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Archive for June, 2021

kid-lit writing wisdom

The Kid-Lit Writing Wisdom team is gradually working our way into topics such as submission and marketing. But we feel it’s important to talk about the craft of writing along with the writer’s life first, which will also include the topic of critiques and critique groups. So, it seems the best place to start is the beginning. When I was acquisitions editor for Blue Whale Press, if the first lines of a manuscript didn’t capture me, the story usually didn’t engage me. I always say, if the first lines don’t hook the agent or editor you’ve submitted to, what will make them think they will capture readers?

This month, I asked our wise authors to share thoughts on the importance of powerful first lines along with some tips for writing an outstanding beginning or outstanding first lines. I’m excited to share our many fabulous tips and examples. These tips can also be used for revising your stories’ beginnings, so you get double the treasure with these posts. This is such an important topic that we will have three parts for this topic. You’ll notice that some of our wise authors talk about the ending of the story as much as the beginning. There is good reason for this. In my picture book writing course Art of Arc, I interrupt the lessons on writing beginnings to talk about endings. Following are a few excerpts from Art of Arc to explain why it’s smart to think about endings when writing your beginning. You’ll also find more on the subject of endings in some of the wise-authors’ answers in this post and the two to come.

Excerpts from Art of Arc

“You might think that endings would be the final lesson presented in a course on writing and analyzing picture books, but another common problem that I have found in writing critiques is there is often a disconnect between the beginning of the story and the end. The ending has so much to do with the beginning and the rest of the story that it is important to start thinking about it at the beginning.”

“. . . From the beginning and all the way through the story, the destination is the ending. Therefore, every word, sentence, and scene should relate to the ending. And the ending should relate to the beginning.”

WE HAVE A BONUS!

writing for children webinars and courses
I will give away free access to my webinar HOW TO WRITE POWERFUL FIRST PAGES LIKE A PRO to one lucky winner. To enter for a chance to win, please comment on one of the three posts about writing outstanding beginnings and share the link on Twitter or FB. Please tag me when you share the link, so I can make sure I get your name in the drawing.

Happy Book Birthday

Listen_coverMost of the people in this group are from my groups for 2021 picture book releases: 2021 Word Birds and Twenty One-derful Picture Books. Before I move on, I’d like to congratulate one of our Twenty One-derful group members Gabi Snyder. Her picture book LISTEN, illustrated by Stephanie Graegin, will be coming into the world on July 13. Happy Early Birthday baby LISTEN!

Peach and Cream Photo Spring Quote Twitter Post

Also, friends have made me aware that I failed to let the world know about my latest Sienna, the Cowgirl Fairy Book: COWBOY TROUBLE. So, I thought this would be a good time to let everyone know it is there and would make an excellent summer reading book. You and your children can read the first three chapters on You Tube (see below). The “cowboy trouble” begins in chapter three. I also share the book trailer for anyone who is interested.

Words of Wisdom

Since, as usual, my answer is the most wordy, I will lead with it.

THE FIRST LINES OF A BOOK ARE THE DOOR TO YOUR STORY. THE WORDS INVITE THE READER TO STEP OVER THE THRESHOLD AND ENTER THE STORY WORLD.

by Alayne Kay Christian

I decided to take the easy way out and pull some excerpts from my picture book writing course Art of Arc. Unfortunately, it ended up being a hard way to go because I struggled to choose just a few words to share from the course. I thought it might be fun to introduce some of the reasons a strong beginning is so important. So here goes. . . .

Have you ever seen carnival barkers in old movies? “Step right up!” they shout to people passing by. They describe attractions. They emphasize variety; advertise novelty, oddity, beauty, challenge, and fun. Their barks are intended to create curiosity, generate excitement, and entice listeners to buy tickets to entertainment. Sometimes, they conduct short shows for free, where they introduce performers and describe acts. Their promises of entertainment are all intended to entice and incite the passersby to come on in!

