Tag Archive: argument writing

Insects, a review by Vicki Spandel

Insects: The Most Fun Bug Book Ever by Sneed B. Collard III. 2017. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

Genre: Nonfiction science picture book

Levels: Grades 4 through 8, though adults will enjoy it too!

Features: Striking close-up photos, most by the author himself; expansive glossary; numerous sidebars that offer more detailed information for readers who want it; index.



“I dread the next one,” a friend told me—referring to her book club’s latest selection.

“Why?” I asked. Tiny print? Graphic violence? Saccharine romance?

“It’s nonfiction,” she groaned, making the universal face for FEEL MY PAIN. “Everyone knows nonfiction is sooooooo boooooring.”

I’d need a lot more o’s to capture her true inflection, but you get the idea. First off, let me say that if you find nonfiction boring, you’re reading the wrong books. And second, I have a cure: Sneed B. Collard III. I’m not sure Sneed is capable of writing a boring book (though perhaps he’s never tried). For one thing, he always knows his stuff, and knowing your topic is one secret to writing irresistible nonfiction. He’s got another nonfiction trick up his sleeve, though.

In a recent interview, Sneed had this to say: “My most important tool for writing nonfiction is an insatiable curiosity. Almost nothing pops up on PBS that doesn’t grab my attention: history, science, medical research, travel, baking shows—they all interest me.” (School Library Journal, September 20, 2016).

Curiosity is essential to good writing. We don’t always think about that when we teach writing, but we should—because curious writers seek answers to provocative questions like these:

  • How many insect species inhabit Earth?
  • What’s the most common insect on the planet?
  • Are there insect species yet to be discovered?
  • True or false: Insects dominate the world—and will likely be around after humans are gone.
  • Quick: Name three things no self-respecting cockroach will eat.
  • How do creatures so small defend themselves?
  • Can insects be bioluminescent?
  • Why is it so hard to swat a fly?

I confess I couldn’t answer any of these questions (well, maybe the one on cockroaches) before reading Sneed’s book. But I can ace this quiz now. Given that Insects (sans glossary and other back matter) runs only 45 pages, it contains a staggering amount of information—and like all good nonfiction, this book makes learning fun.

For one thing, it’s brilliantly illustrated with photos Collard took himself (with just a few exceptions). Most are close-ups that give us an insect’s-eye view of the ants, beetles, butterflies, caterpillars, bees, cockroaches, katydids, and other six-legged friends that surround us.

In addition, it has voice. The tone throughout the book is light, humorous, and engaging: “The abdomen, or hind part, of an insect is mostly used to store luggage. Or, more accurately, important insect anatomy” (13). That’s a favorite trick of Collard’s—tossing out a line just to see if we’re paying attention. Of course we are. Clearly, Sneed loves his topic, and wants us to enjoy it as much as he does. Readers need to be curious, too—and I am. Sneed feeds our curiosity with a continual banquet of intriguing details. I was truly fascinated to learn that the reason we have so much trouble swatting flies is not (as I’d assumed) that they’re outwitting us. They actually don’t see as clearly as we do, but they can detect motion far faster, making it frustratingly hard to sneak up on them.

What I love most about this book is how Collard challenges us to drag our mesmerized selves away from those electronic screens and do some firsthand research on insects, right in our own back yards. Or basements. Or any forest, meadow, lakefront, city park, or urban oasis. Unlike elephants and tigers, insects live pretty much everywhere on Earth. You don’t need to go on safari to find them. But you do need to be open to opportunities. As Sneed admits on his book jacket bio, “he’s never resisted the urge to sit down and watch a large colony of army ants march across his path.”

