Guest Post: Vanessa Ziff Lasdon on The Picture Book: A Powerful Writing Tool

Exploring the 6+1 Fundamental Traits of Good Writing through Mentor Texts

By Vanessa Ziff Lasdon

You don’t have to be a teacher to appreciate the 6+1 Traits of Writing. Anyone studying the craft — be it a novel, short story or picture book — needs to keep these traits in mind as they write.

It’s the picture book, however, that I’d like to focus on today, because picture books and the 6 + 1 Traits of Writing are a heavenly match.

Ruth Culham, the educational pioneer behind the 6+1 Traits model, explains that, “picture books are short, carefully crafted, and the perfect example of what good writing looks like.” They are, in essence, the perfect mentor text for every age writer.

Let’s explore a few of the favorites on my shelf! (By no means a comprehensive list!)


  1. Ideas: the meaning and development of the message
  2. Organization: the internal structure of the piece
  3. Voice: the way the writer brings the topic to life
  4. Word Choice: the specific vocabulary the writer uses to convey meaning
  5. Sentence Fluency: the way the words and phrases flow throughout the text
  6. Conventions: the mechanical correctness of the piece

+ 1 Presentation: the overall appearance of the work

(Note: While I’ve categorized the following books within specific writing traits, each story holds standout secondary traits that I’ve also mentioned below.)


Fireflies! by Julie Brinckloe (Simon & Schuster, 1985).

A simple, beautiful story that celebrates a young boy’s excitement over the fireflies he captures one warm summer night. But as their glow begins to fade, the boy learns an important lesson: sometimes in order to keep something, you have to set it free.

  • Use this book to study how the smallest moments create treasured stories
  • Secondary Traits: word choice, organization, sentence fluency

The Hickory Chair by Lisa Rowe Fraustino, illustrated by Benny Andrews

A story of love between a blind boy and his grandmother. The tales Gran tells Louis make him feel as though he can see and feel all the wonders she describes. When Gran dies, Louis must search for his sense of self without her.

  • Use this book to study relationships and the power of story behind a symbolic object, like a hickory chair. Also a great story for developing a theme, like love, around that symbol
  • Secondary Traits: word choice, voice

A Quiet Place by Douglas Wood, illustrated by Dan Andreasen (Simon & Schuster, 2005)

This story, told in second-person point of view, follows a young boy who wants to escape his fast-paced, noisy city, and invites us to do the same. The secret of this book is that the best quiet place is found within our own selves. Not only is “A Quiet Place” a great reminder to step away from our “crazy busy” lifestyles, but it’s also a wonder for examining Ideas.

  • Use this book to study how to get inside a small, focused idea and make it big and imaginative, what some call “Show, Don’t Tell,” and what I like to call “Snorkeling and Scuba Diving.”
  • Go on a quiet hunt of your own and capture the places you find with words and images.
  • Secondary Traits: word choice, voice


Switch on the Night by Ray Bradbury, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon (Dragonfly, 2004)

In the only picture book ever written by the late, great Bradbury, we meet a boy who’s unreasonably afraid of the dark, until he discovers that when you turn off the day, you switch on the night and all its magic.

  • Use this book in a variety of ways: look at repeating refrains and how this emphasizes the main idea; make a story map of events and how they build to a resolution; notice how Bradbury begins and ends the fable
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, sentence fluency

Beautiful Warrior: The Legend of Nun’s Kung Fu by Emily Arnold McCully (Arthur A. Levine, 1998)

In this tale, young Mingyi learns the ways of kung fu from the legendary Buddhist nun, Wu Mei (“beautiful warrior”) of Shaolin in order to fend off a bully bandit and escape an abusive arranged marriage. (Note: the literal meaning of kung fu is “human effort,” and it denotes lifelong study of physical and mental wellbeing.)

  • Use this lovely book to study transitions within a narrative. McCully uses them so well the reader barely notices them as the story flows along.
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, word choice, voice

Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges, book design by Kristina Albertson (Scholastic, 1999)

Bridges’ arrangement of stories, poems, essays, articles, timelines, quotations, photographs, and other source material from her childhood enables us to understand the remarkable impact of a six-year-old girl who boldly broke the color barrier during the civil rights era and went on to become a legendary activist.

