Friday, November 9, 2012

More on Author Studies

In my last blog entry, I discussed the topic of nonfiction author studies.  I’d like to expand on the idea by using the books of one of the best nonfiction writers for young adults, Jim Murphy.  As with studies of fiction authors, a class could focus together on one book; students could break into small groups that each focus on a book; or each student could choose a book, meaning that some books would be studied by more than one student.  Here are ways to approach some of Murphy’s titles:
Read-aloud   Murphy’s 2012 The Giant and How He Humbugged America, which is 112 pages but heavily illustrated, could be read aloud to the whole class. Murphy tells the story of a hoax involving a 10-foot seemingly petrified giant in 1869 upstate New York.  Possible topics for group discussion, drawn from the text, include why people were so gullible; the role of the media; and the lack of expertise at the time.  Be sure to read the author’s note in which Murphy describes how he came to the topic.
 Compare with another book  Have students read and compare Murphy’s The Real Benedict Arnold to Steve Sheinkin’s The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, and Bravery, an exercise which meets Common Core ELA anchor standard 9 to analyze two texts on the same topic in order to build knowledge and compare approaches.
 Visual elements Murphy’s skillful use of visual elements lends itself to analysis, aligned to anchor standard 7 that looks at how different media including illustrations, diagrams, and the like convey information.  In The Great Fire, Murphy uses the same map several times with indications of when and where the fire spread.  Have students consider how effective the maps are compared to descriptions of the same information.  In Inside the Alamo, some of the paintings and other illustrations reproduced in the book were created years after the historic event and glorified it.  Captions highlight inaccuracies in the depictions.  Have students consider how this compares to altering photographs today and the implications for our understanding of history.
 Fiction tie-ins   Pair a well-written novel set in a time and place covered by a Murphy nonfiction book.  Pair A Young Patriot: The American Revolution as Experienced by One Boy in which a young revolutionary soldier spends time at Valley Forge with Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson, in which the protagonist is also at Valley Forge.  Another Anderson’s Fever 1793 is set in the time and place of Murphy’s An American Plague, so they work well together.  Pair Murphy’s new Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure with Queen of Hearts by Martha Brooks, in which a teenage girl comes of age in a TB sanitorium in the early 1940s.


  1. I'm a big fan of Jim Murphy's books, and I appreciate all of your suggestions. One thing I'd like to add is having students look at Murphy's word choice. Many of his descriptions appeal to several of the senses. This makes history much more understandable than simply relying on the sense of sight. An analysis of selected passages in THE GREAT FIRE or BLIZZARD! would bring this idea into focus. And, of course it would correspond to CCSS standards about craft of writing.

  2. I would add that Murphy's Blizzard has one of the best dedications, in my opinion - of course it might have something to do with where I live:)

  3. I wanted to thank Kathleen for this post and for everyone's kind comments. What I am finding intriguing about the on-going discussion about the changes to CCSS and the world of children's nonfiction is how many newer writers are focused so intensely on (for lack of a better phrase) what seem to be the new "rules" about writing such books for kids. (Yes, I used the word 'about' three times in the same sentence!) I've been to a number of writer's conferences over the past few months where the CCSS standards are discussed and interpreted at length, with much note taking. Nothing wrong with this, though I worry that a new crop of books will be written to those rules (which might end up producing texts that are as stiff and predictable as most textbooks). I try to tell people that the books I write are a result of a long term writing evolution rather than a revolution, that it's about loving the topic, characters and themes and letting the resulting emotions direct the path of writing.