What is it that young writers find so appealing about versus stories? Last year my first-grade class loved versus stories. They went on a versus writing streak in writing workshop that lasted for weeks. We had fork versus spoon, potato versus carrot, marshmallow versus chocolate, and other similar tales. The students loved writing them, and would spend days in writing workshop drawing intricate illustrations of events for their stories. Though they loved writing versus stories, I struggled with them as a teacher. The stories had characters and events, but the events were unrelated ,and the stories often lacked a problem or conflict to hold them together.
I knew from watching students work that the level of engagement for this kind of story was just what I wanted to see in young writers during our workshop, but I also felt like I needed to help them understand how versus stories work. I was stuck, because I really hadn’t given much thought to these types of stories and didn’t have a readily available stack of mentor texts. Modeling with my own writing wasn’t helping them make the shift I had hoped for in their writing.
Since that time I’ve kept this dilemma in the back of my mind as I’ve read picture books. When this year’s first graders began writing versus stories, I smiled to myself. I knew I was ready. The first versus stories this year came early and were about the expected superheroes: Red Spiderman versus Black Spiderman, Batman versus Catwoman, and other “superhero saves the day” stories. I’m ready to tap into the excitement of versus stories with mentor texts that will help students dig a little deeper into this type of writing and grow as writers.
Mentor Texts for “Versus” Stories
Dinosaur vs. Bedtime by Bob Shea: Dinosaur doesn’t want to go to bed. He does everything to win his battle with bedtime, but can he? I love this book as a mentor text for its simplicity. Early writers can see themselves writing a book like this. Crayon-like drawings of the character, changes in font size, and short phrases help tell the story of dinosaur’s battle with bedtime. There are many of the same crafting techniques my young writers are trying to use. The focus of scenes also helps illustrate the importance of knowing your purpose in writing a text.
Stuck by Oliver Jeffers: Floyd gets his kite stuck in the tree and decides he must get it out. I’m not sure if I’d consider this boy versus kite or boy versus tree. Either way, a challenge ensues as Floyd tries and tries to retrieve his kite. Will he ever get it down? The cumulative structure of this text as Floyd makes one attempt after another to get his kite is one young writers can try in their writing.
Lion vs. Rabbit by Alex Latimer: In this story, a lion bullies all the other animals. The animals are tired of the way the lion acts, but no one wants to stand up to him. One day a rabbit decides it is time to stand up to the lion, but how can a rabbit compete with a lion? This is a perfect example of how sometimes outsmarting an opponent is more effective than trying to overpower him. This book is a good example of a versus story, and the illustrations are an effective component that cannot be overlooked. Latimer gives many clues in the pictures that are not captured in his words. He also uses speech bubbles, which are a common feature in comics, graphic novels, and other versus formats. Sometimes Latimer illustrates several short scenes on one page to help with the pace of his story. These are all crafting techniques young writers can try in their writing.
Super Hair-o and the Barber of Doom by John Rocco: Super Hair-o has special powers he gets from his super-long hair. One day his parents decide it is time for a haircut, capturing him and taking him to the Barber of Doom. His hair is cut and Super Hair-o is left without his special powers. Will he be able to get them back? This story is not only fun to read, but has many features of comic book conflicts: speech bubbles, comic-like color, and onomatopoeia.
Creepy Carrots! by Aaron Reynolds (author) and Peter Brown (illustrator): In this story it’s Rabbit versus the creepy carrots. Rabbit is sure the carrots are out to get him. He finally devises a plan he is sure will stop them once and for all. Is this Rabbit’s imagination or are the carrots really stalking him? Without a doubt Creepy Carrots! is perfect for talking with students about color in illustrations. The way Reynolds uses dark colors to set the mood and tone for his book is powerful and worth sharing with young writers attempting this type of writing.
The Boy Who Cried Bigfoot by Scott Magoon: This story is Boy versus Bigfoot. The boy in this story is sure he sees Bigfoot. Though he tries to tell others, no one believes him. The boy creates elaborate plans to try to get proof, but it just doesn’t work. Will he get others to believe him? Is it just his imagination? I like to use this story to talk about character development. Magoon creates strong characters in his story and their facial expressions, actions, and interactions help to strengthen this tale. In his illustrations Magoon uses speech bubbles to help tell the story, is thoughtful about character expressions, and is able to show movement using lines.
The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill (author) and Laura Huliska-Beith (illustrator): We are all familiar with this storyline: playground bully versus kind child. Jean is in charge of the playground. No one does anything without her permission. The kids are all afraid of her. One day Katie Sue comes to school. She takes on Jean, but with kindness. Will Katie Sue be able to change Mean Jean the Recess Queen? This story is one I like to use to show how versus stories happen in our daily lives. Everyone has experience with a playground bully and knows it is challenging. This book helps to spur discussions about realistic versus stories we can find in our daily lives.