In the old days, or in old movies, a newspaper boy shouted things like, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Bonnie and Clyde shot dead!” The purpose of this? All to create excitement and curiosity that would entice people to buy an extra edition of the newspaper.

Without the red carpet and fanfare on Oscar night, would the event be nearly as exciting, inviting, or enticing?

In the movie, The Wizard of Oz, would the beginning have been nearly as engaging without the yellow brick road, the fantastic send-off song, and Dorothy’s cheerful dance down the road? Not to mention, the switch from black and white images to color. What if Dorothy had just said, “Okay—I’ll go find the wizard.” and then shuffled along aimlessly in silence through a black and white setting, sans the road? Would we have been as eager to follow her into the story?

The barkers, the newsboys, the red carpet, and the yellow brick road all pave the way for an event, an experience, a journey, an adventure, or whatever it might be, to unfold. The first lines in our books pave the way for our idea/story/plot and our protagonist’s and readers’ journey to unfold. The whole objective of first lines is to capture readers’ attention and make them want more. We want to entice and incite them to come on in, buy into the experience, and commit to taking the journey with our protagonist. This is often referred to as the hook.

A good hook creates questions and curiosity. It makes a promise that says, “This is what the story is about.” It also sets expectations and maybe even evokes emotions. Wow! That’s a lot to accomplish in a picture book page or two. This is true, but writers do it all the time, proving that it can be done. . . .

. . . In picture books, we often incite the reader’s interest with words such as the following, “but,” “until,” “one day,” and we use the three little dots . . . called the ellipsis. Interestingly enough, these words and punctuation that incite the reader to turn the page usually lead to the inciting incident—the event that energizes the story’s progression. This event moves your protagonist into the action of the story. It also pulls him out of his ordinary world into a new world where change can occur—the door to our story.

Why are these words (“but,” “one day,” “until” and so on) or the ellipsis used so frequently? They work to keep the reader reading. How? They create a pause or a moment of silence that gives the reader an opportunity to think, imagine, guess, ask questions, and experience emotions. It makes them stop and pay closer attention. Using these techniques hint at what’s to come, which in turn creates curiosity. Sometimes they are the arrow that points to the heart of the story. Using these techniques are great ways to hook a reader. They all suggest there is something coming, and they create anticipation. It could lead to an answer, reveal a secret, hint at danger, present the unexpected, and so on. All of the above hook the reader. When the reader is hooked, she is pulled into the story far enough that she wants to read more.

I’d love to share more, but we have many great words of wisdom waiting for you, so let’s move on.

HOW DO WE KEEP OUR READERS INTRIGUED AND WANTING MORE?

by Kirsti Call

Richard Peck said: “You’re only as good as your opening line.” How do we keep our readers intrigued and wanting more?

Ask a question. Asking a question gets readers thinking. Not a Box immediately asks: “Why are you sitting in a box?” We want to turn the page to find out the answer. The Day the Babies Crawled Away questions: “Remember the day the babies crawled away?” This piques our interest. We want to know what happened on that fateful day. Did the babies survive? Where did they go?

Take People by Surprise. Mustache Baby declares: “When Baby Billy was born, his family noticed something odd: He had a mustache.” A baby with a mustache? We have to read on. Leonardo the Terrible Monster tells us: “Leonardo was a terrible monster…he couldn’t scare anyone.” A monster who isn’t scary? I can’t wait to turn the page.

Use word play. Being Frank starts with: “Frank was always frank” and Bridget’s Beret is similar: “Bridget was drawn to drawing.” There’s nothing better than the clever use of words to get people wanting more.

Using questions, surprise, wonder, opinion and word play makes the first sentences of our stories irresistible.

FIRST LINES THAT ECHO THROUGHOUT THE STORY—AN EFFECTIVE TECHNIQUE

by Laura Gehl

One of my favorite techniques when I am writing is to use a first line that will be echoed throughout the book.

