In one of my Lit classes recently, students read I, Juan de Pareja, a Newbery Medal-winning novel by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño. This fictionalized account of the life of Juan de Pareja follows his childhood in 17th Century Spain to his role as servant-turned-apprentice to master painter Diego Velázquez. It’s a great middle grade book for studying voice, historical setting, and imagery. Though only a few factual consistencies are known about the life of Juan de Pareja, the author built this novel based upon those few facts, or what she called a “kernel of truth” (The Glencoe Literature Library).
This idea brought up a connected discussion regarding how events in real life inspire realistic fiction… and conversely, how fictitious characters and plotlines remind us of the real happenings in our lives. We began talking about our own “kernels of truth”—stand-out memories, transitions and moves, objects and possessions that hold special meaning, gifts given or received… so many authentic experiences that contribute to the construction of one’s identity! We then complemented the novel study with a writing project that became known as the “Kernel of Truth” creative non-fiction assignment. Each student wrote about an authentic experience that in some way contributed to or connected with his or her identity. With some established parameters and brainstorming sessions, they were well on their way to authoring excellent pieces.
Creative nonfiction is a great genre for middle graders to explore as writers. They get to jump directly into the writing process without time-consuming research or structured main points; instead, they can write what they know. It’s a way to express true narratives, nostalgic anecdotes, tales of travel or adventure, and stories of personal interest while employing storytelling techniques like dialogue, setting, plotting, and figurative language.
Best of all, creative nonfiction writing can work with any novel, and it can support another level of connection between the reader and the text. In other words, just as I, Juan de Pareja inspired my students’ ability to seek individual kernels of truth, most other novels have at least one feature (setting, history, conflict, etc.) that will inspire your students’ true stories, and their own creative nonfiction.
For example, here are a few recent realistic fiction titles along with some potential leads towards CNF writing projects that might accompany them.
Another Kind of Hurricane by Tamara Ellis Smith – What experiences have you had witnessing the power of nature? What’s the most curious coincidence in your life you can remember? Have you ever discovered a connection between you and someone with whom you originally thought you had nothing in common?
Hunger by Donna Jo Napoli – Home can be a complicated word. What joy do you find in your home (town, city, residence, or whatever home means to you)? What, if any, frustration? What situations have you encountered or witnessed in which a choice that went against the rules seemed justified (for the good of others)?
The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson – Any real-life mysteries in your experiences? What books have you read that have stayed with you long after you finished reading, and what does that book mean to you now?
The Orphan Band of Springdale by Anne Nesbet – What unexpected turn of events has contributed to your own “plot twist”? What curiosities have lately caught your attention, like pigeon photography caught the attention of protagonist Gusta?
Middle grade students may wonder initially how a historical or fantasy could inspire them to write about something from their own lives in a CNF piece. Take the time to brainstorm as a class, and soon they’ll see how many elements and factors about the character’s life and story are possible points of connection with their own lives. Depending on the readers in your class or library, you may decide to give the group a lot of freedom of topic, style, and length… or that it might be better to put some guidelines down on paper. Guiding questions like the ones above or general topics and suggestions can be especially comforting to the hesitant writer. Sometimes it takes prompting and parameters for imaginations to lose their inhibitions.
Hope these ideas are useful ones for your bag of tricks! Good luck and thanks for encouraging reading and writing in middle graders.