  • Use this informational gem to look at research and creative nonfiction in a whole new way.
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, word choice, voice, sentence fluency, conventions, presentation


The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Putnam, 2001)

Woodson is a master at sparse, heartrending storytelling. Here, she uses a fence as a metaphor for racism in a story of two girls, one white and one black, who live on opposite sides of the fence, yet become friends despite warnings otherwise. (Sitting on the fence doesn’t technically qualify as crossing over.)

  • Use this story to study a voice “slow and graceful like summer,” as Culham puts it, one whose authenticity is irresistible.
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, word choice, sentence fluency

Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Yuyi Morales (Harcourt, 2003)

Cesar Chavez is one of America’s most celebrated civil rights leaders, one who improved the lives of thousands of migrant farm workers. But as a boy, Cesar was shy and bullied, and his family was forced to slave in the fields to survive. This is story of a boy who spoke up for change and earned the attention of an entire country.

  • Use this biography to study how carefully chosen words spark passion on every page and in the hearts of all readers.
  • Secondary Traits: word choice

Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco (Philomel, 1994)

I dare you not to cry at the end of this Civil War book. Polacco deftly documents a story passed down in her family for generations of 15-year old Sheldon Curtis, a Union soldier, who is badly wounded and left for dead until fellow Union soldier Pinkus Aylee brings him under the care of his own sweet mother. One day, however, Confederate soldiers capture and separate the boys. Only one survives.

  • Use this story to study style and tonal shift, graceful narration, plot development, and character.
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, sentence fluency, word choice, organization


A Place to Grow by Soyung Pak, illustrated by Marcelino Truong (Arthur A. Levine, 2002)

“This is seed time. This is the growing time […] all seeds travel.” Pak shows us how her father explained their move an ocean away from South Korea to America “to grow a family.”

  • Use this book to study how metaphor and repetition can create powerful images and connections in the reader’s mind.
  • Secondary Traits: voice, sentence fluency

A Story for Bear by Dennis Haseley, illustrated by Jim LaMarche (Harcourt, 2002)
In this quiet and touching story, a bear and a woman become friends as she reads to him deep in the woods using voices to match the stories she reads. Bear is entranced by the sounds that float from the woman’s mouth, and longs to decipher the magic symbols on the page for himself.

  • This story is delightful not only for its lyrical prose and quiet strength, but also for its pure celebration of the sound of language.
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, voice, sentence fluency

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr (Philomel, 1987)

“If you go owling you have to be quiet and make your own heat.” In this well-known, award-winning book, a young girl and her father search through the dark, cold silence of a winter’s night for the great horned owl.

  • Yolen’s story is perfection. Study how she puts us right inside the girl’s perspective, experiencing her fear, hope, and ultimate delight as her patient pursuit for this elusive creature is finally rewarded.
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, organization, voice, sentence fluency


I’ve decided to combine the traits of Sentence Fluency and Conventions, and here’s why.

First off, I don’t believe any of us need literal lessons in grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. Rather, it’s more important to absorb how these editorial essentials enrich the reading experience. Sentence Fluency is an auditory trait and Conventions are the mechanics behind the curtains that make a sentence or paragraph thrum, pop, and shimmy the way it does.

A big reason why a book fails with readers is because it isn’t enticing to read aloud. Great Conventions make text a pleasure to read. They are symbols of great care for the reader, an accuracy that enhances the reader’s immersion in the story.

Every picture book in this blog post has been meticulously edited and could easily be the focus of a discussion on Conventions. But look to the books under Sentence Fluency in particular for how Conventions support already artistically constructed sentences, and how these mechanics help to choreograph the rhythms on the page.

Tough Cookie by David Wisniewski (HarperCollins, 1999)

“They call me a tough cookie. I guess I am. Came from a good family. Regular batch. Lots of dough. Lived the high life. Top of the Jar.” In this hilarious detective story, Tough Cookie, some crumbs living at the bottom, and his girlfriend Pecan Sandy try to stop Fingers from wreaking total havoc in The Jar.