Why should we care about insects, though? Aren’t they just pests? Actually, insects rule. And not just in the slang sense. They outnumber us by an estimated 200 million to one. Think about that. What’s more, though we might detest the way they ruin picnics, devour sweaters and bedding, or spread disease, they also do many good things. Some pollinate plants we depend on for survival. Others eat disgusting matter we’d never touch if we didn’t have to—and what the heck would we do if they didn’t? And—“Here’s a humbling fact: without insects, most of Earth’s animals would starve” (28). We eat them ourselves. And before you get too snooty about food preferences, keep in mind that grasshoppers are low in fat and high in protein. Can you say the same for your lunch?

One more thing: You don’t have to be an insect enthusiast to devour this book. Sneed’s humor and enthusiasm make his topic captivating even for those of us who can barely think about insects without reaching for the repellant. When you look out the window, can you see grass? Trees? Earth? Flowers? Those aren’t just there for your enjoyment, my human friend. They’re all insect habitats. They’re alive. So ditch your phobia, open your mind, and come on an adventure into a world little appreciated.









In the Classroom

Sharing the book. Though Insects: The Most Fun Bug Book Ever might be too long to share aloud in one reading, it’s conveniently divided into thirteen chapters that run about two to four short pages apiece. You can easily share one or two in a lesson, and you’ll definitely want a document projector so students can take in the alluring, informative illustrations. The book is also an excellent candidate for small group study—or as a beginning point for individual research on insects. (And by the way, nonfiction picture books make outstanding book club choices! Start a trend.)

Background. What do your students know about insects now? How much do you know? Before sharing the book, consider making two class lists: (1) Things we know for sure, and (2) Questions we have about insects. Check the “for sure” list against any new, expanded or contradictory findings you run across as you read the book. Also see how many of your questions are answered. Research answers to any questions that remain.

Insectophobia. As part of your background discussion, you’ll also want to discuss the 500-pound cockroach in the room, namely entomophobia or insectophobia. That is, extreme fear of insects. Many of us aren’t ready to embrace insects just yet, but genuine insectophobia goes much deeper. Fear or revulsion triggered by insects can be so strong that it actually keeps those who suffer indoors most of the time. Unfortunately for them, most insects view doors and screens as mere suggestions—and no doubt a horror movie is lurking there somewhere. Have your students known anyone who suffered from this condition? Though we may be tempted to joke about it, insectophobia is no laughing matter. It can be debilitating. By the way, some people are repulsed only by certain types of insects, and there are names for these conditions too. Apiphobia is fear of bees, myrmecophobia fear of ants, and lepidopterophobia fear of butterflies.

Feel like a snack? Here’s another related topic you may wish to discuss: insects as food. Have any of your students seen the old western film “Lonesome Dove”? If so, they might recall a scene where the character Woodrow Call enthusiastically chows down on what he thinks is candy—then violently spits it out when he learns it’s a grasshopper. Though you might sympathize, not everyone shares that reaction. As of 2016, there were just over 7.5 billion people on planet Earth, and an estimated 2 billion of them—more than one in four—eat insects routinely. Do your students find this surprising? Have any of them ever eaten an insect, or do they know anyone who has? On page 29, author Sneed Collard offers some commentary on the nutritional value of an insect-based diet versus the typical American diet many of us eat. You might share this sidebar as part of your background discussion to help students consider how much our culture influences what we eat—or consider repulsive.

Argument. Could Americans realize some advantages by including insects in our diet? Should we do this? Have students consider the advantages and disadvantages, then craft an argument for or against an insect-inclusive diet. Here are some factors to consider: nutritional value of insects, potential resistance by consumers, availability, sourcing costs, and consequences to humans, insects, and creatures that consume insects.

Nonfiction voice. As you’ll notice, particularly if you share the book aloud, Insects isn’t written in an encyclopedic voice. Anything but. As you go along, ask students for words that describe the author’s voice. Here’s a sample passage to illustrate what I mean:

With its antennae, an insect can detect movement, temperature, smell, sound, humidity, chemicals, and even which way its body is positioned. Antennae cannot pick up satellite TV or Wi-Fi, but still, don’t you wish you had a pair? (12)

To further appreciate the voice in this passage, look up “antenna” in any encyclopedia—or in Wikipedia. Read a few lines and contrast the voice you hear with Sneed Collard’s voice. What differences do you notice? How do those differences affect readers? As you read Insects, identify other passages where you and your students think the voice is particularly strong.

