We can model for our kids how good writers use all their senses in their writing to show not tell. Use mentor texts in your writing workshop to teach growing writers descriptive writing using sensory images, vivid verbs, precise adjectives, and rich figurative language.
Certainly, many poetry books capture this kind of vivid description in compact phrases. But today, I want to share a list of my favorite mentor texts, both picture and chapter books, that model for younger writers how published writers use sensory images to describe, transporting the reader into the story.
Mentor Text PICTURE BOOKS to Teach Vivid Description
Magnificent Homespun Brown: A Celebration by Samara Cole Doyon, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita
Lyrical, figurative language (filled with similes, personification, and vivid imagery) not only celebrates people of color living life fully but transports readers into scenes rich with sensory imagery. “Deep, secret brown. Like the subtly churning river currents playfully beckoning me through my grandmother’s kitchen window, winding steadily past banks of tall grass and wild rose buses.” Or “Feathery brown. Like the jagged shadows of hemlock branches thrown over me and Daddy on a gentle mountain hike.” A stunning, joyful tribute.
The Nest that Wren Built by Randi Sonenshine, illustrated by Anne Hunter
Starting with Wren’s building a nest to sitting on her eggs which hatch and growing fledglings, this spring story of new life consistently ends each stanza with a lovely repeating line, “..the nest that wren built.” Lyrical and descriptive with warm brown illustrations, experience the story with all your senses. “This is the tuft of rabbity fur, plucked from a harp, persnickety burr to warm the nest that Wren built.” You’ll hear the chirps, feel the velvety moss, feathers, and thread, and see the scrawny hatchlings.
Saturdays and Teacakes by Lester L. Laminack, illustrated by Chris Soentpiet
Saturdays are the days the boy pedals to his Mammaw’s house where they pass the time cooking and eating and he helps her in the yard with the lawn mowing. Laminack uses all the senses in his vivid imagery. “This was where my tire gave up their humming on the pavement and began the crunching of gravel. Just before reaching Mammaw’s back porch, I slammed on my brakes, sending a shower of tiny pebbles into her flowers.” He uses figurative language to show us the scene. “In Mammaw’s big kitchen, sunlight poured through the windows like a waterfall and spilled over the countertops, pooling up on the checkerboard floor.”
Honey by David Ezra Stein
Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt by Kate Messner, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal
See what’s happening both above and below ground as a little girl and her grandmother work in the garden from the beginning of the spring planting season until autumn gives way to cold snow. It’s an over-sized book with marvelous illustrations and juicy descriptions. “Down in the dirt, water soaks deep. Roots drink it in, and a long-legged spider stilt-walks over the streams.” Beautiful!
Priya Dreams of Marigolds and Masala by Meenal Patel
The author/illustrator of this picture book creates an irresistible sensory experience of India with vivid descriptions. When Priya helps her Babi Ba cook rotli, her Babi Ba shares her memories of India… the smell of roasted cumin and masala, the sound of motorbikes whizzing by, the taste of a steaming cup of cha, the feel of the hot sun on your face, views of arches and domes of the buildings, rainbow of saris, and brightly colored marigolds. Later, Priya makes her Babi Ba paper orange marigolds for their doorway in the U.S. to remind her. I adore the writing, the illustrations, and the story that celebrates India’s culture as well as a close grandparent-grandchild relationship. “Babi Ba tells her India is the smell of roasted cumin and the masala at the spice market that tickles your nose.”
Charlotte’s Bones: The Beluga Whale in a Farmer’s Field by Erin Rounds, illustrated by Alison Carver
Erin Rounds’ writing feels like magic as she transports us back in time and back again, capturing the beautifully tragic life of one beluga whale who swam over what is now Vermont, U.S.A. “Her milky, smooth, muscled body sliced slowly through the water like scissors through silk.” I love this lovely mentor text showing how writers can make science come to life through a narrative, descriptive story.
Dangerously Ever After by Dashka Slater, illustrated by Valeria Decampo
Princess Amanita loves dangerous things — daggers, scorpions, and plants with spikes. When Prince Florian accidentally blows up her wheelbarrow, he apologizes with roses. Of course, Amanita only likes the thorns. It’s a great story about a not-your-ordinary princess who grows noses instead of roses and becomes best friends with Prince Florian. “It smelled like candy and lemons and cloves. It smelled like sleeping in the sun and staying up late for a party.”
Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal
Ode to an Onion Pablo Neruda & His Muse by Alexandria Giardino, illustrated by Felicita Sala
This picture book biography shares a snippet of Pablo Neruda’s life with an important life lesson. When Neruda is struggling with sadness while writing about the situation of poor minors, his friend Matilde shows him a truth about life using an onion as a metaphor. The truth is that sad and happy can coexist. “The onion’s papery skin crinkled in Palo’s hand… The scent burned Pablo’s eyes. Tears streamed down his checks… But then he noticed how the sunlight shone through the onion’s layers… “Aren’t onions beautiful? Matilde smiled. “Wait ’til you taste it.”
