Panel III Handout: Writers’ Research and Craft

October Mourning
Written by Lesléa Newman
Candlewick Press, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-7636-5807-6

Grades 8-12

Teaching Ideas and Invitations


Researching Lived Experiences. Oftentimes, in school, we consider research a value-free exercise, without emotional impact or weight. Five days after Matthew Shepard was beaten and left to die, author Lesléa Newman arrived in Laramie, Wyoming to give the keynote address to launch the University of Wyoming’s Gay Awareness Week. Her personal experiences in Laramie, as well as her lesbian identity, fueled her research and writing of October Mourning over a decade later. Have your students brainstorm local, national, or global events about which they have visceral memories. Have students select an event to research, letting their memories and their personal connections guide, but not dominate, their research. Students can conduct the research individually, in pairs, or small groups, and choose to share what they have learned in a variety of ways. Whatever vehicle they choose to share their research, be sure that they represent the multiple perspectives that they seek out in their research process.

Contextualizing Source Materials. To write October Mourning, Lesléa Newman used a wide range of source material. Many of her poems are introduced by direct quotes or reference something that someone said on the news, in the newspaper, or in court testimony. Have your students read October Mourning before you conduct a research project already embedded in your curriculum. As your students reference source material parenthetically within the papers, have them jot down notes about why they are citing that particular source at that particular moment. When the paper is done, require students to include a “Notes” section like Newman does, describing the source material, and why the quote or information was important include.

Writer’s Craft

Poetry Genre Study. Use October Mourning as a way to explore the craft of poetry writing and the various ways in which different poetic forms operate. First, have students read the book as a novel, and explore the ways in which the various forms help to shape characterization as well as pacing. Next, think about the choices the author made about these different forms, drawing from the “Explanation of Poetic Forms” included in the back of the book. In addition to a traditional poetry genre student, in which students write and revise poems drawing on a variety of forms, topics, and themes, have your students create a short narrative using a minimum of five different poetic forms.

Exploring Verse Novels. Through an exploration of the theme of loss, have your students study the art of verse novels in small groups. Alongside October Mourning, you can explore Ann Turner's Hard Hit, Guadalupe Garcia McCall's Under the Mesquite, and Margarita Engle's Tropical Secrets. For each novel, have students compare and contrast how the authors built the narrative art into the collection of poems. How do free verse novels operate compared to October Mourning's use of a range of poetic forms? What roles does figurative language play? How do the poems shape the pacing of the overall story? To further enhance their exploration of verse fiction, have your students write short stories told in verse, and publish your collection in print or digitally to share with fellow teens. You may or may not ask students to focus on the theme of loss that permeates this constellation of books.

Researched Verse Fiction and Nonfiction. After reading October Mourning, have your students read Marilyn Nelson’s nonfiction Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem. Fortune’s Bones also explores loss and bigotry, through the life of Fortune, an enslaved African man living in 18th century Connecticut. Both books are heavily researched. Have your students read each book and compare and contrast the ways in which each author uses what she researched to represent the events of Matthew Shepard’s death and Fortune’s life and death. To further enhance their study of researched verse, have your students research a person of interest who is no longer living, and reconstruct that person’s life, partially or wholly, through verse fiction or nonfiction. Make sure your students include an author’s note that articulates how they built upon their research to construct their narrative.

Further Explorations

Digital Texts
Lesléa Newman Official Webpage

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrne Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009

NY Times Topics: Matthew Shepard

“The Crucifixion of Matthew Shepard,” Vanity Fair, Melanie Thernstorm

The Matthew Shepard Web Archive, University of Wyoming

The Matthew Shepard Foundation

Matthew’s Place

The Trevor Project

Parents, Families, and Friends, of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG)

Human Rights Campaign

Engle, M. (2009). Tropical secrets: Holocaust refugees in Cuba.  New York: Holt.

McCall, G. G. (2011). Under the mesquite. New York: Lee and Low.

Nelson, M. (2004). Fortune’s bones: The manumission requiem. Honesdale, PA: Front Street.

Turner, A. (2006). Hard hit. New York: Scholastic.  

Courage Has No Color
Written by Tanya Lee Stone
Candlewick Press, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-7636-5117-6
Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Exploring the Military in World War II. Courage has No Color explores the role of one group of African-American men during World War II. Using a literature circle approach, have students explore the book alongside other American men and women whose service in World War II was limited because of prejudice, such as Black Men and White Air Men by John Fleishman and Yankee Doodle Gals by Amy Nathan. There is no comparable middle grade or young adult nonfiction book specifically on Japanese-American soldiers, in particular the 442nd Regiment, but there are digital collections listed below that can also be explored. After focusing on these three trade books, as well as digital texts, have students examine several textbook accounts of World War II or a basic survey book on the topic. What role do the men and women they read about play in these more general accounts? Are they mentioned? Is a comprehensive history of the war possible to write?


Comparing Research Strategies: After reading Courage has No Color, make sure that students read “The Story Behind the Story” within the back matter. Next, have your students read a variety of entries from the Interesting Nonfiction for Kids (INK) blog. Have them compare and contrast the different approaches writers and illustrators take to complete their research, and the similarities and differences between Stone’s approach and others’.

How Far Have We Come? After reading Courage has No Color, have your students explore contemporary issues of equity within the military. Using some of the resources below, as well as other digital and print texts, have your students explore the recent demise of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy that prohibited gay and lesbian men and women from being out while serving in the military, and the recent termination of the ban on women in combat. Students may also want to consider the make-up of our all-volunteer force and the number of men and women of color in the military today as compared to during World War II.  

Oral History. To write this book, Tanya Lee Stone had to conduct many interviews with the veterans of the 555th, who are in the eighties and nineties. Have your students conduct oral histories with senior citizens in your community about their memories of World War II. Be sure to have your students read more widely about the war before establishing general research questions and specific interview questions. You might want to organize groups to interview men and women based on the different roles they played at war and on the Homefront. Decide together the best way to share their research. They may want to co-author articles with the senior citizens whom they interview, to publish a class magazine that can be donated to the school and public library. Or, students might use this as an opportunity to introduce multimodal digital composition to senior citizens in your area, working together to photograph artifacts and momentos, locate old songs, and record some of their conversations, in order to create a portrait of their memories.

Writer’s Craft

Author Study. Have some students in class read Courage has No Color, and have others read Almost Astronauts. What are the similarities and differences in content and theme? What are some of the similarities and differences in the structures of the books? What visual narratives are created within each book? How did Stone approach her research in each? How does the author’s note and source material guide you?  What are some of the lessons in craft that they learn from her books?

Further Explorations

Digital Texts
Tanya Lee Stone Official Webpage

INK Blog: Nonfiction Writers Sharing Their Craft

The Triple Nickles Association

Walter Morris, “Experiencing the War: Stories from the Veteran’s History Project,”
The Library of Congress

“Army Honors Triple Nickles Legacy at Pentagon Ceremony,” US Army Homepage

CIA: Japanese-American Spies in World War II

Japanese-Americans in World War II, The History Channel

World War II, Library of Congress

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team Historical Society

NY Times Topic: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

NY Times Topic: Women at Arms, 2009

“Women in Combat and the Price They Pay,” NPR

Fleishman, J. (2007). Black and white airmen: Their true history. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Nathan, A. (2002). Yankee Doodle gals: Women pilots of World War II. Washington, DC: National Geographic.

Stone, T. L. (2009). Almost astronauts. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

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