The Secret Recipe for Short Stories

I was tasked this week to introduce the concept of “short story” to our 4th graders, and I was thrilled because that meant I would get to share the work of Cynthia Rylant.  I realize I have been teaching a long time because all my favorite authors from my classroom teaching days are now considered “classic.”  Authors like Katherine Paterson,  Jane Yolen, Natalie Babbitt, Patricia Reilly Giff, Lois Lowery, and my beloved Beverly Cleary are now considered old and outdated.  Many teachers fear that these books won’t connect with our current students.  I find this a very sad state of affairs. Even Sharon Creech is becoming a “classic” and is being passed over for younger authors and new titles.  There is nothing wrong with exposing students to current trends in literature, but we don’t need to toss out books just because they were written a long time ago.

With this idea in mind, I used two short stories from Cynthia Rylant’s book, Every Living Thing to introduce our 4th graders to how an author can say a lot in a short amount of space. First, I asked the students what they knew about short stories.  Of course, the kids said quite matter-of-factly: “They are short.” I smiled and said, “Yes, but what are the elements in a short story? What’s the secret recipe?”  Now, some wheels started turning in their heads, and soon we co-created a list of what makes a short story a short story.

Now it was time to read!  I set before them Cynthia Rylant’s “A Bad Road for Cats.”  The front cover of the short story packet just had the title with a lot of blank space.  I asked the students to predict what the story would be about.  Why did they think it was a bad road?  What do they think would happen?  I gave them a few minutes to think and record.  I walked around looking at their work.  Some wrote in big loopy letters. Others got their faces down to the paper and were writing in tiny print in a corner of the large open space.  It’s so interesting that personalities come out on the page.  Their predictions, for the most part, were brief, so I encouraged them to stretch themselves and use their imaginations.  I told them to try to fill up all the space of the page with their ideas.  I gave them permission to think. I waited.  Slowly they started to expand their thinking. Then I asked for volunteers to share their predictions.  Everyone’s hands shot up.  They do love to share!  They often go off script from their writing, weaving intricate oral stories.  I gently lead them back and record some their ideas. They are now primed to tackle the text.

In the story,  we meet a young woman, Magda, who is searching the highway for her lost cat.  Rylant expertly paints a detailed picture of the dangerous road, Route 6, where there are lines of gas stations, restaurants, and dairy bars.  From her description, you can hear the traffic and feel the Magda’s increasing panic.  We come to learn that the lost cat’s name is Louis, named after Magda’s grandfather and that Magda is alone in the world. Her husband had died, and she has no children. Louis is everything to her, and he is lost.  We feel her pain, and in our minds we are trying to figure out where he could be.  Rylant is a master of suspense, and we stop often to discuss how she chooses to weave her words. The story ends with Louis being found, but there are many questions to ponder, so I ask the girls to fill up the back page of their packet with all the questions they still have.  This is an easier task for them.  They are off and running.  They have a lot to say.

Through this process, the students have developed a strong connection with this lonely woman, strange boy, and rescued cat.  In just a few pages, Rylant wove a compelling story that had students thinking.  The girls realized that even when a story ends, it isn’t the end of the readers’ thinking. Short or long, the story sticks with us, changes us, and make our worlds a little wider and richer.

The next day, we return to the concept of the short story.  We discuss our predictions and questions for “A Bad Road for Cats.”  Always the social activists, our 4th grade girls brainstorm how to make Route 6 safer for cats.  Rylant has done her job.  She has made the setting and the problem real.  The girls are invested in the story.  In a short space of time, they have come to care.

They are ready for the next story, “Retired,” about a retired schoolteacher and an adopted dog. This story is quiet, full of inner conflict – a departure from the loud bustling road where cats are not safe.  This story starts with Miss Cutcheon and how she is dealing with being retired and now home alone.  Quickly, she gets an old dog, Princess, whose 3-children family moved to France and left her with Miss Cutcheon, who promptly renames her Velma. It is revealed that Miss Cutcheon and Velma have many things in common, most importantly they love and long for children.  This story is so accessible to students learning to understand the arc of a story.  And after predicting, reading, and discussing the conflict and resolution, the children are ready to create story mountains (Freytag Pyramids) to show how Rylant constructed her storyline.  I am hoping that this practice and preparation with help the students as they head to their next endeavor: writing their own short story.

The Creativity of Cynthia Rylant:

Picture Books:

An Angel for Solomon Singer


Cat Heaven

Dog Heaven

In November


Little Whistle

Silver Packages: An Appalachian Christmas Story


The Old Woman Who Named Things

The Relatives Came

The Wonderful Happens

When I was Young in the Mountains

Easy Readers:

The Henry & Mudge Series

The Mr. Putter & Tabby Series

The Poppleton Series

Chapter Books:

A Blue-eyed Daisy

A Fine White Dust

Every Living Thing (short stories)

Gooseberry Park

Missing May


The Islander

The Van Gogh Café


But I’ll be Back Again

2 thoughts on “The Secret Recipe for Short Stories

  1. I am always amazed by your treasure trove of resources – thank you! Such rich conversations around the reading, deepening the understanding of how story works. When I’ve modeled narrative/fiction/memoir writing for students, I generally give them several topics to choose from and they generate questions much like those your students generated for Bad Road, that I then try to answer as I write the modeled piece. Your descriptions and examples brought these experiences – some of the most meaningful in my educational career – flooding back. This is great teaching and learning – and fantastic practice for writing their own short stories. I look forward to hearing more of this ongoing adventure!


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