Discussion questions: Ask students to consider my friend who dreaded reading her book club’s nonfiction selection. Where does that sort of nonfiction phobia come from anyway? Have your students read nonfiction they would consider fairly voice-free? If so, when?

 Written response. No writers I know—including students—want to write something readers “dread” to pick up. But perhaps as educators, we unintentionally push them in that very direction. Do we encourage voice-free writing in reports or other nonfiction pieces students produce for school? Ask yourself what things we do to suppress voice, and discuss this with students. How could we encourage voice in nonfiction—or any writing? Ask students to draft a response to this, and have volunteers read their responses aloud.

 Illustrations from the insects’ perspective. In addition to being a published author, Sneed Collard is an experienced professional photographer, and he puts his talents to good use with this book. Discuss what the illustrations add. To understand their contribution fully, have your students imagine the book without any illustrations at all. What would be lost? Do pictures—particularly photos—contribute something words alone cannot provide?


Suppose the photos in Sneed’s book were entered in a “Most Striking Photo” contest. Which one do your students think would win? Why?

 The core message. The purpose of Sneed’s book is clearly to teach us more about insects than the average person might know. But in addition to that purpose, is there a central message here? A belief or idea about insects that the author would like to consider as we close the cover? Once you finish reading Insects, ask students to discuss the core message with partners or in small groups, then share their conclusions with the class. List their responses and take a vote. Which response or responses come closest to capturing the book’s primary message? How did they reach that conclusion?

 Information by design. In analyzing any book we tend to think first of content. That’s only natural. But the way information is presented has tremendous impact on how easy it is to absorb. After reading Insects, page back through the book, using a document projector, and ask students to notice the layout—that is, how pages are designed. Have them look at the design as they might look at someone’s living room. Is the overall appearance inviting, luring you right in—or does it nudge you to find a more comfortable spot? Here are a few specifics you might prompt students to notice as they review the book’s design:

  • A good balance between text and illustrations, so we are not overwhelmed by either
  • Detailed captions for most photos
  • Plenty of white space (empty or open space), making the text easy to read
  • Engaging titles for each chapter, offering clues about content
  • Subheads within chapters to visually organize information
  • Sidebars—those green boxes that contain “behind the scenes” info for readers wanting more

Could your students use one or more of these elements in their own writing? Encourage them to think creatively about format in the next piece of nonfiction writing they produce for your class.

Discussion question: Should we stress presentation more in work done for school? Why?

Authentic language. One characteristic that distinguishes Sneed Collard’s books (not just this one, but all his nonfiction) is his ability to use scientific language with accuracy and ease. He is so skilled at making meaning clear from context that we’re scarcely aware of how much terminology we are internalizing. To help students gain an appreciation for this, try this lesson.

Let’s say you plan to share the first two chapters aloud. Before reading or discussing them with students, scan those pages for specialized vocabulary you feel readers should know to fully understand the message. Here are some words I might select from those early chapters (for younger students, this list might be shorter):

  • exoskeleton
  • chitin
  • antenna
  • thorax
  • abdomen
  • ommatidia
  • mandible
  • maxilla
  • labium
  • circulatory system
  • digestive system
  • respiratory system

Are you surprised by the number of terms listed here? Actually, I was. Though the book doesn’t feel “technical,” it’s richly strewn with terms students need to speak or write about insects confidently.

Once you’ve assembled your own list (which does not need to match mine), run through it with your class, asking students to briefly define each term. It’s OK to guess. If there’s a word they simply don’t know, such as ommatidia, leave that one blank for now. Then, as you read the chapter aloud, have students listen for any words they couldn’t define, or didn’t get quite right, and add or revise definitions based on what they learn from reading. As a final step, match students’ definitions with those in the author’s glossary on pages 46 and 47.