  • First of all, read this story out loud. You’ll laugh on every page. Study Wisniewski’s clipped, staccato style sentence fluency. I use the book to teach kids how to break the “rules” to create the perfect flow.
  • Secondary Traits: voice, word choice, conventions

Sitti’s Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (Aladdin, 1997)

Mona lives in the United States. Her “Sitti” (grandmother) lives in Palestine. Despite the distance and language barriers, the two are very close. When Mona visits Sitti, who has “a thousand rivers in her voice,” to learn what life is like in her village, she learns to bake bread, make fresh lemonade, and brush Sitti’s long hair, hidden under her scarf.

I agree with Culham when she says that Nye is a “writer’s writer. She crafts and combines sentences in the same way Sitti prepares meals and stitches fabric—with utmost attention to detail.”

  • Use this heartwarming story to study how to capture a smooth and rhythmic flow in your writing
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, word choice, voice, conventions

Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Hudson Talbott (Putnam, 2005)

“When Mathis May was seven, she got sold away. Took a star from her mama’s blanket, took a little piece of the road. Pressed it to her face when she wanted to remember back home.” Woodson’s book tells of the stories and sewing traditions that have been passed down by the women in her family since the days of slavery and Civil Rights. Each girl born into the family quilt continues to pave the way for future generations by adding a piece to the patchwork of their past, because, “All the stuff that happened before you were born is your own kind of Show Way.”

  • Woodson is my personal hero. Her writing is rich, original, unflinchingly honest, and always dead on target. Use this unique personal story to study Woodson’s lyrical vernacular voice, woven together with keenly crafted sentences that will make your heart sing hallelujah!
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, organization, word choice, voice, conventions


Picture books. Pictures. Books. Each of the choices above exemplifies the magic that comes to life when story and illustration come together. Tremendous skill and thought goes into the look of a book and how to best combine text, typeface, textures, illustration, white space, line space, and color to capture the essence of every trait throughout every page. Study the 15 books in this article and the additional one I’ve mentioned below for how art works hand in hand with story to enhance the author’s ideas.

Lest We Forget: The Passage from Africa to Slavery and Emancipation by Velma Maia Thomas (Crown, 1997)

Oh, how I hold this book dear! Rich with original source materials from the Black Holocaust Exhibit in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, this three-dimensional interactive book is stunning. Letters that open out of paper, crafted like a tobacco tin; maps that slide and windows that fold out; slave receipts, auction ads, and photographs; the sheer arrangement of words and symbols along each page.

  • Treasure this nonfiction book, for it’s a wonder. Study the micro text for its sophisticated story lines and brilliant blend of formats. Read every word carefully. Run your fingers along each page. Thomas has made history into powerful art that everyone can appreciate.

Try this: organize a part of your bookshelves by picture books and the 6+1 Writing Traits combined. No matter what genre or format you write, I guarantee that studying the craft from this bite-size perspective will sharpen your skills and remind you what great storytelling is all about.

Source: Using Mentor Texts to Teach Writing With the Traits: Middle School: An Annotated Bibliography of 150 Picture Books, Chapter Books, and Young Adult Novels With Teacher-Tested Lessons by James Blasingame, Ruth Culham and Raymond Coutu (Scholastic, 2010).

See also Using Mentor Texts to Teach Writing with the Traits by James Blasingame, Ruth Culham and Raymond Coutu (Scholastic Teaching Resources, 2008).

Cynsational Notes

See also Vanessa Ziff Lasdon on The Writer’s Notebook: An Essential Tool for Daily Practice & Creative Survival from Cynsations.

Vanessa Ziff Lasdon is an L.A.-based teacher, tutor, writer, and educational coach. A University of Texas, Austin and Teach for America alum, she also holds an M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a certificate degree in Digital Journalism.

When she’s not writing, reading, or managing her biz at W.O.R.D. Ink, Vanessa serves as an in-school writing mentor with 826LA and directs Writing Adventures
summer camp.

She also loves to cook, garden, and travel, get crafty, go
green, play outdoors, make short films, surf the web, tune in to NPR,
shop for unique stuff, share and laugh often.

Vanessa has written a
middle grade novel and is working on a young adult fantasy. She is
represented by Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger, Inc.

will be launching her own weekly blog, W.O.R.D.: Write. Observe.
Revise. Discover, early this September. She invites you to join her
readership and check out her many writing services! Sign up and connect
with Vanessa on Twitter @vzlasdonwriter or by email ( Visit Vanessa online at