Author and illustrator Jason Chin, has created another great example for students of what happens when, as an expert, you carefully select interesting and detailed information, organize it simply and effectively, and illustrate in a way that helps readers connect meaningfully to his big ideas.  Take a look…

Coral Reefs by Jason Chin

2011. New York, NY: Roaring Brook Press, 40 pages

Genre: Informational picture book

Ages: Upper elementary through high school

Features: End papers fully illustrated with drawings of the plant and animal residents of coral reefs, a piece by the author in support of reef conservation–”The Threat to Coral Reefs,” cross-section diagrams of key reef features, Author’s note, and for further investigation, a section on sources and resources.


In Coral Reefs, Jason Chin’s second book as both author and illustrator, the author brings to readers an informative, accessible introduction to the intricate world of coral reefs. This book follows the innovative form of the author’s first book, Redwoods (also highly recommended), something Kirkus Reviews called, “…a hybrid form of straightforward nonfiction text and fanciful pictures.” Following the story told through highly detailed color drawings, readers meet a young girl pulling a book entitled Coral Reefs, the very book we are talking about, from the shelf of an old, high-ceilinged city library. Just like you, the reader, she opens the book and begins, of course, reading. Her imagination, sparked by the detailed information she is reading, immediately begins her gradual immersion into the ocean world of a coral reef. As the reader, it’s a new experience—reading the text at the same time as the girl in the book. As “we” read along, walking through the library, learning about soft and hard corals, polyps, algae, coral skeletons, growth, decay, and reef building, readers see her imagination hard at work. Corals of all kinds suddenly appear on the bookshelves and library tables, ocean water is seen rising behind the windows, before bursting through in a flood of splashing waves and sea creatures. “We” are now happily submerged in the watery world of a coral city.


The author’s “hybrid form,” evident in both Coral Reefs and Redwoods, is created by the unique relationship between the text and the illustrations. The young girl in the library is never mentioned in the text—she is not part of the information about coral reefs, yet it is her reading experience that we see visualized in the illustrations. I think her role is to provide what Daniel Pink, in A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future (Riverhead Books, 2005) calls “context enriched by emotion.” Her visit to the library, and subsequent journey through the text and imaginary coral reef exploration, provides readers with a context that “…sharpens understanding of one thing by showing it in the context of something else.” (Pink, page 103) It is our emotional connection to the girl’s adventure that helps us process the new terminology and science of coral reefs we learn about in the text. As clear, detailed, and lively as the text is, without the story of the girl, without that visual and emotional context, the information may not stick in readers’ minds. And isn’t that what we want our student writers to do in their informational writing, provide readers with information they can understand and remember?


Bottom line? Jason Chin’s writing and illustrations work together beautifully in Coral Reefs. Readers not only learn a great deal about coral reefs, they also experience the power of reading to transport them to new worlds and the joy that comes with this kind of mind travel. Here are some ideas to put this book to work for you and your students.


In the Classroom

1. Background. Ask students what they may already know about coral reefs and ocean life. Have any/all of your students been to an ocean, played in the sand, or hopped waves on the beach? Have any of them been snorkeling in the ocean or around a coral reef? Have any of your students visited an ocean aquarium? Have you? What was the experience like? Your students may have extensive background knowledge about specific sea creatures –turtles, sharks, or eels. Use that as a starting point to talk about the plant and animal life of coral reefs.

2. Reading. As always, read the book before sharing it with your students. I see a couple different ways to share it. You could share only the pictures first, generating both a list of specific plants and animals they notice and questions they have. Follow this with a reading of both text and pictures looking and listening for answers to their questions. Another approach would be to reverse the order of reading just described—text first to generate questions, then both text and illustrations.  A document camera would be a great tool to use to zoom in on picture details and word details in individual sentences.

