Middle-Grade Narrative Writing: Using Mentor Texts to Describe Setting (Snapshots)

May 6, 2019
Stephanie P. Hampton, Middle School English Teacher

I always start and end the year with narrative writing in some form. While I often focus on things like voice and ideas with this genre of writing, it really is all in the details when it comes to helping the reader see what you are talking about on the page. This ability to “see” or visualize the imagery is called making a snapshot. Snapshots were first introduced to me by the way of Barry Lane’s The Reviser’s Toolbox. I first got a hold of this text working closing with an elementary school teacher writing friend who explained to me, “You know what we do isn’t really all that different.” I have been changed ever since.

A snapshot is a moment in narrative writing when you stop to describe a person or place in detail. There are many different writing moves to do this technique; however, the gist is the same: stop to inform your reader what the imagery is in your writing so they can become part of the reading experience with you. When you are designing a lesson on snapshots, I first like to start with adjectives and describing things my students know a lot about. Then we can move on to the more abstract ideas of the imagination. The bridge between simply adjective description and more sophisticated writing resides in the use of mentor texts.  

In the post, I will outline a few different strategies for helping you to introduce snapshots to your students with a variety of middle-grade mentor texts. I use mentor texts in my classroom to teach grammar, provide book talks to my students, and in writing instruction. Students then mimic the style of published authors and use their writing as a guide to help set up their own writing.

Snapshot Strategy #1: Use the character’s voice to tell the reader about the setting.

This first strategy is more than adjectives because students get a chance to put themselves in another person’s point of view. I love doing this lesson when teaching about the first person, the second person, and the third person because students can begin to learn about situations through different perspectives. I move on to reliable and omniscient when students get a grasp on the different POVs.

I like to post all three of the following mentor texts before the lesson and ask, “What do you notice?” Then I let students explore the writing. They should point out the logistics and descriptions in each passage, but in turn, you can also lead them to look at how places can tell us about the actual people doing the describing in the text.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker

“The fox felt the car slow before the boy did, as he felt everything first. Through the pads of his paws, along his spine, in the sensitive whiskers at his wrists. By the vibrations, he learned also that the road had grown coarser. He stretched up from his boy’s lap and sniffed at the threads of scent leaking in through the window, which told him they were not traveling into woodlands. The sharp odors of pine—wood, bark, cones, and needles—slivered through the air like blades, but beneath that, the fox recognized softer clover and wild garlic and ferns, and also a hundred things he had never encountered before…” (1).

Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams

“Mama’s the first in, leading us into the living room. ‘Wow, it’s a lot of space, Emory,’ she says giddily. The floors are hardwood. I can slide on them if I want to, but I’m way too old for that, so I probably won’t. The room is long and wide, with a fireplace, not one of those fake ones that’s bricked over, but a real Ho-Ho-Ho-Here-Comes-Santa kind. The dining room as a high ceiling with a chandelier hanging in the center. A chandelier! A million diamonds dangle from it; I’m not bragging, but if we had company, we could sit under it drinking swanky tea, holding our pinkies in the air” (35–36).

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

“My domain is made of thick glass and rusty metal and rough cement. Stella’s domain is made of metal bars. The sun bears’ domain is wood; the parrots’ is wire mesh. Three of my walls are glass. One of them is cracked, and a small piece, about the size of my hand, is missing from its bottom corner. I made the hole with a baseball bat Mack gave me for my sixth birthday. After that he took the bat away, but he let me keep the baseball that came with it” (7).

Snapshot Strategy #2: Use sensory details.

This is the go-to strategy when it comes to teaching details in narrative writing. It is the most comfortable and effective with my middle-grade students because they can identify with feeling and sensing the world around them. We also all experience this in our day-to-day existence with commercials and advertisements. As humans, we naturally lean toward the sensory details to help us visualize or place ourselves in different situations.

I like to have students make a sensory chart with “touch,” “taste,” “sight,” “smell,” and “sound,” and then chart what they experience as you post the three mentor texts on the board. You might notice that things like taste and touch are often underrepresented in narrative writing, while sight, sound, and smell are the main senses authors use in their writing. Invite them to be different.

Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi

“Now that she’d stepped through the archway opening, the Night Bazaar truly unfolded around her. The half-torn sky of day and night glistened. And the smells. Aru wanted to roll around in them forever. It smelled like popcorn dripping with butter, cookie-dough ice cream, and fresh-spun cotton candy” (128).

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

“At the center of the forest was a small swamp—bubbly, sulfury, and noxious, fed and warmed by an underground, restlessly sleeping volcano and covered with a slick of slime whose color ranged from poison green to lightning blue to blood red, depending on the time of year. On this day—so close to the Day of Sacrifice in the Protectorate, or Star Child Day everywhere else—the green was just beginning to inch its way toward blue” (14).

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor

“The walls are made of stones. With old mortar between them. And some packed dirt. Maybe. Hard to say. I pick it with a fingernail. What I have left of that. Some of the stuff makes crumbs. Some holds tight. The ceiling is low. Made of wood. I take a step. Don’t you know. I bang my head. ‘Ow!’” (93)

Snapshot Strategy #3: Use figurative language.

The last strategy pairs nicely with any figurative language work you are already doing in class. I like to look at picture books here as well as middle-grade texts when I am talking about figurative language. The more examples students have regarding figurative language, the more it makes sense.

I like to start with similes and personification when I am introducing figurative language with snapshots in narrative writing. Students will then become familiar with identifying these in texts that you read together and independently of each other in class. I also find that when students first understand simile, they can easily grab on to the idea of metaphor, which can be a bit abstract.

Blended by Sharon Draper

“But most of all I love what Anastasia calls the music room. The walls are painted pale cream, the carpet is light blue, and sitting in the middle is a black Steinway baby grand piano. The keyboard is more than four feet long, while the rest of it stretches at least six feet. The lid is like a wing of a bird ready to fly, propped up to show the golden strings that create the sound. The piano, waxed and polished every week, gleams in the sunlight from the curved bay window. I swear that piano smiles at me” (51).

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor

“Before us the narrow, sun-splotched road wound like a lazy red serpent dividing the high forest bank of quiet, old trees on the left from the cotton field, forested by giant green and purple stalks, on the right. A barbed-wire fence ran the length of the deep field, stretching eastward for over a quarter of a mile until it met the sloping green pasture that signaled the end of our family’s four hundred acres” (6).

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

“The grass in the field prickled my bare foot. The dampness felt cool on it, and seeped through the bandage on my other foot too. The ground was soft; it moved when I stepped on it. Squishy, like new bread. Trees bordered the field, and their tops waved in the sun. Birds twittered. I knew about birds, we had them in the lane, but I’d never heard so many at once. There were flowers” (45).

Overall, the three snapshot strategies can help strengthen any narrative writing unit that calls for the teaching of how to add detail to our secondary writers. As they have learned how to add details from their elementary writing programs, the movement to see how published authors use snapshots in their writing raises the confidence and efficacy of the young, emerging writer. My recommendation is to build your library of mentor texts regarding the big strategies that you teach, and then watch your stack of examples grow with time!

Stephanie Hampton is a middle school English teacher and a teacher-blogger at Writing Mindset. She found a love of writing in the pages of poems as a kid and began to journal every day. As a Kalamazoo Promise graduate, she returned to teach in Kalamazoo Public Schools and has been there for the past nine years. You can often find Stephanie doodling in her journal, writing poems, and talking about the world of teaching.

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