What’s your favorite genre? Many educators believe that nonfiction is supplanting fiction as the genre of choice among young people. Do you agree? What do your students think? Ask them to write a short argument defending their genre of choice. They should offer specific reasons and cite particular publications to defend their position.

Remind them that both fiction and nonfiction are big categories. They may want to narrow things down a bit. Nonfiction, for instance, includes not only science books but biographies and autobiographies, memoirs, history books, news articles, and other forms. Fiction can include adventure stories, fantasy, mysteries, and more. Once students finish writing, have volunteers read their arguments aloud as a prelude to a class discussion on genre and how tastes are evolving.

Note: For an interesting comparison-contrast extension, have students interview members of an older generation to see what their favorite genres and books might be. Have writers use results to create a generational contrast piece.

Curiosity—the key to topic selection. Author Sneed Collard identifies curiosity as one of his secrets to success as a nonfiction writer. As noted in the quotation from my Overview, Sneed takes an interest in virtually every kind of topic, from travel to cooking. What are your students curious about? Make a list. Oh, but wait: You first.

As your students look on, list three to five things that fascinate you, perhaps mentioning your reasons as you go. Here are just a few things I could be blissfully happy researching:

  • Discovery of new, Earth-like planets
  • Discovery of new octopus species—right in the San Francisco Bay!
  • The intelligence of crows
  • Why some whales actually seek human contact
  • New findings on benefits—and downsides—of homework
  • How worksheet overload is affecting preschoolers’ reading skills

Ask students to work with partners or in small groups of three or four to brainstorm lists of their own. Combine two or more suggestions from each group to form a class list—which students can then copy into their personal writing journals. Next time students need a good informational topic, this list will give them a source to check. Of course, students do not need to write about any of these topics—ever. But hearing one writer’s suggestions nearly always super-charges the imagination of another. That leads to good topic choice—which in turn leads to better writing.

Beetles or humans? Who will stick around? On page 7, the author tells us that since we have yet to identify all the insects on planet Earth, the actual number of species could be as high as thirty million. Talk about striking details! Here’s another surprise: At least 250,000 of those species are beetles. Why in the world would this be? Well, some scientists believe beetles have extraordinary “extinction resistance.” In other words, they can survive dramatic shifts in the environment. What about humans, though? Aren’t we pretty adaptable ourselves? Let’s talk about that . . .

Set up a debate: humans vs beetles—which species is more resistant to extinction? Form two teams to research this question, and let students choose which side to support. Just make sure you have at least a few debaters on each side! You may want to form debate teams of three or four to conduct research and plan a presentation.

Once you’ve given students time to assemble facts and form arguments, you can proceed in a couple of ways. Have one team from each side engage in an actual debate. Or give every team 5 to 6 minutes to present their argument. The rest of the class can score each presentation on a ten-point scale, based on two criteria: (1) How convincing is the team’s evidence? and (2) How compelling is the team’s argument?

 Personal research—and informational writing. Sneed Collard urges us to get outdoors (where most of the insects are) and do some research of our own. Reread the chapter titled “Learning More—The Final Molt,” page 44, and ask students to follow Sneed’s advice. Have them create an originally researched piece of writing on one insect that includes at least two components: text and an illustration. The illustration can be a photo, painting, sketch, or anything produced by the student him- or herself. The text might cover the habitat, behaviors, predators, or eating preferences of the chosen subject. (This needn’t be an “all about” paper; they can focus on one aspect of the insect’s life.) Have them document their personal observation with a record of time and place.

When you finish, create a class book of your results. Then talk about what students learned about the value of personal, hands-on research.

Note: For additional information on insects, look up the Amateur Entomologists’ Society: https://www.amentsoc.org/insects/what-bug-is-this/insects.html


About the Author . . .

