Author Studies 2.0: Getting to the Heart of What Matters


Over the last two years I’ve noticed a renewed interest in author and thematic studies, which I think is due to the Common Core Standards, particularly to Reading Literature Standard 9, which asks students to compare and contrast stories that are either by the same author or on a similar theme. I’ve always loved author studies, and over the years I’ve helped teachers plan and implement them on authors such as Patricia Polacco, Gary Soto, and Jacqueline Woodson. But the author studies I’ve been supporting recently have a slightly different flavor and feel than the ones I’ve done in the past, which seems both connected to the Standards and the deeper reasons for reading.

My Rotten Redheaded Older BrotherIn the past, I think we studied an author for two primary purposes: to see the connection between the author’s life and work and to study their craft, which students could then transfer to their own writing. And with these two major purposes in mind, we’d often begin by introducing some biographical information so that students could get a sense of the author’s life. Then we’d read the books paying particular attention to the author’s craft, noting, for instance, how in My Rotten Redheaded Older BrotherPatricia Polacco uses similes in her descriptions—”He had orange hair that was like wire; he was covered in freckles and looked like a weasel with glasses—and often explains things by giving three examples, as she does here:

Now my babushka, my grandmother, knew lots of things. She knew just how to tell a good story. She knew how to make ordinary things magical. And she knew how to make the best chocolate cake in Michigan.

These are certainly wonderful goals to hold on to, especially when it comes to student writing. But as I’ve sat down with teachers preparing to embark on an author study recently, we’ve taken a different tack. Before starting to search for author bios or combing through books for craft, we’ve been reading the books to see if we notice any patterns in characters, situations, imagery and themes. And each time we’ve done this, we’ve hit a motherlode of meaning, seeing more than we ever thought we would.

The WallThis year, for instance, I worked with a group of third grade teachers who were planning a unit on Eve Bunting. We knew Bunting often looked at difficult topics, such as homelessness in Fly Away Home or riots in Smoky Nights. But what we didn’t know until we dug into the books was how many revolved around holding on to memories, whether it was a father taking his young son to the Vietnam War Memorial in The Wall; a young girl coping with the loss of her mother in The Memory String; or the Native American boy in Cheyenne Again trying not to forget his heritage when he’s forced to attend a white man’s school.

An-Angel-for-Solomon-Singer-9780531070826Similarly, last year I worked with a group of fourth grade teachers planning a unit on Cynthia Rylant. As we looked through her books we were struck by how many lonely characters there were who, often through a chance occurence, encountered someone or something that made them feel less alone. There was the city transplant Solomon Singer who found a lifeline in a waiter named Angel; Gabriel, the main character in “Spaghetti” who stumbled on a stray kitten; and the main character in The Old Woman Who Named Things who overcame her fear of attachment when a puppy showed up at her gate. They were all lonely and all saved from loneliness when something unexpected happened.

In each case the question then became how do we support and position students to replicate what we had done so that they could experience what writer Norman Maclean describes as the essence of thinking: “seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”

Like the second grade teachers in last year’s post, the teachers studying Cynthia Rylant created an author study chart that helped students hold onto the specifics of each book and see patterns across the books. And we gave them lots of time to talk and exchange ideas, which allowed one student to ‘see’ something that none of us teachers had: that Solomon Singer was “solo-man,” a name that seemed particularly apt for a Cynthia Rylant character.

We also invited students to bring what they knew about the Rylant books they had read to the new books they were reading, which led to some magical moments. Making our way through The Old Woman Who Named Things, for instance, I stopped reading after the following page spread and asked the class to think for a moment about what they knew so far about this book and what they knew from other Rylant books we’d read. Then based on that, I asked them to think about where they thought this book might be headed.



Before I had a chance to say, “Now turn and talk,” a boy who was usually quiet gasped, “The puppy is the angel,” referring to the waiter in An Angel for Solomon Singer who acts as a change agent in Solomon’s life. The rest of the class immediately agreed, and expanding on his idea, many also thought that the old woman wasn’t as clever as she thought she was because, even without a name, the dog had already changed her, as could be seen by the fact that she fed him every day. And while they weren’t precisely sure what other changes the dog might herald, they were sure her life would no longer be the same.

Finally, I took another stab at using a Venn Diagram as a thinking tool, not as an artifact of what students already thought. That meant we constructed one as a whole class first, focusing on brainstorming similarities rather than differences. And this time their thinking exploded, precisely as Maclean described, with one idea leading to another in ways that not only engaged students in the work of Reading Standards 2 and 9 (determining the theme from the details of the text and comparing works by the same author), but also gave them a deep understanding of what mattered to Cynthia Rylant.

Venn Diagram for Cynthia Rylant

Of course many of the students still needed help in explaining their thinking in written form, which I’ll save for another post. But what stood out for all of us as teachers was how much more thinking the students could do if we had the time to think and talk first in order to develop a deeper vision of what we were aiming for, which then informed and determined every teaching move we made—from the titles we chose, to the questions we asked, to the decision to save the bio for the end, when the students had already figured what was in the author’s heart.

