Margin Notes

Inspiration for Writer’s Notebooks Part Three


This is the third in a three-part series of posts that highlight some of our favorite titles for inviting students (and ourselves) to explore their world and their lives for writing ideas to capture in their notebooks. You can read the first posts here and here. This post features a selection of our favorite picture books to use as writing invitations:

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wentzel invites us to explore different perspectives and reflect on the ways/reasons we may view things differently.


The main character in The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires has a wonderful idea but struggles with its execution. This book encourages us to think about times we have overcome frustration.


Out of Wonder by Kwame Alexander, Chris Corderley and Marjory Wentworth, with illustrations by Ekua Holmes, is a collection of poems celebrating poets. They are excellent mentor texts for poetic celebrations of the people we love and admire.


Chris Hadfield shares his childhood fear in The Darkest Dark. Writers can describe their own childhood fears or think about what made them afraid of the dark.

Philip C. Stead has to write a story, but he doesn’t have any ideas. Ideas Are All Around documents a walk with his dog, Wednesday, as they discover there are lots of ideas when you go looking for them.


Sara Fanelli’s My Map Book is filled with lots of models for document, describing, and telling stories through visuals.


In I Wonder written by K.A. Holt and illustrated by Kenard Pak, a group of children share all their curiosities. This picture books invites us to think about all our wonderings—the ones we had when we were young, and the ones we have now.


After reading You Hold Me Up by Monique Gray Smith and Danielle Daniel, writers can record their thoughts about what it means to hold one another up and who in their life holds them up.


My Heart by Corinna Luyken is a beautiful invitation to consider the many ways our hearts can feel.


Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James celebrate the good things in each of us in I Am Every Good Thing. What are the good things about you?


Dictionary for a Better World, written by Irene Latham and Charles Waters and illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini, is a poetic celebration of 26 words for a better world. Writers can respond to the poems or use them as models for their own versions.

Craft Studio: Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years from Now


What I Was Reading:

Matthew Olzmann’s poem, Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years from Now serves as a warning for everyone living on earth now. It offers a glimpse into our future, showing us the harsh realities we will face if we don’t become better stewards of our environment.

What Moves I Notice the Writer Making:

  • In typical letter form, this poem addresses the imagined audience directly us “you.”
  • Phrases such as “most likely you think,” it must seem,” and “you probably doubt” give the poem an air of “I know it looks bad but…” This is an effective way of saying, without saying, that we are convincing ourselves that we’re doing ok but we’re not. As in, we may tell ourselves that we love elephants and whales, but we aren’t doing enough to protect them.
  • The repetition of “back then” is powerful because it describes our current reality—we have stars, forests, lakes, and bees—and we are taking it for granted. Olzmann is giving us a vision of where we are headed if we don’t change our ways. The final one-line stanzas makes it clear: “And then the bees were dead.”

Possibilities for Writers:

  • Read this text as a writer to notice and name other interesting craft moves and discuss how they impact you as a reader.
  • Think of a topic and audience for your own letter to the future.
  • Explore similar texts such as this Letter to My Younger Self by Olympian Anna Cockrell or this Letter to My Future Self by skateboarder Alexis Sablone.

Inspiration for Writer’s Notebooks Part Two


This is the second in a three-part series of posts that highlight some of our favorite titles for inviting students (and ourselves) to explore their world and their lives for writing ideas to capture in their notebooks. You can read the first post here.


Amy Krouse Rosenthal chose to write her memoir in the form of an encyclopedia and the final product, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, has been one of my favorite sources of writer’s notebook inspiration since I first read it. The entries—sometimes funny and sometimes poignant—are wonderful invitations to observe and document the details of life, no matter how ordinary they may seem at first.


Another source of inspiration for paying attention to the writing possibilities in the world around us is Neil Pasricha’s The Book of Awesome. Like the posts on his blog, Pasricha documents the awesomeness he discovers day-to-day life.