Sneed B. Collard III is the author of more than 75 books for young people. His nonfiction titles include Pocket Babies and Other Amazing Marsupials, Teeth, Wings, Reign of the Sea Dragons, The Prairie Builders, The World Famous Miles City Bucking Horse Sale, and more recently, Hopping Ahead of Climate Change and Fire Birds—Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests (reviewed here on Gurus). Just last year, he released his memoir, Snakes, Alligators and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s Son (also reviewed on Gurus).fire-birds-cover

Sneed’s books have won numerous awards, including the AAAS/Subaru Science Books & Films Prize for Excellence in Science Books and the Green Earth Book Award. In 2006, Sneed received the prestigious Washington Post-Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award for his body of work.

In addition to his nonfiction titles, Sneed has written seven widely acclaimed novels, among them Flash Point, The Governor’s Dog Is Missing, and Dog 4491.

To learn more about Sneed, or to arrange a school or conference visit, please visit him at his website, www.sneedbcollardiii.com


Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Good news! Sneed and I just learned that our new book Teaching Nonfiction Revision: A Professional Writer Shares Strategies, Tips, and Lessons will be released by Heinemann on August 31. We think you’ll love it. Is it written with voice? Are you kidding? We chose our own topic! Is it driven by curiosity? And how! Will it help your students write better, stronger, more enticing nonfiction? You can bet your book club on it. Stand by for more information.

And in case you’re in a book club, and terrified that members would sooner drop out than read your next selection, check out my . . .


Personal Book Recommendation for Adult Readers

On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor. 2016. New York: Simon & Schuster.

“It is impossible to fully appreciate the value of a trail until you have been forced to walk through the wilderness without one.” So begins a book like no other. It’s a history of trails that begins with the earliest forms of ocean life (ancient Ediacarans that are said to have gone extinct about 541 million years ago), and winds up in modern times along the dramatically expanding Appalachian Trail with a crusty old thru-hiker, Eberhart, who has given up every convenience imaginable save shoes to live unencumbered. In between, we follow trails of all kinds, including lost Cherokee footpaths, the trails of the savannah-making elephants, early roadways, deer tracks, pheromone-inspired ant trails, traces of food-seeking caterpillars—even explorations of the Internet. This book, an intoxicating mix of history, philosophy, science, and travel advice, offers many tips for navigating trails successfully, but most important, examines the nature of the trail itself.

How did trails begin anyway? With movement. Those primordial Ediacarans—inelegantly described by some scientists as “looking like a bag of mud”—inexplicably moved one day. We can’t say they decided to move because they were literally brainless. Decisions were beyond their reach. Moor describes the first traveling Ediacaran this way: “It shivered, swelled, reached forth, scrunched up, and in doing so, at an imperceptibly slow pace, began to move across the sea floor, leaving a trail behind it” (36). He could almost be describing a contemporary couch potato. And as this quotation shows, this incredibly intelligent book, filled with singular observations, is just plain fun to read. If you like your reading simultaneously, um, down to earth and deep, this is your book. Here’s what I mean . . .

“To put it as simply as possible,” Moor says, “a path is a way of making sense of the world” (14). So—life can be seen as an effort to create and then improve upon pathways. Ever hear or use the expression “cow path”? Maybe you think of it as some miles-from-civilization trail to nowhere, but in truth, cow paths can be indicators of a savvy instinct that any species needs to survive. Like many animals apparently, cows have a knack for finding the most efficient way to traverse any piece of ground. We’re often wise to follow their lead, and guess what. We do. Then we “improve” the old cow path by widening and paving it. But traces remain if you know how and where to look, whether you’re trailing buffalo, elephants, cows, sheep, snakes, or even ancestral sea creatures.

