We can model for our kids how good writers use all their five 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.
Mentor Text PICTURE BOOKS to Teach Vivid Description
Southwest Sunrise by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Wendell Minor
A little boy is sad to leave New York and move to New Mexico where he observes the beauty of the natural landscape in a multitude of sensory details that celebrate this desert landscape. “Hot red firewheel flowers! Their tips flame yellow-orange across the canyon.” I absolutely ADORE Grimes’ writing and recommend it for any classroom as a mentor text. You’ll be transported to the boy’s new home and be glad you got to experience it for a time.
Green on Green by Dianne White, illustrated by Felicita Sala
Strong on figurative language and sensory description about the colors and seasons make this not just a beautiful reading experience but a good mentor text for young writing. Sparse, lyrical language with evocative illustrations capture the colors of the seasons. “Brown the squirrel. Brown the mouse. Brown the trees around our house.” Absolutely lovely.
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.
A Gift for Amma: Market Day in India by Meera Sriram, illustrated by Mariona Cabassa
A little girl excitedly explores the market to find her Amma a gift. She notices the colors — orange saffron and marigolds, white jasmine and goats, pink lotus flowers and sweets…I love how many senses the author engages from sights to sounds and tastes and smells. “Tumeric yellow like sunshine dust, Plenty of powdery spice at home. A yellow rickshaw pedals by — Ding-a-ling! I scoot to the side.” Beautiful illustrations perfectly illuminate the celebration of the market’s colors and the girl’s excitement.
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
I’m in love with the wonderful words, similies, and descriptions Stein uses throughout this new picture book. The language pops with sweetness, just like the honey there bear so anxiously awaits. The world around bear “spicy, aromatic, sparkling with sunlight“, reminds him of honey but it is too soon, he must wait.”Clouds cracked and grumbled in a heavy sky.” Until finally, he hears a buzz — and that means honey! This is an exquisitely written and illustrated masterpiece.
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
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 to now again, capturing the beautifully tragic life of one beluga whale who swam and died 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.
Small in the City by Sydney Smith
With a strong sense of place, see a big city from a child’s point of view, a city that can be both scary and wonderful. “Taxis honk their horns. Sirens come and go in every direction. Construction sites pound and drill and yell and dig.” The child shares tips about the city places but who is he talking to? It’s not us… Can you make an inference who or what it is? “There is a dryer vent that breathes out hot steam that smells like summer. You could curl up below it and have a nap.” Evocative, emotional visuals with dark, black lines will make you feel so connected to this child — especially at the end. “But home is safe and quiet. Your food dish is full and your blanket is warm. If you want, you could just come back.“
My Tree and Me by Jo Witek, illustrated by Christine Roussey
You will ADORE this book!! The tree is the girl’s best friend and confidante. She plays with the tree every season. Each page you turn reveals a new layer of the colorful die-cut oval shapes. Filled with ideas for nature play, a genuine love for the natural world, and rich sensory images. “I am a sorcerer in the forest, mixing together my potion of earthworms, moldy chestnuts, and rotten leaves.“
My Friend Earth by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrated by Francesca Sanna
A personified Earth as a lovely, dark-skinned girl wakes up for spring. Captivating lush, layered illustrations and die-cut-out pages plus lyrical text intertwine to create a dazzling reading experience that celebrates the Earth’s seasons and her care for its creatures. “Under the white — the silent seed is cradled in the dark soil. Watching.”
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
This beautifully written gem celebrates Native American culture through the lens of the food Fry Bread. Repetitive text starts each two-page spread, “Fry bread is…” then descriptive, lyrical verse follows each statement, elaborating on the meaning. “Fry bread is sound / The skillet clangs on the stove / The fire blazes from below / Drop the dough in the skillet / The bubbles sizzle and pop.” This rich text paired with evocative illustrations culminates in a wonderful book that will show children Native American traditions of family, food, and love.
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 the 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 Pablo’s hand… The scent burned Pablo’s eyes. Tears streamed down his checks…” Beautiful, sensory description!
