adventures of Marco Polo, he begins the book this way: 

“As Marco Polo lay dying, friends and relatives gathered anxiously by his bedside and begged him to confess.”  

In all of Freedman’s books, he carries the reader along with the serious-but-never-boring story.  

Another author who was well-known for his fiction, but wrote nonfiction with equal success:  Sid Fleischman (he passed away in 2010). Years ago Mr. Fleischman was a speaker at our SCBWI conference and I had the honor of driving him to the airport. I’ve never met a more polished and kind gentleman, nor one that was as humble as this very successful author of many books.  I will never forget his graciousness to one and all.  His books were like the man himself, brilliant and funny without even trying to be.  At every turn, the texts of his books are witty and engaging.  For example, the first paragraph of The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West:  

“Mark Twain was born fully grown, with a cheap cigar clamped between his teeth.”  

Another example of a creative beginning is Fleischman’s book Sir Charlie Chaplin, The Funniest Man in the World which begins:  

“In the pesky rain on a March Night in 1978, nitwit thieves huddled at the grave of Sir Charlie Chaplin and dug up the body of the world-famous comedian.  They held it for ransom.”   

His text is always accurate, yet entertaining.  

As I write my nonfiction books, I keep in mind the great authors who have gone before me.  I’ve learned from their mentor texts to start each book in a way that hooks the reader.   Then even as I am telling a true story, I’ve got to hold their attention until the very last word on the very last page.   

Carla Killough McClafferty


Michele Helsel said...

Love this article! Can't wait to look up these books!

Carla Killough McClafferty said...

Thanks Michele. Don’t you love to read opening lines? Carla.