The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday by Rob Walker is bursting with invitations to engage more deeply with our surroundings and to see our world in new ways. The exercises range from quick and easy (find something you weren’t looking for, sketch a room you just left, take a long walk through an unfamiliar part of town) to more complex (make a personal map, donate time, interview and elder).


This trio from Austin Kleon is filled with creative inspiration, invitations, and unique mentor text options. Kleon encourages readers (and writers and creators) to see the world like an artist, looking for creative inspiration even in unlikely places.


On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation by Alexandra Horowitz is one of my most recommended texts for anyone getting started with writer’s notebooks. It’s a long read, but there are so many fantastic passages that can be pulled out as excerpts. Horowitz walks and re-walks the streets of her New York City neighborhood, observing her surroundings through a different lens each time. Often, she is accompanied by an expert who points out aspects of the route she has never thought to pay attention to on her previous walks. It is a wonderful mentor text for both keen observation and documentation.


A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg combines two of my favorite things: food and storytelling. Part cookbook and part memoir, Wizenberg reflects on stories from her life by centering them on food.


If you have participated in our annual A 30-Day Writing Habit, you are familiar with Grant Snider’s comics. They make wonderful writing invitations. The Shape of Ideas: An Illustrated Exploration of Creativity is a wonderful collection of comics that share advice for finding or reigniting a creative spark. They are also terrific multimodal mentor texts and options for minilessons.


In Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, cartoonist and writer Lynda Barry captures activities and assignments from courses she taught in the Art Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Many of them invite students to capture their surroundings through a combination of images and words. The book itself is published in the format of a composition notebook and is a visual inspiration for anyone interested in keeping a notebook.




What I was reading:

Good Girl, Bad Blood is Holly Jackson’s much anticipated sequel to her bestseller A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder. While the first book is investigating a cold case, this title works to solve a current missing person’s profile, in real time. The different text forms presented in this book make the reader feel like they are looking through a case file, not simply reading a novel. The pictures, text messages, audio clips and case notes draw the reader in, and creates a sense that  we are solving the case together.

Here are some clips of the varying text forms:


















What moves I noticed the author making:

  • Details like a voice being inaudible on a podcast bring a realistic element that makes the reader feel like it is a true crime story.
  • The titles of file names are matter-of-fact and end in the type of file – picture, audio etc.
  • The case notes are written to herself and include incomplete sentences to mimic quickly jotting down notes to oneself.
  • The text messages showing a series of texts left unanswered give a visual of desperation that simply narrating the scene would not have provided.

Possibilities for writers:

  • Using a floor plan, annotate events to tell a story. Give it a matter-of-fact title.
  • Create case notes for yourself on an observation – maybe one you’re making right now in class. Mimic the structure here of some short and incomplete sentences to get your point across or jump into the detail.
  • Write about how you would respond if you were sending messages without a response until you say you’d do anything and the person replies “anything?” Where does your mind go?
  • We engage in so many text forms daily. Our narratives are composed of all of these. Create a story using multiple text forms – an image, a floorplan, text messages, notes to yourself, dialogue etc.
  • As always, take your writing where it goes.

Inspiration for Writer’s Notebooks Part One


At this time of year, teachers are establishing writing routines to launch a year or semester of writing workshop. Because the writer’s notebook is one of the cornerstones of the workshop, teachers often ask us to recommend texts to inspire students’ writing. This is the first in a three-part series of posts that highlight some of our favorite titles for inviting students (and ourselves) to explore their world and their lives for writing ideas to capture in their notebooks.


The combination of images and text found in both My Inner Sky and Am I There Yet? by Mari Andrew make these a terrific source of quickwrites, especially when you are introducing the notebook and students are beginning to generate lots of ideas to see what bubbles to the surface.


The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green is a collection of brief, thought-provoking reflective essays about life, written in the style of reviews, including a rating system—Halley’s Comet: 4.5 stars, the internet: 3 stars, Canada Geese: 2 stars, Monopoly: 1.5 stars. These essays are engaging mentor texts for students to write their own ratings and rationales.