For example, the first line of Juniper Kai: Super Spy reads, “Juniper Kai was born to be a spy.” This line comes back in the middle, when Juniper is feeling left out: “It didn’t matter if she had nobody to play with. Because Juniper Kai was born to be a spy. And spies work alone.” Then the line comes back a third time at the end: “Juniper Kai was born to be a spy. And spies work alone. Sometimes. But sometimes a spy needs a good co-agent. And Juniper Kai knew she was born to be…a spy-tacular big sister.”

Another example is in I Got a Chicken For My Birthday. Like the title, the first line reads, “I got a chicken for my birthday.” This line is repeated throughout the book: ”I got a chicken for my birthday. And the chicken has a list.” “I got a chicken for my birthday. And now the chicken stole my dog.” The line then comes back at the end. “I got a chicken for my birthday. And it was the Best. Present. Ever.”

The reason I like this technique so much is that you can see your character growing and changing by the way that repeated line is used at the end compared with at the beginning. In Juniper Kai: Super Spy, Juniper goes from being a lonely only child to wondering what secret her parents are hiding, to being an eager big sister. In I Got a Chicken For My Birthday, Ana goes from feeling perplexed (and a bit annoyed) by the strange birthday gift from her grandmother, to even more perplexed (and more annoyed) as the chicken begins recruiting her pets to build something huge in the backyard, to feeling absolutely thrilled (and realizing that her grandmother knew exactly what she was doing all along).

I also love this technique when I see it in other people’s writing! Any book that starts and ends with a similar line tends to leave me smiling and satisfied!

FIRST LINES PROVIDE A PEEK INTO THE WORLD OF THE STORY

by Melissa Stoller

First lines in a picture book set the tone and the mood for the story. Like an invitation that might provide an initial glimpse into the theme of a party, a first line can provide a peek into the world of a story. When I draft the first few lines, I try to give the reader an idea of what will come next, what the character might want, and a little bit about the setting, if possible. Of course, I write, rewrite, revise, and tweak as the story evolves. The first line that I start with is usually not the first line that is printed. Also, when I finish writing the story, I go back to ensure that the ending works with the beginning. I love to have first and last lines that complement each other, that show growth of the main character, and that leave the reader with that special something that makes them want to read the story over and over.

Here are examples of first and last lines from two of my picture books:

SCARLET’S MAGIC PAINTBRUSH

First line: One day, Scarlet found a magic paintbrush and everything changed.

Last line: With her own magic, she painted what she saw in her heart, Scarlet’s masterpiece.

Throughout the story, Scarlet realizes that she wants to rely on her own magical creativity instead of the magic of the paintbrush.

READY, SET, GORILLA!

First lines: Gorilla liked racing his school pals. But most of all, he loved to win . . . at any cost.

Last lines: The friends all lined up. They crouched down. Together, they shouted . . . Ready, Set, GO! Off they raced . . . and everyone was a winner.

Over the course of the story, Gorilla realizes that playing fair, good sportsmanship, and being a good friend make him a winner.

Happy writing and editing as you draft the best first lines for your stories!

FIRST LINES IN EARLY DRAFTS ARE OFTEN A TYPE OF WARM UP WRITING UNTIL YOU FIND THE PERFECT WORDS

by Dawn Babb Prochovnic

The beginning of a story is still very much a draft until I write and then polish the ending. Eventually, I return to the beginning and rework it until I’m satisfied that it aligns with (and is worthy of) the ending I have carefully crafted. Sometimes I discover that the “beginning” is actually several sentences into the story I have written, which means I have to cut some (often many) of my beloved words. To make this process easier on myself, I usually create a document called “darlings I had to cut” that I can copy and paste these tender words into, so I can bare to part with them in the working draft of my story. I rarely, if ever, go back and retrieve these “darlings,” but saving them “just in case,” allows me the creative freedom to vigorously revise, so the story can start right where it needs to, and without all of the unnecessary “throat clearing” that often shows up at the beginning of my earlier drafts.