The Limits of Graphic Organizers, or More Tales from a Second Grade Author Study

In Content-Area Writingauthors Harvey Daniels, Steven Zimmerman and Nancy Steineke make a distinction between writing to learn or to think and writing to demonstrate what was learned or thought. Writing to learn, they say, is usually short, spontaneous, exploratory and personal—that is, it’s writing that helps the writer probe, discover, understand or clarify something for him or herself. Writing to demonstrate learning, on the other hand, is more substantial, authoritative, polished and planned, and it’s aimed for an audience.

This fits nicely into my own belief that writing is both a tool and a product. It helps the writer figure out what he thinks then allows him to convey it to others. I worry, though, that we don’t always make this distinction clear, both for ourselves or our students, especially when it comes to graphic organizers, which Daniels & Co. list as a writing-to-learn strategy that can help writers map and cluster ideas. Students, I think, often see graphic organizers as products or assignments to be quickly dispatched and completed rather than as tools to push thinking. And I have to wonder whether they do so in part because we set them up that way.

This was brought home to me and the teachers I worked with in the second grade author study of Tomie dePaola I wrote about several weeks ago. To helps students keep track of individual books, consider how the elements of a story worked together to support the author’s message, and eventually discover patterns across the books they read, we designed two graphic organizers aimed at helping students think deeply. The first was a large attribute chart where the students could note the elements of each story, with a final column left for whatever connections and observations they might notice and make between books. The second was a Venn diagram that we thought would support the comparing and contrasting of the books for that final column.

Both were designed with the best of intentions. And both didn’t work quite as intended because the students seemed to view them as products to complete, not as tools to deepen their thinking. And so we had to push our own thinking to revise and refine these tools.

With the attribute chart, for instance, what the teachers and I noticed was that the students saw each of the columns as separate and discrete. They could identify the elements—the characters, the setting, the problem and solution and sometimes even what they called the lesson. But they weren’t thinking about how the elements were connected and how they contributed to the overall effect of the story. In particular, they weren’t considering how the kind of person a character is affects how they do or don’t deal with their problems, nor how the way those problems get solved can shed light on the themes or lessons of the story.

Instead they tried to pin adages, such as “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” on the stories. And while sometimes those sayings did, indeed, fit, they didn’t always capture the richness of the stories, nor the various things the students had noticed. And so we made two critical decisions. The first was: No more canned adages or maxims. We’d encourage students to use their own words and consider how the lesson was embedded in the story, not something tacked on at the end, which we made more explicit by adding a question beneath the element headers, like this:

The second was that we wouldn’t reduce each book to just one lesson or theme. Instead we’d open the door to multiple interpretations in acknowledgement of the fact that different readers notice and attend to different things and that even simple picture books can’t always be summed up in one idea. Here, for instance are transcripts of two different interpretations of Tomie dePaola’s The Art Lesson:

We had to go back to the drawing board, as well, with the Venn Diagram because, not seeing the organizer as an opportunity to stretch thinking, the students simply took what was on the attribute chart and plugged it into the organizer. And, as you can see, the results were superficial:

Venn Diagram comparing and contrasting The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush and Andy by Tomie dePaola

To counter this, we decided to put them into groups with a basket of books at each table and ask them to talk solely about what similarities or patterns they noticed recurring across the books. Then once they had a chance to trade ideas, we asked them to individually jot down what they’d noticed on a sticky note. And this time their thinking was far more insightful.

Adelita and Gopher tried to solve their own problems. For example, Adelita tried to make Javier come to her, and Gopher tried to find the right colors to paint the sunset.

Both characters Adelita and Little Gopher have a helper to solve their problems. For example, Esperanza helped Adelita to the party and the dream vision let Little Gopher to go to the hill and paint the sunset.

Through this process, students came away with a deep understanding of Tomie dePaola as an author. They saw how in seemingly very different stories—from original tales like the Strega Nona books to retellings of Indian legends and Irish folktales to the more autobiographical stories—he kept circling some of the same ideas or themes: The need to be true to your own self, even if that path is hard; the great gift of having people who help and support you; the consequences of meddling with what you don’t understand; the need to give back to others what they have given to you; and the importance of advocating for yourself.

At the very end of the unit, students watched a video of Tomie dePaola talking about his life, and they literally gasped at the connections they heard between his life and the themes in his books. This allowed them to also circled the writing truth that F. Scott Fitzgerald so eloquently articulated when he wrote:

“Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselves—that’s the truth. We have two or three great moving experiences in our lives—experiences so great and moving that it doesn’t seem at the time that anyone else has ever been caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded  and humbled in just that way before.”

As for those graphic organizers: At best they served as a pre-assessment, showing us what the students could already do and where we, as teachers, could push in. What helped far more was setting up the students with opportunities to talk—and with us, as teachers, having a deeper vision of where that talk could lead.