The environmentalist John Muir was born on April 21, 1838. If you are looking for a way to celebrate this great man’s birthday in your classroom, may I humbly suggest using my picture book, John Muir Wrestles a Waterfall. The book tells the story of John Muir’s midnight climb up a rocky ledge beside Yosemite Falls. In a moment of daring, he scoots out on a narrow ledge, hundreds of feet above the river, and when the wind shifts the waterfall away from the sheer granite wall, he slips in behind it.
Glorious rejoicing at nature’s beauty soon turns to terror as John is almost swept off the ledge into the rocky river below. Factual sidebars highlight the story with interesting information about Muir’s life.
I was inspired to write about John Muir’s life after a family trip to Yosemite. But after reading several biographies, I was stumped. His life was so big and so interesting, I didn’t know how to cover it. I didn’t know what to leave in and what to take out.
Then, I came across the true story of his midnight madness to get closer to nature and I knew just what to do. To me, this one anecdote reveals everything important one needs to know about Muir. It reveals both his passion for nature and the great lengths he was willing to go in order to fulfill that passion.
As a teacher, I’ve used the book to model how to narrow in on a small moment, and then how to stretch that moment out to create a compelling narrative. The students enjoyed applying their knowledge of narrative writing to nonfiction. They enjoyed finding facts to support their story and of course, then using an expository voice, to write factual sidebars. Finally, they enjoyed finding visuals to support their narrative and share it with the class. When the project was done, I found that my young writers not only walked away with a clearer understand of how to use the narrative text structure to teach nonfiction, but in the process, they also formed a deeper understanding of and a deeper connection to their subject.