On Trails is a book so expansive in detail, and so rich in thought I cannot possibly sum it up in a few paragraphs. I urge you to get your own copy (hardcover because this is a book you’ll want to keep) and settle in for some enjoyable reading and reflection. You’ll learn more things than you can list, but here are just two that stuck with me.

First, it’s not so much the trailblazers that make the difference. It’s the followers. If you lean more toward follower than trailblazer yourself, take heart. Followers have more power than they realize. After all, they’re the ones left to make sense of all that information trailblazers leave behind, and then improve upon it. Think of them as the editors of the trail making world.

And second, trails teach us about ourselves even when we’re doing nothing more sophisticated than “staring at mud,” and perhaps this is why the allure of being on the trail is so irresistible. “Walking creates trails,” says Moor. “Trails, in turn, shape landscapes. And, over time, landscapes come to serve as archives of communal knowledge and symbolic meaning” (199). Writers who help us perceive connections we might not recognize on our own are rare treasures. Moor is such a writer.


woodward-vickijeff3249aThank you for stopping by. We feature writers who deserve recognition, so come often, and tell friends about our posts. Keep sending me books to review: Six Trait Gurus, POB 8000 PMB 8284, Sisters OR 97759. My thanks to the wonderful writers who have done so already. Until next time, please remember . . . Give every child a voice.


Zebra Forest 2


Zebra Forest. 2013. Adina Rishe Gewirtz. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. 200 pp.

Genre: Young adult novel

Ages: Grades 5 and up (The book features realistic characters and mature themes that will also appeal to older readers, including adults)



As Zebra Forest opens, eleven-year-old Annie Snow has just completed an essay on her three wishes for summer: going to the movies, swimming, visiting friends at camp. Only trouble is, she doesn’t care one whit about any of these things; they’re three invented wishes made up to pacify the teacher. Annie’s real wishes (which she shares with no one) are to grow tall, have an adventure, and meet her father. Unfortunately, none of these genuine wishes seems destined to come true—especially the third, since she and her nine-year-old brother Rew have grown up believing that their father is dead. But is he? Ready or not, we’re about to find out.

Out of nowhere, a menacing stranger claiming to be Andrew Snow appears at the family’s door, throwing their everyday life into turmoil. This disheveled man, so different from the heroic, swashbuckling figure the children had fantasized about for years (when they believed their real father dead), is not only very much alive but has just escaped from the nearby prison. Rew, angry and resentful, refuses to believe that this scruffy, ill-mannered character could possibly be his father, and wants him out of their house and their lives. But Annie isn’t so sure, and wants to learn everything she can about Andrew Snow’s past—and hers. Gran, presumably, could explain what’s going on here. But she retreats into her own private world, leaving the children to cope with a highly dangerous and adult situation as best they can.

Advancing with freight train force, Gewirtz’s deftly constructed story uncovers family secrets one by one, showing the wounds inflicted both by truth—and by concealment, however well-intended. The characters are real and stark, the plot compelling and believable. Zebra Forest reads (and feels) much like a stage play. It has the same intensity, occurring within a confined space from which there is no escape—for the characters or for us. Wisely, Gewirtz refuses to retreat behind easy answers, giving us a memorable and compelling book about a dysfunctional family desperately struggling to get a toehold on normalcy.


In the Classroom

1. Reading. Zebra Forest is an excellent candidate for reading aloud or for discussion in a small book group. It’s a fast read, so you can preview it within a couple of hours. The 200-page book is broken into 39 chapters, so read-alouds with your students can run anywhere from 10 minutes on up. As noted in the Summary, the novel reads like a play, and like any good play (or poem), it packs a lot of meaning into a few words. It’s also a novel that sparks controversy both because of its subject matter and because not all readers are likely to respond the same way to the characters—or their actions. Allow plenty of time for discussion and/or writing as you share the book with students.

