When we teach children to use rich, wondrous words by filling them up with the sound of many wonderful words. We must read them children’s books by authors who use astounding word choices. We must encourage them to read high-quality mentor text picture books and chapter or middle grade books filled with precise, lyrical, sensory words.
Katie Wood Ray, the author of Wondrous Words, says, “I remember the first time I realized students were gazing up at me while I was reading to them. I was overcome for a moment at how significant their gaze was, at how much trust I saw in their upturned faces. At how awesome my responsibility was to fill that space between them and me with words, wondrous words that would not disappoint them, words that would not let them down, words they and I could stand on, walk across and meet one another in a place the ordinary words of our days forbid us to go. It was a journey of words we could make together through reading aloud.”
Mentor Texts to Teach Juicy Word Choice in Writing
The Diamond and the Boy: The Creation of Diamonds & the Life of H. Tracy Hall by Hannah Holt, illustrated by Jay Fleck
Brilliantly conceived and exceptionally written using a parallel storytelling. The structure shows the similarities between the rocks of the earth and a boy’s life using the descriptions of HEAT, PRESSURE, CHANGE, and WAITING. As we read, we learn about the graphite in the earth as well as the curious boy who finds solace in the library. We see the diamonds waiting to be discovered while the boy grows up to work in a lab where he patiently builds an invention — a machine that makes diamonds. You’ll love the beautiful wordsmithing in this mentor text.
How to Read a Book by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
A luminous, whimsical celebration of the reader’s life with lyrical text, evocative images, and captivating typography. “Squeeze every morsel of each plump line until the last drop of magic/drips from the infinite sky.” Sweet’s layered collages pop with neon color and vibrant images while Alexander’s prose creates rich mental images. This is a dazzling book you’ll want to savor again and again.
Maya and the Lost Cat by Caroline Magerl
Rich in figurative language and imagery, Maya rescues a cat but then searches for its owners. Finally, she finds where the cat belongs. As a thank you, the cat gives her a gift — a kitten. Gorgeous word choice and illustrations! “Then, sly and gentle, Cat carried something… a small and cloudy gray bundle…and gave her kitten to Maya.“
I Am the Wind by Michael Karg, illustrated by Sophie Diao
Lyrical text shows the wind whooshing over tundra musk ox, whistling through the highlands to a snow leopard, and whipping up a storm for a troop of chimpanzees. The wind travels the world’s terrain and visits the different animals who live there. “Bursting clumps of clouds over laughing gopher frogs, I stir the bayou bog–a puddle-slapping spree! I wake up the world. I AM THE WIND.“
Wintercake by Lynne Rae Perkins
Filled with rich, wonderful words, this is a sweet winter story that starts with a misunderstanding but shows the power of kindness and starting new traditions. Thomas loses his fruit basket and assumes someone stole it. But then a stranger returns the basket he found. Thomas and his friend Lucy chase after the stranger to include him in their Winter’s Eve plans.
Stegothesaurus by Bridget Heos, illustrated by T.L. McBeth
This stegothesaurus was different from his stegosaurus brothers– he knows a lot of words and uses them to describe the world. When he meets an allosaurus who was actually an allothesaurus, at first it seems like they are meant to be friends. Until the Allothesaurus reveals how she learned so many words. YIKES! I’m so impressed with this clever story about a word-loving dino that has the cutest illustrations EVER!
The Word Collector by Peter H. Reynolds
Get inspired by this book about a boy named Jerome who loves words so much that he collects them! As he collects, Jerome notices the beauty of pairing words unexpectedly. Then, he realizes that he must share the words with the whole world. Use this beautiful book to inspire your own word collections.
The Keeper of Wild Words by Brooke Smith, illustrated by Madeline Kloepper
Brook’s friend, Mimi, is a writer who asks Brook to help her keep the words from disappearing. The two wander into the world where the wild words are waiting, ready to see and notice everything around them. As they walk through nature, they notice silver minnows swimming, bushels of sweet, fresh, tangy mint, and a green-velvet head, bright-yellow beak Drake lifting off. Special words are featured in colorful, bigger-sized type, so kids notice the many rich nature words in the story.
Unstoppable by Adam Rex, illustrated by Laura Park
The animals join forces to be better at everything. First, the crab and the crow work together so they can be a flying clawing creature. They call themselves a crabbird or a birdrab. They add on a turtle and a bear and now are an UNSTOPPABLE Birdraburtlebear! Suddenly, they notice construction workers digging up their forest for a shopping mall. How can they combine with other creatures to stop them? Their solution is both HILARIOUS and MEANINGFUL, involving both the President and Congress.
