Using Scary Stories to Motivate Writers

Are you searching for a way to motivate writers in your classroom? If so, grab some quick and easy scary mentor text to read to your students during October. Reading a variety of samples of mentor text is an awesome way to model the craft of writing. Plus, using scary stories to motivate writers is even easier in the month of October.

Literary Elements and Figurative Language

What’s the secret to writing a suspenseful Halloween story? By making sure key pieces of literary elements and figurative language are intertwined throughout. Many spooky stories contain such crucial aspects as a unique setting on the edge of night, spooky sounds that only well-crafted onomatopoeia can produce, and sensory words that really make a reader feel a part of the action.


As you know, the setting of a story is the location in which a narrative takes place and time of the events. The setting creates the mood. However, a scary story doesn’t always have to occur in the typical graveyard or a haunted house with a long history of misfortune. No. It can be somewhere totally unexpected, but with the right twist and turns, becomes a place of danger, a place of fear. For example, in the story, The Creepy Carrots, who would have ever thought a carrot patch named Crackenhopper Field could produce an air of fright. Nonetheless, it most certainly does through the creative mind of Aaron Reynolds.

While much emphasis is placed on the location, which is indeed extremely important, so is the time. Nothing grabs the reader’s attention more than when a story begins at the edge of night. For example, Linda Williams writes in The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything, “She walked so long and so far that it started to get dark. There was only a sliver of moon shining through the night.” I personally believe it has to do with primal fear kicking in with the reader, creating an environment in which the hairs stand up on the back of their necks and they are dying to know more.


What’s another crucial aspect that a spooky story must contain? Sound. Nothing creates more dread than an unexpected sound coming from an unexpected place, no matter the time or location. For example, in The Creepy Carrots, Reynolds writes, “Jasper was about to help himself to a victory snack…when he heard it. The soft…sinister…tunktunktunk of carrots creeping.” No one is scared of pulling carrots from the ground. However, when the sky is on the edge of darkness and the field is located along the side of woods, and you are all alone, then suddenly a sinister echo vibrates from the garden behind you. Yes, primal fear automatically kicks in, even if it is a carrot patch.

Sensory Words

Last, what brings a reader fully into a story than the use of sensory words in mentor text. Sensory words really make the reader feel a part of the action. In the story, The Snowmen at Night, Buehner writes, “Some bite into caramel treats, which give them gooey grins.” I can taste the caramel now. Can you?

Let’s explore the mentor text mentioned above even more.

The Creepy Carrots by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown

A quick and fun mentor text to read aloud is The Creepy Carrots by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown. It definitely takes suspense to a whole different level by demonstrating to your students how a simple carrot field can be transformed into a sinister setting.

Can carrots, the simple vegetable, that doctors tell everyone is good for them, stalk you home and make your life such a disaster you are scared to sleep at night? That is exactly what happened to the fun-loving bunny named Jasper one fall.

This mentor text is perfectly written and illustrated in the Twilight Zone style of the 60s. Reynolds uses the setting of a carrot field on the edge of night to send shivers down the spines of his readers. The author brilliantly weaves the figurative language of onomatopoeia throughout this story to keep his readers on edge.

Additionally, this story makes the perfect mentor text to demonstrate the writing of a scary story without using any truly scary parts. I mean, who fears a couple of carrots, right? Well, just ask Jasper that question.

Publisher’s Synopsis: In this Caldecott Honor-winning picture book, The Twilight Zone comes to the carrot patch as a rabbit fears his favorite treats are out to get him. Celebrated artist Peter Brown’s stylish illustrations pair perfectly with Aaron Reynold’s text in this hilarious picture book that shows it’s all fun and games…until you get too greedy.

The Little Old Lady Who Wasn’t Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams

Another great one that will instantly grab your student’s attention is The Little Old Lady Who Wasn’t Afraid of Anything. The use of onomatopoeia is expertly crafted throughout this story.

How do you scare a little old lady who isn’t afraid of anything? Well, if things don’t scare her, maybe sounds will. Williams incorporates the figurative language of onomatopoeia to create a fun and rhythmic story for all readers.

Publisher’s Synopsis: Once upon a time, there was a little old lady who was not afraid of anything! But one autumn night, while walking in the woods, the little old lady heard . . . clomp, clomp, shake, shake, clap, clap. And the little old lady who was not afraid of anything had the scare of her life! With bouncy refrains and classic art, this timeless Halloween story is perfect for reading aloud.