2. Background. Zebra Forest deals with some difficult (some would say dark) issues, such as imprisonment, anger, manslaughter, abandonment, marital discord, and family secrets. Occasionally, critics will argue that such topics are not appropriate (or desirable) for young readers, and that books for students in upper elementary or middle school should be lighter in theme or tone. After reading several chapters, you may wish to discuss this openly with your students. Do they agree with these more cautious critics? Or do they feel that it is important for young adult literature to deal openly with such topics? Writing option: Should students of a certain age have the right to choose their own literature, or should they be guided by adults’ choices?

3. Central theme. Does Zebra Forest have a central theme or message?  If so, how would you express that theme? Does it have to do with deception, love, or both?

4. Argument writing. One of the books recurring themes of this book has to do with lying: the kinds of lies we tell, and the consequences of lying. You might begin a discussion on this topic by identifying some of the lies that are told in the story—or have been told even before the story begins. Who lies to whom? Which lies are most significant—or most damaging? Are any of them incidental, or even necessary? Consider two examples: Gran lies to Annie and Rew about the fact that their father is still alive—and in prison. Annie lies to her social worker about Gran’s mental and physical health so that she and Rew won’t be sent to a foster home. Are these lies different—or is a lie a lie no matter what? Using examples from the book (and/or from personal experience), have students craft an argument defending or contradicting this statement: Lying is sometimes justified.

5. Structure and setting. Think about where the story takes place. Even though it’s called Zebra Forest, do we spend time in the forest—or mostly see it out the window? Why would this be? If students were to produce this story in another medium, would they see it as a stage play—or a film? Writing option: Talk or write about why a producer might choose one over the other (play versus film). Also, who might students cast in the roles of Rew, Annie, and Andrew Snow? (Note:  Zebra Forest has a very defined setting: Gran’s house. The primary characters rarely leave this confined space. Also, the story depends more on dialogue than on action. These are characteristics of stage drama more than of cinema, which tends to depend more heavily on action, expansive sets, and numerous characters.)

6. Voice: Who’s telling the story? In any narrative, the author must decide who will tell the story—and that person’s voice and perspective tend to dominate, so the choice is important. Why did author Adina Rishe Gewirtz choose to tell this particular story in Annie’s voice—versus, say, Rew’s, Gran’s, or Andrew Snow’s? What sort of voice is it? (Consider rereading the first few paragraphs of Chapter 1 to recapture first impressions of Annie’s voice.) How might the story have been different if told by Gran, Rew, or Andrew Snow? Writing option: Have students choose one major event from the story (e.g., when Andrew Snow first appears or when Rew discovers Annie did not mail the letter requesting help) and write it in another character’s voice. What do students learn about plot and character development from this writing?

7. Voice: Overall tone. This book has been described by various critics and readers as a mystery or thriller. Would your students agree? Brainstorm some words that describe (as your students hear it) the overall tone of the book (moody, threatening, comical, mysterious, uplifting, etc.). Can you identify one or more passages to illustrate your description? Question: As readers, how does the author want us to feel when reading this book? Terrified? Curious? Hopeful? Entertained? Anxious? Or—something else? Explain your feelings.

8. Character. The Common Core Standards for narrative writing indicate that characters often change throughout a narrative, and it is this change that helps us define who they are. Talk about the primary characters within this narrative: Rew, Annie, Gran, and Andrew Snow. Do any of them change? Do all of them? Which of the four changes the most, and why? Writing option: Ask students to write a short character sketch based on any one of the four characters. They should define who the person is when we first encounter him or her (using quotations or specific references to support their characterization), then describe who that person becomes by the end of the book (again, using specific references as evidence).

9. Organizational structure. The CCSS remind us that good narrative structure calls for a turning point: a moment when the action takes a new course or one of the characters experiences a serious revelation or change of heart. Can you identify such a moment (or more than one) in Zebra Forest? What is the impact of a turning point on the reader? Why are turning points so important to narrative writing? What is the parallel to a turning point in informational writing or argument?