The Perfect Pillow by Eric Pinder, illustrated by Chris Sheban
Pocketful of Poems by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Javaka Steptoe
I love how Nikki Grimes writes poetry that collectively makes a narrative story. This book of poems tells the story of a girl named Tiana who loves words. Her style is conversational, relatable, and made even more interesting with textured collage illustrations. “Pigeons masquerade as wildlife. They can’t fool me. We’re all city folk.” This book makes an inspirational, amazing mentor text.
Just Like Brothers by Elizabeth Baguley, illustrated by Aurelie Blanz
Lush illustrations and lyrical text tell the redemptive story of a young boy whose mother warns him of the wild wolves in the forest while simultaneously, a wolf cub’s mother warns him of the rough humans. Neither boy nor cub pay too much attention. They’re too busy chasing rabbits. When they get lost and meet, they’ll discover that their preconceived ideas were wrong. “And soon they’re chasing rabbits, / playing hide-find and tumble-ball, / all wide-smile and wag-tail.” The story ends with the mothers coming together in trust. You will love this BEAUTIFUL message of acceptance and understanding!!! (Also, the fabulous word combinations make this an excellent mentor text for writing workshop.)
The Almost Fearless Hamilton SquidLegger by Timothy Basil Ering
Use this mentor text picture book to talk about rich vocabulary and made-up words. Hamilton Squidlegger is fearless in all things except bedtime. It will take some bravery and new monster friends and soon Hamilton will become totally fearless. Teachers, have your kids try to define the imaginary words using the context clues.
Honey by David Ezra Stein
Things to Do by Elaine Magliaro, illustrated by Catia Chien
Poor Doreen A Fishy Tale by Sally Lloyd-Jones & Alexandra Boiger
You’ll groan in agony watching clueless Doreen mistake danger for fun and adventure. First, it’s the hook that’s not really a delicious dragonfly, then it’s the yanking fishing pole that makes her think she can fly. Her so-called adventures continue all the way to her second cousin twice removed’s home. What an incredibly funny fishy tale!
Boom! Bellow! Bleat! Animal Poems for Two or More Voices by Georgia Heard, illustrated by Aaron DeWitt
Show kids the beauty of words, oral reading, and imagery, as well as the playfulness in poetry with poems that are meant to be read by two people. The book is filled with the noise of fish, geese, frogs, mockingbirds, snakes, bees, and other animals. I particularly adore the many sounds of elephants. So will you. Listen, “Snort, ruuuuummmble, roar, cry, bark,…”
The Dictionary of Difficult Words by Jane Solomon, illustrated by Louise Lockhart
This oversized dictionary contains the coolest selection of 400 words starting with abecedarian (someone who is learning the alphabet) and continuing through to Zeppelin. Each letter gives readers about 15 new vocabulary words to learn plus the pronunciation, part of speech, and definition. You’ll find haberdashery, ichthyologist, luddite and mugwump, mulligrubs, mumpsimus, and mishpocha. Learning new words will be a salubrious experience because you’ll soon become a sesquipedalian.
Chapter Books and Middle Grade Books with Great Word Choice
Big Words Small Stories: The Missing Donut by Judith Henderson, illustrated by T L McBeth
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 a beautiful, important book, one that I’ve read several times and highly recommend.
In a Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz
We love the message of this book, the fairy tale mash-up, the humor, . . . everything! Both Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales combine into a harrowing, hilarious adventure about Frog, Jack, and Jill on an adventure to seek a magic mirror.
Willa of the Wood by Robert Beatty
Warren the 13th and The All-Seeing Eye: A Novel by Tania Del Rio, illustrated by Will Staehle
Set in Victorian London, this is a beautiful, bittersweet story about a plucky girl and her protector golem which in the telling, illuminates the horrifying lives of chimney sweep kids as well as the world’s anti-semitism. Young Nan’s Sweep father-figure is gone so she works for a cruel chimney sweep who uses children to make himself richer. When another sweep tries to burn Nan alive, a charcoal golem, formerly a piece of charcoal left to her by Sweep, emerges to save her. She and her growing protector golem, Char, find a new place to live but must stay vigilant so her old master doesn’t find them. On their own, they are helped by a street boy and a kind Jewish teacher. It’s an irresistible story that will expand your heart…and your definition of what makes a monster.