The Snowmen at Night, by Caralyn Buehner

Another fantastic book to read to show how an ordinary setting can be changed into a spooky narrative is The Snowmen at Night, by Caralyn Buehner. Who would have ever thought of using snowmen for a Halloween story? However, Buehner does it beautifully.

Are there such things as snowmen at Halloween? Not only does this mentor text show how to craft a good story, but it also gives your students a great research project. Plus, adding a nonfiction writing project motivates writers as well.

After analyzing this story for literary elements and figurative language, my students also did some research. They researched how many states and countries may possibly have snowmen on their front lawns during Halloween. The answer might amaze you.

Publisher’s Synopsis: Have you ever built a snowman and discovered the next day that his grin has gotten a little crooked, or his tree-branch arms have moved? And you’ve wondered . . . what do snowmen do when we’re not watching? After an early snowfall, a few kids build some snowmen before going trick-or-treating. And when the kids go off to bed, the snowmen have their own Halloween festival! 


An assortment of scary mentor text may be just the thing to share with your writers this October. Using scary stories is the perfect mentor text to motivate writers in the classroom. This is the month to clearly show the power of the literary element and the figurative language through a variety of scary stories. Your students will love to read or listen to as many as possible. There are so many different samples of a mentor text to model the craft of writing. Dive in and use as many as you can this month.

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Writing Ideas for Middle School: A True Superhero Tale

A Peek Into My Lesson Plan Book: Identities & Life Stories

One of the struggles I’ve seen numerous middle schoolers face deals with identity. Navigating the middle years is confusing. Between hormones, growing brains, and transitioning from child to adult, students sometimes don’t understand what their identity is anymore. Writing Ideas for Middle School: My Life Story, a True Superhero Tale describes how to guide middle school students through the process of discovering their identities and writing compelling autobiographies at the same time.

Middle schoolers can be a conundrum. Caught in the middle between the elementary level and high school, they are part child and part mini adult. It takes a crazy person to enjoy this middle school age, but I definitely do. Some days, middle schoolers can make me laugh hysterically and other days, I may or may not want to bang my head against a wall…but all in all, I really do love teaching this age. 

At the beginning of this school year, I decided to focus on identity with my 8th-grade students. I’m going to let you peek into my lesson plans so to speak for that first month of school.

What does identity mean?

We first began our discussion on identity by simply doing that: discussing what the word means. What does identity mean? What makes up someone’s identity? We discussed the varying factors such as one’s ethnicity, culture, religion, residence, whether they’re a sibling, a daughter, or a son. We discussed how our varying experiences can shape identity. Students wrote their life stories to demonstrate how their varied experiences helped shape their identity and who they are today.

Students first completed a timeline of ten to fifteen main events that had a big impact on their lives. Then, they used these timelines as a springboard to write their life stories. One to two main events turned into a body paragraph in their life stories. Once learning thoroughly how to write an introduction paragraph with a captivating first line, students tackled their life stories with one body paragraph a day, totally six to seven body paragraphs. 

Ghost by Jason Reynolds

As students completed their life stories, I read aloud the book Ghost by Jason Reynolds. This is a novel about a boy named Castle Cranshaw (nicknamed Ghost), whose life is changed drastically when he witnesses his father almost shoot his mother and then turn the gun on Castle as well. Castle and his mother ran quickly out of their apartment and thus started Castle’s first reason for running: to save his own life. Castle, or Ghost, spends most of his adolescence with his father in jail. He accumulates infractions at school and becomes a pro at running away from his problems until he literally takes up running. Ghost uses his running talent, that he did not know he possessed, to join a track team that changes his life. 

We discussed how that one major event of his father almost killing him and his mother changed his life completely. It also became a catalyst for the other events in his life. We talked about how negative events in our life can shape our identity as well as positive events.

We also discussed the idea that we could use those negative events to help create change in our identity. The students also discussed how not to let it become the reason for shaping our identities in something we never wanted. Basically, there is a time for grieving, but we should use those hard life events to motivate us and not let it be an excuse to stay in a cycle of unhealthy behavior like Ghost was doing.

Click below and listen to Jason Reynolds, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, discuss how anxieties have affected him and how banned books can keep students from becoming better human beings.

Your life story is your superpower

We watched the Ted Talk of Matthew Carter who was the real-life friend of Jason Reynolds and inspiration for Ghost. We heard Carter explain the situation that occurred between his mother and her boyfriend that was extremely similar to Ghost’s event of his father almost killing him and his mother. Carter used the central theme of your life story being your superpower.

We used this concept to explore more of our identity. How was our life story our superpower? Did our “superpower” shape our identity? How can we use this theme in our life stories we were writing? 