3. Detail. As you read, what do you and your students learn about coral reefs that you did not know before? List some of the details and vocabulary that are new to your students or that they find interesting or helpful. (As you know, the Common Core Standards for informational writing emphasize detail.) Look closely for details in the illustrations, as well. Look very closely at the titles of the books on the library shelves.  The author/illustrator took a lot of time and care to create a realistic collection of books. If they are not familiar with some of the classics included, highlight a few for them—Robinson Crusoe, The Odyssey, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Treasure Island, Moby Dick, Captain Blood, The Voyage of the Beagle, etc. (Some of your students may even want to find one or more of these books in your school or community library.)

4. Main idea. Another strategy to really emphasize the information the author is sharing is to isolate all or a portion of the text from the illustrations—look at just the words, as if it were a report. Did the author choose the right kind and right amount of information to help us understand his big ideas? Yes, it’s even better with the illustrations, but does the text stand alone?

What is the author’s main idea? (The CC Standards demand a clear main idea or thesis statement in informational writing.) Where and how does the writer let readers know about his main idea?

5. Organization. Again, you could isolate portions of the text to emphasize important elements of organization. You and your students could examine the introduction, conclusion, transitions/transitional language within or between paragraphs. How does author Chin begin? How does he end? How does he build bridges between big ideas? Be sure your students also experience all the extras this book offers once the “story” is complete—a piece from the author called “The Threat to Coral Reefs,” Cross-section drawings, More facts, Author’s note, and additional information sources. These are all examples of presentation features they could add to their own writing.

6. Word choice. As the “experts” on their topics, writers need to help readers become experts as well, without overwhelming them with too much specialized or technical vocabulary. Writers have to know their audience and purpose, and then choose their words carefully to guide readers through what could be a new topic for them. This book does not have a glossary, a helpful tool for readers to keep track of new words and terminology. So, how about creating one? Read through each sentence and paragraph carefully with your students (or have them work with a partner or small group), looking for words that are the keys to understanding the topic—polyp, algae, lagoon etc., words that may be new to them—rigid, decay, etc., or words that are nearly new to them—species, navigating, environment, etc.   Students could provide a simple definition, a sentence to place the word in context, and/or even a picture to help with reader understanding.

7. Writing. This book is a fantastic introduction to the topic but not the final word on coral reefs. Students could work individually, with a partner, or in small groups to write about coral reefs or one of the many creatures living in and around the reef. The writing could begin with and extend some of the information from the book, or could recount a personal experience with the ocean, beach, or a new idea connected to coral reefs. Student writers may need to do further research to become even more of a topic “expert.” The possibilities for writing are as wide and deep as the ocean—poetry, writing from the perspective of the girl in the book or a sea creature, a piece focusing more on a specific inhabitant of the reef, and so on. Before writing, help your students with the appropriate voice for their writing by thinking about their audience. Are they writing for classmates? Parents or other adults? Younger students?

8. Further research/Persuasive writing. As was suggested previously, students should see all the extras in the back, especially the author’s informative/persuasive piece, “The Threat to Coral Reefs.”  Students may want to learn more about how they can help conserve and save coral reefs even if they don’t live anywhere near one. Each of the author’s suggestions for being “part of the solution” to the threat to reefs could be a launching point for a persuasive piece of their own. These could take the form of traditional persuasive essays or could be more of a public service campaign with students creating ads, posters, slogans, speeches, etc. Don’t overlook the value of firsthand research, though. You may be lucky enough to live close enough for a field trip to an ocean, aquarium, museum, or research center, like the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon. (They even allow groups of students to have sleepovers in the aquarium—“Sleep With the Sharks.”  Wow!) Ask your students if they think Jason Chin has explored a coral reef first hand. How does this kind of up close and personal research affect his writing?


Note . . .

Be sure to check out all of Jason Chin’s books by visiting him at

(You can even pre-order his new book, Island: A Story of the Galapagos, due out in the fall of 2012.)

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Down the Rabbit Hole Part II: Building Memories and Making Connections, Book By Book—we’ll explore the idea of using books to create literary memories/histories/experiences for your students to tap into in their personal writing. Thank you for visiting. Come often–and bring friends. And please remember, for the BEST professional development related to six-trait writing, process, and writing workshop, contact us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.