In the comic memoir The Fire Never Goes Out, author and illustrator Noelle Stevenson shares the highs and lows of a creative life. The book as a whole is an inspiration and many of the single and double-page spreads have the potential to be used as invitations to write and reflect. The comic format demonstrates the multimodality of storytelling. It just may inspire writers to try out a more visual form!


Goodbye, again by Johnny Sun combines personal essays, stories, and illustrations. Ranging from a few lines to a few pages, these texts invite writers to observe their own lives for story possibilities and it models many unique ways to share those stories. One of my favorites is “How to cook scrambled eggs” told through a series of recipes.


The Book of Qualities by J. Ruth Gendler explores human qualities by bringing them to life as people. Stillness meets you with tea and takes you for walks by the ocean, Confidence treats ‘No Trespassing Signs’ as though they aren’t there, Charm is not afraid to wear beauty on the outside, and Boredom can’t stand to be alone. These short texts will inspire writers to create their own versions about qualities they admire (or not) in others or in themselves.


Ashley Perez created Read This for Inspiration: Simple Sparks to Ignite Your Life as a remedy for phone fatigue: “No long paragraphs or giant chapters to slog through—instead, I’ve written digestible thought-starters you can easily dip into. Scoop them up and take them with you to meditate on throughout your day or as you wind down your night.” This collection of colorful images and short texts is overflowing with quickwrite possibilities.


If you have ever found yourself searching for just the right word to describe how you are feeling, you’ll want to check out The Emotionary: A Dictionary of Words That Don’t Exist for Feelings That Do written by Eden Sher and illustrated by Julia Wertz. Writers can use the entries, such as regretrospect (regret + retrospect)- the feeling that if you could do it all over again, you actually would change all of the things, as models for creating their own versions.


Heart Talk: Poetic Wisdom for A Better Life by Cleo Wade is a lovely little collection you can read from cover-to-cover or dip in and out of when you find yourself in need of inspiration or encouragement. The font is unique and many of the poems have an added layer of meaning thanks to underlines, stars, and annotations.


When poet Maggie Smith’s marriage ended, she starting writing daily notes to self—words of affirmation or encouragement—and posting them on social media. These posts became the inspiration for Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change. This collection is filled with short, beautifully crafted tweet-sized poems that can be used for invitations to write, mentor texts, and mini-lessons.



In Why Do I Have to Read This?: Literacy Strategies to Engage Our Most Reluctant Students by Cris Tovani she shares her use of Background Knowledge Placemats.

What it is: A collection of images, statistics, infographics, quotes, and excerpts of longer pieces of text placed together on a large sheet of paper (legal or ledger) that can be used to both build and assess students’ background knowledge on any topic of study.

Here is one we made for the beginning of a unit on homelessness.

Students can be provided with individual copies of the placemat, or placed in small groups, and are invited to read whatever it is that grabs their attention on the placemat. One of the beautiful things about this activity is that it is accessible to a wide range of readers because students students can choose to read a single item on the placemat or they may choose to read everything on the placemat.

Students are then asked to respond to their reading on two sticky notes. On one sticky note the students are asked to write one thing they think they “get” from the information on the placemat and on the other they write one thing they are wondering.




Here is an example from Cris Tovani’s students studying Syria:

After students read the placemat and complete their sticky notes, here is what happens:

  • Students can leave their stickies around the placemats and groups can rotate around to see their classmates thinking and wondering before the teacher collects them.
  • Once they are collected, the teacher can use the sticky notes to help determine texts that answer the questions that students have on the topic.
  • Teachers can then create a handout of the students thinking and wonderings for the next day for students to read through (the goal being to include a response from every student).
  • Students can then respond to one or two ideas that stand out to them on the handout.
  • In the goal of building community, students can then be asked to find the students who wrote the annotation(s) they chose to respond to and tell them why it stood out to them (maybe it echoed their own thinking, made them think differently, etc).