I will also mention that Richard Peck offered his wisdom on this topic (as it relates to writing novels, but widely applicable), in this 2006 article for The Horn Book: In the Beginning: What Makes a Good Beginning? 

MORE TO COME!

There will be two more posts (July 10 and July 17) on this topic with lots of great information coming from the following wise authors: Vivian Kirkfield, Beth Anderson, Marcie Flinchum Atkins, Pippa Chorley, Ellen Leventhal, Michelle Nott, Rosie Pova, and Rob Sanders. 

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kid-lit writing wisdom

For this round of Kid-Lit Writing Wisdom Q & A, I asked the team why it’s important for writers to read children’s books and how one might get the most out of reading them. To read the fabulous answers from last week (Part 1 of 2) click here. Before we get started with words of wisdom. If you’d like to see Rob Sander’s inspiration for TWO GROOMS ON A CAKE, check out this clip from the Today Show. It’s very good. Congratulations, Rob!

Words of Wisdom

SPREADSHEETS AND MENTOR TEXTS!

by Beth Anderson

Since others are offering thoughts on why it’s important for authors and illustrators to read children’s books, I thought I’d share a little on how I go forward from there. One of the best pieces of advice I received when I started this journey was from critique partner Julie Rowan-Zoch. She not only told me to read LOTS of children’s books, but also to log them on a spreadsheet for later reference. On my log, I record genre, structure, NF/F, topics, and notes which can include story summary, beginnings and endings, likes/dislikes, and anything else interesting. And WA-LA! I have an amazing reference tool that grows and grows! It’s a 5 minute job that really pays off. If I need to see how an author made a complex topic simple, or used 2nd person narration, or broke the 4th wall, or tackled a bio, or used quotations, or handled 2 main characters, or superheroes, or a myriad of other things, all I need to do is search the document for key words and I’ve got some books to go to as mentor texts. Taking that a step further, when I find a book that knocks my socks off, I type up the text. (It’s truly astounding what you see when you type up the text!) I note page breaks, line breaks, word count, etc. And then use colored highlighters as I analyze and examine how that author did what they did. Transitions, context, characterization, conflict, arc, vital idea threads, backstory, voice, imagery, and on and on. I look for whatever I’m struggling with or find particularly amazing. Many times I use the same typed up text for different elements of craft as I work through different manuscripts. I’m learning from the masters! The more you dig in, the more magic you see! And then…at different points in my own manuscripts, I get out those colored highlighters and attack my own words on the page. Seeing elements of craft in others’ work, helps me identify needs in my own.

STUDYING ALREADY PUBLISHED BOOKS CAN HELP MAKE YOUR STORY SING!

by Vivian Kirkfield

My love affair with picture books began on my mother’s lap as she turned the pages of THE LITTLE HOUSE by Virginia Lee Burton. The year was 1949 – I was two years old – and with every new book, I discovered a magical world. Stories like BLUEBERRIES FOR SAL, THE CARROT SEED, and GOODNIGHT MOON, spirited me to places I had never been and introduced me to characters I had never met. Although written more than 70 years ago, those stories and other classics can still provide today’s writers with tips on structure, character development, plot, pacing, and the importance of opening lines and satisfying endings. Of course, it’s also crucial to read current books published in the last five years, as well as all of the Newberry and Caldecott winners.

Read first for enjoyment. Let the words and the story surround you like a beautiful melody. Then read the book again and pay attention – how did the author draw you in – what engaged you. Deconstruct the text (some people like typing out the words) and examine the opening lines, the page turns, the ending. My bookshelves are overflowing and I can’t always buy all the books I’d like to, but libraries are a fabulous resource, as well as YouTube where you can find many books being read aloud, especially the older classics and the popular award-winning newer ones. Even the Amazon ‘Look Inside’ feature can be helpful in providing opening lines and a bit of the flavor of the book. There are also Facebook groups and blogs and challenges like ReFoReMo.com (Reading for Research Month) where you can find discussions and information on using picture books as mentor texts.

