Author Study & Focus Lesson: Lauren Tarshis by Krystin Baron

Lauren Tarshis- Author Study and Focus Lesson

by: Krystin Baron

Author Study:

Books Read for Author Study:


– I Survived The Joplin Tornado, 2011

– I Survived The Attacks of September 11, 2001

– Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of A Tree

Author’s Background:

Lauren Tarshis is an award winning author best known for her series of “I Survived” books. A few years into her career at Scholastic, Tarshis was offered a job as editor of a magazine for middle grade children.  Originally, she declined the position as she felt she was not qualified since she had never read middle grade level writing due to reading difficulties as a child.  This is when she decided to go back and read many of the children’s novels she missed out on.  It was through reading these novels that she became inspired to become a writer.

Tarshis has now been working with Scholastic for twenty-three years, and in most recent years has just started writing novels.  Her first novels were geared toward middle school aged girls.  As she continued working successfully at Scholastic in writing narrative nonfiction pieces about impactful events, she realized there was a deficiency of these types of stories in narrative form for children to connect with.  This is where her writing career took off and she began writing the popular “I Survived” series.

Today, Lauren Tarshis lives in Connecticut with her husband and four children.  She works for Scholastic as Vice President, Editorial Director of Language Arts for Scholastic’s Classroom Magazine Division.  Much of her work involves creating and editing magazines for children, such as Storyworks, and creating digital English/Language Arts materials for teachers’ instructional use.  She also continues to write novels for children.


Literary Moves/Strategies Used by Lauren Tarshis:

**Climatic Hook Into Flashback**

Example in Text: In each “I Survived” series book, Lauren Tarshis has an interesting way of hooking the reader.  She starts with the climax of the story as the first chapter.  Then, she begins the plot in the second chapter where she starts the story a few days earlier, before the impactful event takes place.  For example, in I Survived the Joplin Tornado, 2011, the first chapter begins with the EF-5 tornado destroying the city.  The main character, Dex, is trapped in an SUV and is about to be sucked out by the winds into the tornado.  This is where the first chapter ends.  The second chapter takes the reader back to the previous day where Dex is riding his bike through town.  He talks about his neighbors, friends, and family and it it just a typical day in Joplin.  The story then unfolds following a typical plot.

Writing Use Example:  I might use this strategy in the beginning of a piece of writing that lacks a “hook” to engage the reader or when the events leading to the climax are more on the informational side.  Starting with the climax and the flashing forward with give the reader motivation to keep reading to find out how the story reaches the climax, as well as what happens specifically during the climax and fall action.  For example, if I want to write a piece about the time I broke my arm during cheerleading practice, I may want to start with writing the climatic event (the moment when my arm broke) and then flashback to cheerleading practice the day before.

**Artful Use of “And”**

Example in Text: In I Survived The Attacks of September 11, 2001, the author uses “and” to begin sentences in order to signify the importance of the sentence.  For example,  the character, Lucas, is describing a typical day in New York City.  There is noise, people, and traffic.  Then, the author has Lucas state, “And then there was the plane.”  This simple sentence, beginning with “and”, clearly draws attention to significance of the plane being seen by the character.

Writing Use Example:  In my writing, I would use this strategy add suspense and to clue the reader in on a significant part of what I was writing.  I may use this when writing a piece a piece about be hired for my new job.  It was a long and intensive process that left me in suspense and wonder for days.  And then the phone rang.

**Commentary Dashes**

Example in Text: Also in the text I Survived the Attacks of September 11, 2001, the author frequently uses commentary dashes in order to add details to expand upon an idea with some added voice.  One example of this occurs when Lucas sees the plane for the first time: “He could see the plane so clearly- the engines tucked under the wings, the sun glinting off the windows.”  The author added specific details in order to show how clearly the plane was being seen by Lucas because of how low the plane was in the sky.  Another example of commentary dashes within this text was when Lucas was describing how he, and many other people, barely survived: “If the had stopped for anything- to grab a purse or tie a shoe- they wouldn’t have made it.”

Writing Use Example:  In my writing, I would typically use commas or parentheses in order to add commentary to my writing or to expand an idea.  Instead, I may want to insert commentary dashes.  I could do this in writing a piece about the first time I had to get blood work done and I fainted at the vet’s office with my dog.  I could write, “All of a sudden everything was closing in- a bright, white light started around the outside of my eyes, moved toward the center of my eye, and obscured my vision.” Or I could use this in saying, “The next thing I knew I was waking up- from what felt like a full night’s sleep- and I saw a strange man leaning over me.”

