Using The One Thing You’d Save as a Writing Mentor Text

A fantastic 60-page picture book geared for middle school students (The One Thing You’d Save) can mentor your students in in the writing concepts of ideas, voice, a new type of poetry, and even more. Just like in the book, an open discussion can help students recognize the impact of these good writing traits. Further, discussing high quality literature can provide a good model for students. The One Thing You’d Save is a helpful mentor text to prompt useful writing discussions and in writing projects.

About the Mentor Text: The One Thing You’d Save

The One Thing You’d Save by Linda Sue Park (illustrated by Robert Sae-Heng; Clarion Books, 2021) is a brief poetic children’s book that includes a thought experiment: what one thing would you save if a fire were destroying your home? No limits. After the teacher gives this question to her class, the subsequent pages provide students’ answers to the question.

Some of the pages give a student’s internal thoughts, considering the options and the parameters of the discussion. Other pages, with words in quote marks, are words students say to one another. The teacher’s words are in a different font. Student responses are not labeled with student names, but sometimes the kids mention a name when they respond to a speaker. The class discusses the limits of the thought experiment (does a whole bookshelf, with all the treasures, count as one thing?). Other parts of the conversation show the distinct differences the students had in approaching this question.

The One Thing You’d Save is about 60 pages, with most pages showing illustrations of some kind, and a few illustrations taking multiple pages. See my book review on Rebecca Reads.


Things to Consider in The One Thing You’d Save

This book emphasizes the value of things versus relationships in a completely unique way, giving the reader, whether ten years old or high school aged, a chance to deeply ponder this question for themselves. One ideal audience for this book, for writing workshop purposes, may be middle school. After reading the book, consider the variety of ways students approached the question of what to bring with them:

  • practical items (medicine or a telephone)
  • personal items (a collection or a favorite book)
  • memorable items (a lock of hair from a long-deceased brother or a family quilt or sweater)

Even more significantly are the people that do not respond to the question aloud. For example, one student’s internal thoughts run through the very real events that happened when he or she escaped a fire, for real. He cannot say it aloud. It is obviously painful:

“They don’t know what I know, Ms. Chang neither, even though she said don’t take anything if there’s a fire for real.”

Another student doesn’t speak aloud because he wouldn’t save anything: he hates his house and considers it worthy of burning. Although these students don’t answer the question aloud, the inclusion of their thought process adds to both the feeling evoked by the book and its substance.


Writing and Brainstorming with the Mentor Text

You can use The One Thing You’d Save as a writing or prewriting discussion prompt in a few ways. Here are just a few of them.

Consider the IDEAS. As I did above, discuss the various types of items students chose, whether practical, personal, or memorable, etc. Are there other types of items people can choose to rescue? What do the items each person chooses tell about their personalities and priorities? What can you learn from what they don’t choose to take?

RESPOND to the characters. Students could respond to one of the “students” who appears in the text, whether they spoke aloud (in quote marks) or whether they were one of the students whose thoughts appeared in the text separately. (If they are unnamed, students can assign them a name.) Responses could be in the form of a letter, or students could write more of a personality analysis to what what they can infer about the student.

Discuss VOICE. Use the book as a brainstorm on what things are important to you. Rather than writing their answers, students can record their own stream-of-consciousness thoughts to a text-to-speech program and then review their own sentence patterns. Which of the students in the book (most of them are not named, so you’ll have to reference page numbers) do their thoughts sound like? Each person’s response will be unique to them, and when approaching writing of any kind, the voice of their narrator (even an omniscient narrator) is significant.

Observe the CONVENTIONS. What rules did the author break in writing the text? For example, what mechanics and punctuation have been omitted? What grammatical errors can you find in the text? How do these contribute to voice? Is it important to know the conventions? Why does the author “break the rules” in her writing?

IMITATE the format and write sijo poetry. The author’s note indicates that the poetic line structure from “sijo,” an ancient form of traditional Korean poetry: “A classic sijo has three lines of thirteen to seventeen syllables. Sometimes the three lines are divided into six shorter ones.” Although I did not know about this poetic style, students can imite the poetic style on their own using the guidelines as given. Or, see more information on Wikipedia.



Thoughts on Using Mentor Texts

Upon finishing The One Thing I’d Save, I found it difficult to classify as a book. It’s a book of poetry, firs, even though I didn’t even realize it was a specific poetic structure until the end. Is it a picture book, given it’s inclusion of a sketch or illustration on most pages? Is it a middle grade novel, a mere 60 pages? As a grown-up I related to it very much, so in some ways it feels universal.

Although read-aloud times are not always included for middle school aged children, reading a book like this together a class could be a very helpful in leading a writing workshop to discuss the things I mentioned. What other brainstorming and writing activities can you think of to go along with The One Thing I’d Save?

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