Teaching Writing Using Literature by Kevin Henkes

Circle Dogs by Kevin Henkes (Sentence Fluency and Word Choice) March 7, 2010


Story Summary:  Circle Dogs tells the story of the daily lives of the circle shaped dogs that live in the square house.  The dogs playfully engage in each moment of the day:  waking up the owners, gobbling down food, barking at the doorbell, and sleeping.  Finally after a long, exciting day, the circle dogs settle in for a good night’s sleep.

In this story, Kevin Henkes takes a simple concept of telling the story of a dog’s day and makes it engaging by the way he tells the story.  The sentence variety, including some sentence fragments, and the conversational tone help the reader flow through the story.  At points of excitment in the story, the sentences are short and choppy, and quick to read.  For example, when the dogs are excitedly waking up the owner, the say, “Get up!  Get up!  Play with us.  Now!”  When the action slows down, the sentences become longer, repeating some words.  For example, when the dogs settle down for a nap, “Now they sleep and sleep and sleep.  Now they sleep and sleep and sleep some more.”  The sentence fluency helps the reader to feel the sense of urgency or relaxation.

Another engaging part of the story is Kevin’s word choice.  Kevin uses onomatopoeia to let the reader “hear” the sounds of the dogs.  For example, Kevin says “Clink-clank, clink-clank, clink-clank, clink.  Hear the tags?”  and “Flip-flap, flip-flap.  Swish, swoosh, swish,” as the dogs’ tails wag.  He also uses similes to describe the dogs’ appearances, saying the dog’s triangle ears “stand up like toy soldiers,” and their tongues look like “Baby’s pink socks hanging out of their mouths.”  Kevin’s careful word choices helps the reader create a mental image of the story and show what is happening.

This story helps the reader understand the importance of showing their story through writing rather than just telling.  Kevin’s example in Circle Dogs can help students understand how using sentence variety and careful choice of words can make a story more entertaining. 

Standard:  Writing Processes

Benchmark:  By the end of the K-2 program, D.  Use revision strategies and resources to improve ideas and content, organization, word choice, and detail.  E.  Edit to improve sentence fluency, grammar, and usage.

Indicator:  6.  Use a range of complete sentences, including declarative, interrogative, and exclamatory.   8.  Use language for writing that is different from oral language, mimicking writing style of books when appropriate.


Julius-The Baby of the World by Kevin Henkes (Ideas)

Story Summary:  Lilly was the perfect, loving big sister, until her baby brother, Julius, was born.  Lilly hated that she had to share her room, that she had to be quiet while Julius napped, and that she wasn’t getting all the attention anymore.  Frustrated Lilly tormented her baby brother and told him mean stories.   She didn’t understand the punishments she got for doing the same things Julius was praised for.  When all the family came over to admire new baby Julius, Lilly really couldn’t stand it.  But when Cousin Garland started saying mean things about Julius, Lilly came to the rescue of her baby brother.

One of the most difficult aspects of writing for some students is coming up with an idea to write about.  Students should always be encouraged to write about topics that are meaningful to them.  In this book, Kevin Henkes addresses a situation that is easy for many children to relate to–welcoming a new sibling and learning to share the attention.  When reading this book to students, the teacher should encourage students to think about events that have happened in their lives and how they felt in those situations.  During the read aloud, the teacher should discuss with the students how Kevin incorporates the character’s feelings in telling the story:

  • How did Lilly feel at the beginning of the story?  How can you tell?
  • How did Lilly feel after Julius was born?  How can you tell?
  • How did Lilly feel at the end of the story?  How can you tell?
  • Why is it important to show feeling through your writing? 
  • Brainstorm-What are some topics you could write about that are important to you?

 When students are able to tell the story of something that happened to them, their stories are more focused on the topic and will flow in a logical order of events because they remember how it happened.  The reader will be more engaged because they will consider the writer’s feelings.

Standard:  Writing Processes

Benchmarks:  By the end of the K-2 program, A. Generate ideas for written compositions, and B. Develop audience and purpose for self-selected and assigned writing tasks.

Indicators:  1.  Generate writing ideas through discussions with others.   3.  Develop a purpose and audience for writing.


Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes (Voice)

Story Summary:  Wemberly worries about everything, big and small, all the time.  When she is faced with going to school for the first time, she is more worried than ever!  Once she gets to school, her teacher introduces her to Jewel, a quiet and shy girl in her class.  The two girls begin to get to know each other, and before they know it, they make it through the school day together.  Wemberly leaves school, no longer worried, and ready to go back the next day.