Here is an excerpt of the handout Cris Tovani made after collecting her students’ placemats on Syria:

Tovani, Cris. Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Stenhouse, 2004.

The placemats and sticky notes can be displayed to remind both teacher and students of the questions that need answered as they move forward with the topic they are studying.

To read more on the use of Background Knowledge Placemats we recommend reading Why Do I Have to Read This?: Literacy Strategies to Engage Our Most Reluctant Students by Cris Tovani.



”Can life begin again…every other weekend?” is the question posed on the back of Abigail Johnson’s book Every Other Weekend. 

Readers are introduced to Adam and Jolene, two teens who happen to be spending every other weekend as neighbors while living with their dads. In alternating viewpoints, the stories of these two are shared as they navigate the world of being a teenager with separated parents and past trauma – all while trying to pursue relationships and dreams. Their relationship begins as companions every other weekend and begins to expand into their other time through text messages.  

This book shows the complexities of human relationships, both teen and adult. The experiences of teenagers whose parents are separated are unique to their situations and circumstances are not always how they appear.  

The book has sweet moments of a budding relationship, but deals with important issues of family dynamics, toxic relationships, personal loss, death, abuse, neglect, grooming and sexual assault. The story portrays a natural progression of two teens from neighbors, to friends to romantic partners, but is complicated by both current and past events. 

I will leave you with a parting quote to offer a taste of the angsty teens and the relationship you are about to meet: 

“You made me want to be happy again.” 



Thanks to a few Twitter friends, I was introduced to the fantastic resource writer/designer: A Guide to Making Multimodal Projects by Cheryl E. Ball, Jennifer Sheppard, and Kristin L. Arola.

The authors define multimodal as “a mashup of multiple and mode” (3). A mode is how we communicate our ideas and a text is multimodal when it combines different ways of communicating. They take the approach that “a text does not have to include bright colors or interesting videos to be multimodal (although it can). Even a research paper, which is mostly words, is a multimodal text” (4).

writer/designer focuses on five modes of communication:

  1. Linguistic- the use of language including written and spoken words
  2. Visual- images and other characteristics that readers see
  3. Aural- sound such as sound effects, volume, and tone of voice
  4. Spatial- the physical arrangement of text elements
  5. Gestural- the way movement contributes to meaning (this can also be interpreted in static images)

Each mode in a multimodal text plays a part in the overall impact and message, but the full communication of a multimodal text relies on the way the modes work together. As a result, the term text is used in this context to “refer to a piece of communication as a whole. A text can be anything from a lolcat to a concert tee shirt to a dictionary to a performance” (3).

Every writer who sets out to create a text chooses modes of communicating. Designing, like writing, is a process with essentially the same fundamental goals:

  • To think critically about the kinds of communication that are needed in any given situation
  • To choose sources and assets that will help create an effective text
  • To work within and fulfill your audience’s needs and goals
  • To improve communication through the finished text
  • To create change or encourage positive action through a text (6).

One of my favorite aspects of writer/designer is the concept that the process of writing and designing are recursive, not linear. Throughout this process of designing and redesigning (writing and revising), the author uses models and their existing knowledge of text. The use of models and the invitation to reflect through Touchpoint Activities and Case Studies makes this resource incredibly user-friendly for both a reader who is new to multimodal texts and one who is looking to enhance their current practice.



Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is a beautifully written middle level novel about two sisters who learn that speaking their truth may be what allows them to start healing from a childhood shattered by abuse and neglect. The story begins with Della (10) and Suki (16) being placed in foster care after an attempted sexual assault on Della by their mother’s ex-boyfriend, the one they were left living with when their mother was incarcerated. Fortunately for the girls, they are placed with Francine, who becomes the ally the girls so desperately need – even if they don’t realize they do.