**Whispering Parentheses**

Example in Text: In the novel Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree, Lauren Tarshis uses whispering parentheses in order to have characters comment outside of what is being stated in the text.  For example, one of the characters, Colleen, was describing thoughts on her mother’s saying “time heals all wounds.”  Colleen thinks, “And it was still pretty embarrassing that Colleen was practically the only girl in the entire fifth grade who didn’t make the travel team, (Okay, she hated soccer, but all of her friends were doing it, and would it have been so hard for the coaches to add just one more girl?)” If you notice, the parentheses offset from the regular text in order to communicate additional thoughts with the reader.  This happens again later in the novel where the text states “It had been two days since Kaitlin had broken the terrible news (two days, 48 hours, 2,880 minutes, 172,8000 seconds- Colleen had secretly used her calculator with Senora Weingart was writing on the board).”  In this example, the parentheses communicate with the reader how Colleen in perseverating on the length of two days.

Writing Use Example: Whispering parentheses is an easy way to include an additional thought outside of the conversation or narrative taking place.  I would use this strategy in a writing piece about the day my niece was rushed to the hospital because a hand weight bounced onto her hand.  I would incorporate this strategy such as saying, “My sister walked back with the baby and the nurse.  The waiting room became silent (other than the beeping and talking of the receptionist) when all of a sudden there was non-stop, ear-piercing screaming.”

Focus Mini-Lesson:


  • Today we will be continuing our narrative writing unit and working on our narrative writing pieces.  Before we begin, I want us to take a look back at the craft that Lauren Tarshis uses in some of her writing.  Remember these dashes?  Let’s see if we can figure out the purpose of these dashes.
  • Show an example of a crafting technique from Lauren Tarshis
    • I Survived the Attacks of September 11, 2001
      • Page 2: “Many people in Lower Manhattan heard it before they saw it- the screaming roar of jet engines.”
      • Page 35: “He could see the plane so clearly- the engines tucked under the wings, the sun glinting off the windows.”
      • Page 57: “If they had stopped for anything- to grab a purse or tie a shoe- they wouldn’t have made it.”
  • Explain why this writer may have chosen to use dashes in the examples above
    • The author uses dashes in order to help the reader visualize what the characters were experiencing.  First, the writer provides the reader with a general statement. Then, through the use of commentary dashes, the author pauses and provides a “comment” to add more specific detail.  These dashes not only adds details to writing, it also gives the writing voice.

Teaching Point

  • As you see, the dashes serve a particular purpose.  Instead of calling them dashes, let’s call them commentary dashes since they “comment” on something that has been stated in order to provide detail and voice.
  • Authors will use this craft when adding details to create a more vivid picture after they have stated what is occurring in the text.  These details can include a more vivid description or an explanation that adds clarification or suspense with voice.


  • Show examples of the crafting technique in other texts.
    • More examples from Lauren Tarshis
      • I Survived the Joplin Tornado, 2011
        • Page 19: “Scrabble used to be another Saturday night tradition- Mom and Dad versus Dex and Jeremy.”
        • Page 54: “Dex noticed a new color on the radar- Pink.”
    • Examples from another author: Rebecca Carmi
      • The Magic School Bus- Amazing Magnetism
        • Page 25: “Now I was really worried- we were at Andrew’s Mercy!”
        • Page 49: “The Friz was taking some half-boots out of her bag- they were toes only, with a bar magnet attached to the front.”

Guided Practice

  • Envision the crafting technique in student writing.
    • Discussion prompts for a class discussion or Think-Pair-Share about applying this technique to their writing/revisions.
      • In what ways do you think this craft will make your writing more interesting to a reader?
      • In what ways do you see yourself using this craft in your own writing?
      • How will this craft create a sense of voice in your writing?
    • How you would facilitate this discussion.
      • Use of prompts listed above for whole group or Think-Pair-Share (listen in on groups and use questioning techniques to further encourage thinking and usage of craft)
      • During sharing of responses, I will facilitate further discussion through “writing in the air” in response to some of the ideas being shared among the whole class.  To do this, I will “write in the air” (providing examples to add to writing pieces in verbal form) continuing a piece of my writing/whole class writing sample or examples from the top of my head.  I could also use students’ writing pieces as an example of where this craft would fit nicely.  For example, if a student shares they may use this craft to comment to a reader something that may not be expected, I will either ask the student to provide an example, or I will write my own example in the air as an example.
      • Students will also be encouraged to “write in the air” in how they see themselves incorporating this craft to provide further examples with partners/whole group.


  • Suggestion as to how students might integrate this strategy into their writing during writing workshop today.
    • During writing workshop today, reread what you have written so far.  See if you can add a commentary dash to provide your reader with a comment to help them visualize something more clearly, or to provide the reader with a sense of the importance of something you have already stated within your writing.

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