10. Organizational structure. Zebra Forest is a relatively short novel, yet it is divided into 39 chapters. That is quite a few. What triggers an author’s decision to begin a new chapter? Is it similar to beginning a new paragraph? See if you can identify one instance in which the ending of one chapter suggests it is time to begin something fresh. Quote from the book to support your choice. Question: How would this book—or any other—be a different experience for the reader OR the writer if it were written as one large piece instead of being broken into chapters?

11. Argument: some philosophical questions. Following are a few questions that might form the basis of a philosophical discussion or argument. Choose any—or have students pose a question of their own—to answer orally, through a podcast, or in writing:

  •  It’s apparent that Gran loves Rew and Annie. Yet the life they live with her is anything but traditional. In some ways, they care for her more than she for them. Their school attendance is less than regular. She tells them almost nothing about their parents or their childhood. Is this fair—or might they be better off in another home? Why?
  • When the prison break occurs, Andrew Snow has two decisions to make: whether to leave the prison at all, and where to go if he does leave. Does he make good decisions? Why do you think so?
  • The social worker Adele Parks knows that the children’s life with Gran is not exactly as Annie describes it—yet she allows it to continue. Is this an act of friendship—or does she just not want to be bothered digging for the truth? If you were in Adele Parks’ place, would you do the same? Think about long-term consequences in justifying your decision.
  • Who is the bravest character in this book and why do you think so? Quote from the book to support your opinion. Is courage an essential characteristic for a major character in this or any book?
  • Rew, desperate to be rescued, pleads with Annie to mail a letter to the police, but though she promises to do so, she changes her mind. Is it all right for Annie to break her promise to Rew—or should she have mailed that letter? What are the positives and negatives of either choice?
  • During much of the story, Annie identifies with political hostages. Is she a hostage? Why or why not?

12. Comparison: pirates, spies, and heroes. Have any of your students read the book Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson? If so, you may wish to discuss Rew and Annie’s obsession with this book. Why do they love it so much? What does it represent for them? As part of this discussion, reread the fantasy life the children concoct for their father before they know he is actually alive (pp. 21-26). Can we draw any comparisons between the main character in Treasure Island, Long John Silver, and this fantasy version of Andrew Snow? How does the real Andrew Snow compare to the invented hero Rew and Annie imagine early on?  

13. The beginning: An effective introduction? The Common Core Standards place great emphasis on beginnings that set up a story or discussion. Some critics have said that Zebra Forest begins slowly, so that it takes us a while to get into the story. Do your students agree—or does that first chapter serve an important function? Read Chapter 1 aloud again with this question in mind: Is this chapter vital—or could we skip right over it and begin with Chapter 2? Have students respond to this question, through discussion or writing, quoting from the book to support their position.

14. Presentation. Take a good look at the cover for the book. What do you see? What associations do you make? What does the cover design suggest about the book even before we begin reading?

15. The ending: A good resolution to the story? The Common Core Standards suggest that a good ending should flow naturally from events within the story. Read Chapter 39 again, asking just how effective it is. Does this chapter tie up the loose ends of the story effectively? Flow from the earlier elements of the story? Hold any surprises for readers? Would your students change anything if they could? Predictions: Andrew Snow, we’re told, will likely be out of prison within five years or so. What is likely to happen at that point? Will he come back to Gran’s house? Why? If he does, will Rew, Annie, and Gran want to see him? What makes you think so? Write about this.

16. Personal connection/expository essay. At the beginning of the book, Annie mentions three wishes that are important to her: growing taller, having an adventure (she most certainly manages that), and meeting her father (a wish she does not know is about to come true). If you could make three serious wishes right now, what would they be? Write an expository essay outlining your wishes and what makes them important to you.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Jeff will be reviewing a favorite book—and it’s a surprise. Please don’t forget, if you’re thinking about professional development in writing for the coming school year, we’d love to design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, effective approaches to dealing with genre, and the best in literature for young people (including emphasis on reading to write). Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.