This novel shines light on the effects of childhood sexual abuse and the lengths siblings will go to protect one another. Although Fighting Words is not always easy to read, it is an important read. The characters and the story created by Brubaker will surely open up important conversations about topics often shied away from, and in doing so, will help with the stigma around sexual abuse while offering hope to survivors. Although this title is not a memoir, the author is one of these survivors.

My greatest hope after reading this novel is that it finds its way into the hands of the students who need it most.



In a time when people are more and more physically disconnected due to a global pandemic and only connected by the reassuring hum of the home wi-fi router, we are longing for connection. Unable to easily meet face to face, we seek out stories via television series, movies, novels, newspapers and podcasts to hear the stories of the lives of others. To connect. Stories ground us in our common humanity.

Recognizing this desire for connection and harnessing the power tools of a good story to strengthen non-fiction writing is the topic of Story Matters Teaching Teens to Use the Tools of Narrative to Argue and Inform by Liz Prather.

Prather, a teacher and a much-published freelance writer and blogger, demonstrates how to teach writing from a writer’s perspective. She shares how the most effective pieces of non-fiction are full of techniques gleaned from narrative writing to increase the reader’s ability to connect with, and thus comprehend, the topic at hand.

Starting with the assumption that not everyone will make the link between narrative tools and their use in nonfiction, the first chapter of Story Matters, amusingly entitled

“Narrative as Home Base, Ground Zero, Mother Ship,” explores both an expert mentor text and a student text using narrative skills in essays. This chapter is truly a fascinating demonstration of ways to rapidly improve non-fiction writing and provides a solid foundation for the rest of the book.

The remaining chapters explore lessons on developing writing ideas, characters, tension, structure, details, and language. The author gives permission to read and explore any chapter in any order as well as an invitation to keep showing up, practicing the skills and trying to get better. A person could learn a lot from even reading one chapter of this book.

Story Matters offers many clever, authentic and absorbing lesson ideas for budding writers than most books of this genre.  In one idea generating activity Prather has her students create a timeline called “Your Life at a Glance.” Students record important personal life events for each year of their life and then research and record world, national, cultural and local events that occurred during these same years.  Students discover areas of interest for writing fodder and develop a greater knowledge of what is happening around them, becoming more grounded in the bigger world that they inhabit.

 Prather provides her students ample opportunity to explore craft moves and to discuss why the writer used the language they did or to bring attention to what the writer left out. “I want students to see every piece of writing as an artifact of someone’s decision-making.” She notes that only 20 percent of the research gathered for an information piece is used, statistically speaking. Students are welcomed to consider how important writing decisions are made, guided by the understanding that the goal is discovery, and that writing is full of possible right combinations. They are encouraged to play “even if it doesn’t end up in the final piece of writing.” This sense of autonomy when writing is essential for authentic voice and engagement.

In another exercise, Prather cuts up essays into sections and has the students play around with how the essays could be put back together with the discussion focus being “What delivers the author’s main point most effectively and why?” This is another effective way to have students reflect on possibilities for organizing structures that they can replicate in their own craft. Prather’s writing is full of a vast number of such activity examples.

“When we sail in with hamburgers, keyholes, and hourglasses, we cut students out of all the decisions, the measuring and cutting, that makes writing meaningful ……….no one knows where to start, and writing is frustration. There are no shortcuts. Students simply need to practice this decision making over and over to get a feel for the complementary zigzag moves writers make to structure a text.”

 Story Matters is an exploration of craft, of thinking about writing, of creating a bridge between the writer and the world and between the writer and her writing. It engagingly demonstrates how far educators have come in the exploration of teaching the writing craft.


Elizabeth Ann Walker is a life-long educator with a background in the performance arts and wellness. A certified yoga teacher, trained sound therapist and meditator, Elizabeth has spent many years teaching literacy in Quebec and New Brunswick. She is an avid reader slowly working on writing about a 12-year transformative experience with Lyme disease.