Ethnicity and culture can shape identity

Next, we watched the America Ferrera Ted Talk, “My Identity is A Superpower-Not an Obstacle.” Ferrera is an award-winning actress and producer for her work on Ugly Betty. Ferrera spoke on how she had a challenging time breaking into acting because of her ethnicity. She wanted to choose roles that didn’t propel a certain stereotype of her culture-but roles that helped show real-life Latina women. Ferrera said: “I was never actually asking the system to change. I was asking it to let me in, and those aren’t the same thing.” 

We answered questions about her Ted Talk and explored how ethnicity and culture can shape identity as well. 

We utilized Ghost, the Matthew Carter Ted Talk, and the America Ferrera Ted Talk to help us dive deeper into their life story writing piece. I didn’t just want stories about visiting Disney and our most fun birthday party, even though students put those events in their stories as well, but I also wanted deeper events discussed- the very core events that impacted them.

Jason Reynolds never saw himself in books

We used this discussion of identity to finally explore what kinds of books we want to read in class. We learned Jason Reynolds, the author of Ghost, was an author who was never able to see himself in books and this was a major driving force for why he became an author. Students filled out graphic organizers exploring the kinds of books they wanted to read, some having to do with their identity as athletes or their interests in art. Others decided they wanted to read books about topics they’ve always loved but never dived into. This was the perfect springboard to help them choose their first independent novel for their Book Review Project which can be found here: 

The importance of connecting with characters

We also discussed the importance of connecting with characters and seeing ourselves in books; yet, we can still learn from books that are completely different from our own experiences, such as our first novel study: The Diary of Anne Frank

We went through the writing process extensively to compose their life stories. It took us a good month of drafting, peer editing, and revising but students finally accomplished penning them. The best part is they have their whole lives to shape their identities and more of their stories.


By using various Ted Talks, Ghost by Jason Reynolds, and different discussions on identity, students were able to write a deep and moving life story and explore their identities. Middle school students are at the perfect age to dive into these types of lessons as they are continually growing, learning, and becoming who they were meant to be.

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Teaching Reading with Roald Dahl Part 2

Last week, in celebration of Roald Dahl’s September birthday, we explored how to teach writing using his novels as mentor text. Mentor texts are real-life examples of wonderful writing pieces students can emulate. This week, we are going to jump in and discuss teaching reading comprehension with Roald Dahl.

Roald Dahl wrote some amazing children’s novels and we explored MatildaJames and the Giant Peach, and his autobiography, Boy on our last blog. You can check it out here.

Roald Dahl is known for his ingenious and unique writing style. The unusual characters in his novels come to life in intriguing ways. Paired with out-of-the-box events and peculiar settings, Dahl’s novels are a recipe for a memorable read.

Not only do these memorable reads make for marvelous mentor text for writing, but it’s also perfect for teaching reading comprehension.

The BFG: Teaching Reading with Roald Dahl

Beginning with what I feel is the most eccentric, yet most interesting book, The BFG stands for big, friendly giant. The BFG is a dream catcher, plodding through the streets of England nightly using a trumpet to catch dreams. He gives children good dreams and destroys the bad ones. Sophie, a little girl, catches the BFG in the act. The BFG plucks her up, puts her in his pocket, and takes her home. In his home, she learns about the way of giants including their favorite fizzy drink called the ‘frobscottle’ that makes you ‘whizzpop.’ She learns about the English cucumber he eats called ‘snozzcumbers.’ They go on some crazy adventures including stomping through giant territory and encountering the man-eating giants. Sophie and the BFG even visit the queen at Buckingham Palace. Eventually, Sophie teaches the BFG how to speak proper English.

I first used this book as a read-aloud in a 3rd/4th grade combination classroom. It was a challenging read-aloud because of the made-up and outlandish words. Yet, that is exactly what helps review phonemes. The BFG’s sentences can be used to promote fluency as a mentor text. Placing sentences in front of students and reading the text in unison helps tremendously with fluency.

Dissecting the words and practicing inferencing skills to figure out the meanings of these words helps with decoding. Students can determine that ‘snozzcumber’ has ‘cumber’ in it from cucumber and could infer that ‘snozz’ sounds slimy, and it must be a slimy cucumber. Giving students these kooky words ahead of time to have them predict what the story may be about. This will really help with student buy-in as I’m sure they’ll wonder what kind of story this is!