Things to Do by Elaine Magliaro, illustrated by Catia Chien
Beautifully illustrated and filled with words that sparkle into wonderful images, this is a lovely, lovely book I highly recommend! These are the things to do if you’re dawn, a honeybee, the sky, and more. “Things to do if you are RAIN / Polka dot sidewalks. Freckle windowpanes. Whoosh down gutter spouts. Gurgle into drains. Patter ’round the porch in slippers of gray. Tap dance on the roof. Then . . . go away.”
Under My Hijab by Hena Khan, illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel
A little girl shares her life with us starting with her grandma baking bread. We meet her mama working as a doctor and her auntie creating art in her studio. The significant women in this girl’s life wear hijabs and also, sometimes don’t. They inspire her with all that they do and who they are. It’s an important slice-of-life story featuring strong, inspiring Muslim women not to mention, an area of diversity that doesn’t have much representation in children’s literature. Ultimately, this is a strong choice to add to your bookshelves.
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
Beautiful, description captures the essence of a duck pond from a dog walker’s perspective. “The pond, now stilled, reflections grew, // Doubling creatures old and new.” The book ends with information about a pond habitat and the birds that live there. Yolen describes a lovely place to be.
Mornings with Monet by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary Granpre
Descriptive, sensory writing shows Money waking up early, getting in his boat, and traveling down the river. He waits for the light and then he paints. “A few rays breakthrough; wet leaves droop over winding water.” His efforts and process will show aspiring artists what goes into a master’s painting. Well-written and lovely. “More blue, less violet, some yellow. More reflections, less mist, some horizon. His brush moves back and forth, chasing sunlight.”
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 a descriptive, cozy ambiance.
Hair / Pelitos by Sandra Cisneros
I used this bilingual book often in the classroom to teach descriptive writing because it’s a sensory celebration of the different kinds of hair in her family.
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 descriptive 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.
Sweet Dreamers by Isabelle Simler
Each evocative poem captures an animal sleeping and dreaming, giving us imagery that transports us to those sleepy moments. “The hedgehog dreams safely in his shelter. Under a pile of leaves, his spiky coat, he’s rolled up, wrapped up for a long rest.” The illustrations have so much movement — neon, black, white, red, and green with lots of lines. It’s fascinating to see the humpback whale sleeping underwater “the humpback whale dreams vertically with plankton at every level.”
Seeking an Aurora by Elizbeth Pulboard, illustrated by Anne Bannock
This small moment story shows a little girl and her father in search of an Aurora one dark, still night. Lovely imagery and details describe the setting– “warm, bitterly light spilling from the kitchen window and our footprints in the silvery frost“.
CHAPTER BOOKS to Teach Writing 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.
Mr. Twit was one of these very hair-faced men. The whole of his face except for his forehead, his eyes and his nose, was covered with thick hair. The stuff even sprouted in revolting tufts out of his nostrils and ear-holes.“
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.
“I caught a whiff of a nice smell– soil, campfires, leather. It came from Abuelo. Then I noticed the smell that clung to Abuelita. She didn’t smell like perfume counters in department stores the way other grandmothers did. She smelled like chiles roasting, chocolate melting, almonds toasting. And like herbs–the teas that Dad gave me when I was sick.“
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.“
Whale of the Wild by Rosanne Parry, illustrated by Lindsay Moore
ENVIRONMENT / OCEAN / ADVENTURE
I love this beautifully written story about two orca siblings separated from their families, trying to find food and their seasonal home. Alternating perspectives between the older sister Vega and little earnest, trusting brother Deneb, their voices express a uniquely imagined orca’s perspective. journeying to get safety and food and find their family. I highly recommend this book for anyone who loves animals, the writing is wonderfully evocative.
The Brave by James Bird
Collin is a boy who counts every letter spoken to him and then says the number of letters out loud. He gets kicked out of yet another school and his father sends Collin to live with the Ojibwe mother he’s never met. Living with her is a totally different experience than his previous home — because with his mother, he’s welcomed and not judged. Collin befriends the neighbor girl who teaches him how to be brave. Which he needs. And so does she because she’s going to be a butterfly soon…(I’m intentionally not sharing this part of the plot because you need to discover it for yourself.) This book is one of the BEST middle-grade books of ALL time!
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