This Kevin Henkes story is a wonderful example for teaching students how to give voice to their characters.  This story centers around Wemberly’s character, and Kevin gives a clear, detailed picture of Wemberly and how her worries affect her daily life.  In the text of the story, Kevin tells the things she worries about, but within the illustrations, Kevin gives Wemberly voice in the thoughts that float above her head.  For example, Kevin says “At home, Wemberly worried about the tree in the front yard.”  In the illustration, Wemberly stands at the foot of the tree, staring up at it’s massive size, wondering, “What if it falls on our house?”  As you read, you feel like you know Wemberly, and you understand her worries, no matter how serious or silly they may seem.  It’s easy to become attached to Wemberly and root for her to overcome her worries. 

When reading this story to students, the teacher should discuss the ways in which Kevin not only tells about the character, but shows what she is like through her thoughts and actions.  Students should think about the way that they present characters in their stories.  They should revise their stories and think carefully about whether they are telling about their characters or showing their characters.

Standard:  Writing Applications

Benchmark:  By the end of the K-2 program, compose writings that convey a clear message and include well-chosen details.

Indicator:  Write stories that convey a clear message, include details, use vivid language, and move through a logical sequence of steps and events.


Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes (Organization) March 6, 2010

Story Summary:  On the night of Kitten’s first full moon, she believes she sees a bowl of milk in the sky.  Time after time, Kitten tries to get to the bowl of milk, but is unsuccessful, each attempt ending in frustration.  Kitten finally gives up and heads back home to find a bowl of milk waiting for her on the porch.

This book would serve as a simple example for teaching organization in story writing.  One of the most important elements of story writing is having a clear beginning, middle, and end.  In this story, it is easy to pick out the beginning, middle, and end.  During a read aloud, the teacher should discuss these elements of Kevin Henke’s story:

  • How does the story begin?  Kitten sees her first full moon, but she thinks it is a bowl of milk and wants to get it.
  • What happens in the middle of the story?  Kitten tries to get to the bowl of milk, but each time she is unable to get it.
  • Name 3 events that happened in the middle of the story.  1) Kitten tries to stick her tongue out and lick it, but she catches a bug instead.  2)  She jumped to try to reach it, but she couldn’t jump high enough and tumbled down the steps.    3)  She chased after it, but never got any closer.
  • What happened at the end of the story?  Kitten gave up and went home.  There she found a bowl of milk waiting for her on the porch.

Another important element of story writing that can be discussed with this book is story transitions.  Kevin creatively and simply keeps the story flowing with a reminder of the kitten’s main goal.  After each attempt Kitten makes to get the bowl of milk, Kevin transitions with the refrain “Still, there was the little bowl of milk, just waiting.”  This transition gives the reader time to think about the Kitten’s frustration while wondering what she will try next.

Standard:  Writing Processes

Benchmark:  By the end of the K-2 Program:  Use revision strategies and resources to improve ideas and content, organization, word choice, and detail.

Indicator:  Organize writing with a developed beginning, middle, and end.


Birds by Kevin Henkes (Conventions) March 1, 2010

In this book, Kevin Henkes  invites the reader to observe the beauty and mysterious behaviors of birds. 

This book serves as a great example for teaching students how to properly use conventions in their writing.  Kevin uses a variety of punctuation as he tells the story.   When reading this book to the class, there are several instances where the teacher should point out the way punctuation is used and how it helps to tell the story.  Many of the sentences in this book carry over across a couple pages.  Sometimes Kevin uses a comma to show a short pause before continuing his sentence on the opposing page, but other times he uses an ellipsis to show that the idea will be continued when the page is turned.  The commas and ellipsis help the reader understand the flow of the story, and allow for suspense in finding out what will be on the next page.  In some points of the story, Kevin uses exclamation points to show surprise or excitement.  Teachers should discuss with the students why the exclamation point is appropriate when he describes the way the birds simultaneously depart from a tree and when a little girl is excited about her similarity with birds.

Another way Kevin creatively uses writing conventions in this story is by playing with the appearance of the text to help tell the story.  The text is incorporated into the illustrations, not just blocked off at the top or bottom of the page.  As Kevin describes the many colors of birds, the color words are arranged next to the bird of that color.  When Kevin discusses the size of the birds, the size of the text is larger for the word “big” and tiny for the word “small.”  In the part when Kevin explains the way birds will fly from a tree at the same time, he arranges the letters of the word “surprise” to look like birds leaving the tree in different directions.  These changes in the appearance of the text make the story more engaging and simpler to comprehend.     

Standard:  Writing Conventions

Benchmark:  By the end of the K-2 program, C.  Use conventions of punctuation and capitalization in written work.

Indicator:  8.  Use periods, question marks, and exclamation points as endpoints correctly.