Students could also do some word work of their own, putting words together to create their own silly, nonsensical words. In a 2009 study by Dilberto, Beattie, Flowers, & Algozzine, “Students who practiced syllabication skills by reading and spelling nonsense words made significantly greater improvements in word identification, word attack, and reading comprehension than their peers who did not have practice with pretend words.”

Roald Dahl knew what he was doing promoting pretend, nonsensical words. He definitely knew what he was doing when writing these unforgettable tales.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Teaching Reading with Roald Dahl

This story hardly needs a summary as most of the world is familiar with either the book or movies made from it. Dahl published this book in 1964. Eleven-year-old Charlie lives in poverty with his grandparents and leads a rather sad life, until the introduction of a golden ticket contest livens up his world. Willy Wonka, an eccentric chocolate business owner has closed down his factory, but decides to open it up to five golden ticket winners for a tour. Consumers must buy chocolate bars and open them to find a golden ticket. Charlie is the fifth winner of the golden ticket, and he and his grandfather go on the chocolate tour. They are in for a wild ride and an experience that changes the trajectory of their lives.

When teaching this novel, the skill of sequencing should definitely be utilized. With so many fantastical events occurring in the tour, mapping down everything in a sequencing organizer can help students keep up with the timeline of events. Sequencing skills help in other areas such as problem-solving, reading comprehension, and information organization. Older students can complete a plot line as a sequencing map and learn all about climax and resolution.

The lively and wacky characters of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory make it perfect to teach character traits. From the bratty Veruca to the gluttonous Augustus, there are a wide range of character traits for students to explore. Students can also examine inner and outer character traits. They can also illustrate the characters as they imagined them when they read the novel. Character analysis can be taken a step further for older students as they dissect why the grandparents have been bedridden and how their poverty has played a role in this. Personality types vary for each character and even enforce certain societal stereotypes. Dahl’s huge imagination makes Charlie and the Chocolate Factory perfect for character analysis.

Students can also investigate setting as it plays a huge role in this novel. The main setting is listed in the title and plays such an important part that the story would not be the same without it. Students could illustrate various settings and using text-based evidence by writing a sentence from the novel adjacent to their illustration as confirmation. Students can analyze how this setting is like a character of its own and how the setting’s transformations really propel the storyline.

The Witches: Teaching Reading with Roald Dahl

With Halloween coming up, The Witches is a spooky read-aloud that will have students on the edge of their seats. I don’t recommend watching the original movie however, as it gave me some pretty horrible nightmares when I was a child! The book nonetheless is the perfect mix of fear and outlandishness. I recommend this book for ages 8 and up.

The Witches is about a boy whose parents die in a car accident, and he is sent to live with his grandmother in Norway. His grandmother warns him about witches in their community who turn children into mice. (Disclaimer: Definitely inform children this is fictional and part of the fantasy genre.) The grandmother and the boy go on vacation to a fancy hotel where the protagonist soon encounters the witches he was warned about. The main character and a friend he gains at the hotel named Bruno become detectives. Their first mission is to figure out who the witches are and how best to rid the world of their evilness.

The Witches is perfect to teach about different genres and how to identify a genre. For instance, fantasy must contain elements of some type of folklore and this novel does. Students can review the differences between fiction and nonfiction and learn that dark fantasy is the proper terminology for spooky stories. This all further emphasizes to kids that this is not a story to be scared of. For more about teaching genre, check out our genre resources below.

Next, students can practice inferencing skills as they become detectives piecing together the information about witches with the women that the protagonist encounters. Additionally, teaching students what a universal theme is can help aid in reading comprehension. Students can investigate the theme of heroism as the main character acts as a hero to save the community from the witches. The theme of good vs. evil and how good always triumphs over evil can also be examined.

Furthermore, students can practice comparing and contrasting skills. The witches can be compared and contrasted using inner and outer character traits using a combination of illustrations and text-based evidence. Additionally, metaphors and similes are abundant in The Witches. “Her shrieking voice echoed through the ballroom like a trumpet,” is an example of just one of the similes present in the book. Students can go on a simile and metaphor hunt throughout the novel, recording their findings and creating some of their own.

If you’re looking for an interesting October read-aloud or short novel unit, The Witches is too interesting not to pass up.


We have had a blast exploring Roald Dahl and celebrating his September birthday! His creative writing, bizarre characters, and peculiar storylines have intrigued students year after year. His novels can be used to teach writing, like we spoke about in Part 1, and can be used to teach a variety of reading comprehension skills from sequencing to theme. Next time you’re looking for a new novel to read with your kiddos, consider Roald Dahl: one of our favorites.

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