Things to Do by Elaine Magliaro, illustrated by Catia Chien
The Things That I Love About Trees by Chris Butterworth, illustrated by Charlotte Voake
What do I love about this oversized picture book? I love Charlotte Voake’s gorgeous illustrations, Chris Butterworth’s celebration of trees, the big text size of the descriptive things to love about trees, and the smaller text size for the factual information. Bigger narrative text: “Summer trees are shady and so full of leaves that when the wind blows, they swish like the sea.” And smaller factual text: “Leaves use the sunshine to make food that the tree needs so that it can grow.”
On Duck Pond by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Bob Marstall
Marwan’s Journey by Patricia de Arias, illustrated by Laura Borras
We can only imagine where this boy comes from… He walks away from his homeland with very few things carried on his back. The description with sensory text captures this little boy’s difficult journey… “Sometimes, in the cold right, I cry out to her in my dreams. / She comes with her black hair streaming, and tucks me in / with her flour-soft hands.” What imagery, right!? As the boy walks, he remembers his home. He remembers when they came. And all the walking. “One… / two… / three… / A line of humans like ants / crossing the desert.” The boy hopes that one day he will return home.
Goodbye Autumn, Hello Winter by Kenard Pak
“Hello” begins each page’s text. Hello, robins and cardinals who are ready to fly south and deer, whose fur is thickening up for winter. Say hello to the evergreens whose pine-needle branches “shiver in the wind while you sleep.” Slowly the illustrations shift from fall to snowy white winter and so does the text. Now you’ll say hello to frost and icicles. And goodbye to autumn. Use this picture book to teach how to write description to create a lovely, cozy ambiance.
Dreamland by Noah Klocek
Luminous illustrations, vivid verbs, and sensory imagery depict a little girl on a bedtime journey to find her dreams and restful sleep. I know that my own daughter can relate as she has struggled to fall asleep night after night. “She struggled past the moonlight that fell in her room . . . // and waded through the blankets that seemed lost in the sheets.” Marching, dancing, traveling, Amelie finally finds herself in her favorite dreams. Teachers, can you imagine this as a mentor text for vivid verbs and rich imagery?
Sleep Tight Farm: A Farm Prepares for Winter by Eugenie Doyle, illustrated by Becca Stadtlander
The evocative words in this picture book give readers a cozy feeling. The author’s repetition of “good night” as the farming family buttons up for winter feels like a lullaby. “Good night, fields, peaceful and still.” Watch as the family works together to cut wood, fix the chicken coop, store equipment, and do these things that get the farm ready for “down quilts of snow.”
Snow by Cynthia Rylant
Evocative imagery paints dancing pictures of snow in our minds…“The best snow is the snow that comes softly in the night, like a shy friend afraid to knock, so she thinks she’ll just wait in the yard until you see her. This is the snow that brings you peace.” Some snow falls in “fat, cheerful flakes” that sends you home early from someplace you don’t want to be like school or work. This picture book’s magical tribute to snow beautifully captures the enchantments of snowy weather.
Mentor Text CHAPTER BOOKS to Teach Vivid Description
The Twits by Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl is a master of language, particularly description. In the typical dark humor of Dahl, this book is about the Twits who are mean and awful people. The book’s descriptions stand out so that readers can vividly picture these characters… and learn from the writing craft.
What the Moon Saw by Laura Resau
Mexican-American Clara Luna doesn’t know anything about her father’s Mexican heritage until she spends the summer with her grandparents in rural Mexico. There, she discovers the beauty of her grandparents’ life and culture and grows into her own identity. This is one of my all-time favorite books and an excellent choice for teaching (modeling) how to write and describe using sensory images.
Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi
Magic and color are closely linked in her world. Sadly, Alice has no color in her skin or hair. And her Father has been missing for years making her life even sadder. In a surprising turn of events, Alice travels with a boy named Oliver to a different magical land to find and rescue her Father. But the rules in this land are wildly different. For example, the inhabitants eat people for their magic. Furthermore is a uniquely creative plot filled with artfully written description.
The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett
This is a heartbreaking but beautiful fable set in Nazi Germany about three Gypsy siblings who have witnessed the capture of their family and friends. While walking and searching for food, they find an abandoned zoo filled with talking animals. The story is rich in allegory, theme, metaphor, imagery . . . I’d consider it for middle and high school more than primary grades.
“Taking his vast and circular lantern, the moon, Night brushed aside a constellation of stars and came closer, curious to discover why no bell klonged, no creature paused, and no newborn baby, woken by midnight’s arrival, opened its pink mouth and wailed.“
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