And here’s a tip on using mentor texts in a clever way that a writer friend, Judy Cooper, shared with me: Find your favorite picture book in the genre you are writing (nonfiction, rhyme, fractured fairytale, or whatever) – the one you absolutely love. Then copy out YOUR own manuscript onto little post-it notes and stick one on each corresponding page of the already published book that you love – your opening lines go on the first page of the published book, and so on. Do you have enough scenes, page-turns? Does YOUR story have a good rhythm to it. Does it engage you like the published book did? If the answer to any of those questions is no – please don’t give up – remember what Stephen King said, “Writing is rewriting” – and studying already published books can help you make your story sing!

ONE OF THE BEST WAYS TO DEVELOP AS A WRITER IS TO READ, READ, READ

by Ellen Leventhal

My first thought about why I read children’s books is, “Why wouldn’t I?” I love them! Reading children’s books has always been part of my life as both a child and an adult. That may sound strange, but it really isn’t. As a teacher I read them as part of my job, and as I writer, I read them as part of my job. A fun part, but still part of the job. I consider reading children’s books a type of professional development. I want to continue to improve my craft, and one of the best ways to do this is to read, read, read.

I read middle grade novels for the joy of reading, since I don’t write them (at least at this moment). I mostly write picture books, and I am working on a chapter book, so I approach them a bit differently. I start by reading them through to allow myself to feel the story without dissecting it. Then I think about something I’m having some difficulty with and look at how other authors handle it. Did they slow down the action to ramp up the emotion? Did they use figurative language to make it more lyrical? What did they do to add a twist at the end? I sometimes type out the text and study the page turns, etc. I find this helps me with my pacing.

But honestly, I read children’s books to surround myself with something I love and something I love to share. And when I face the blank page and begin to wonder if I can do this, I look at my stack of books and they give me the spark I need to get started.

READING IS ONE OF THE EASIEST WAYS TO BECOME A BETTER WRITER

by Dawn Babb Prochovnic

When I teach writing workshops at schools, libraries, and professional conferences, the most important advice I give to aspiring writers of all ages is that reading is the easiest way to become a better writer. When young writers press for more information on why the above statement is true, we talk about how reading exercises the muscles in the brain and how a stronger brain is capable of writing stronger stories. We also talk about how reading helps expand our vocabulary and trains our brains to recognize and replicate the structural aspects of effective writing. We talk about how reading other authors’ books can help writers come up with their own ideas. And we talk about how nonfiction books for young readers are a particularly good resource for those (adults included) who want to learn something new, because children’s literature is especially good at presenting complex information in comprehensible ways. We also talk about how reading a good book can be relaxing, which might be just what your brain needs to help you come up with good ideas. And, we talk about the Pleasure Reading Award I earned for reading the most books in Mr. Snook’s fifth grade class and how I’m certain that all of that reading significantly contributed to my eventual successes as a writer.

I could go on and on about the wisdom of reading children’s books, but the truth of the matter is, the main reason I do so is because I sincerely enjoy it. I especially love picture books, which likely comes as no surprise, since that is what I most often write. When my kids were little, we read stacks and stacks of picture books together, on topics carefully curated to their particular interests, coupled with whatever authors/publishers/themes I was researching at the time. My library system allows up to 99 books to be checked out by a single patron. Pre-pandemic it was not unusual for me to have upwards of 80 borrowed picture books in my home at any given time!

READING MENTOR TEXTS HELPS TO EXPLORE WHAT WORKS AND WHAT DOESN’T WORK FOR THE BOOKS YOU WANT TO WRITE

by Michelle Nott

I read children’s books, anything from picture books to MG, for many reasons.

First, picture books are an extraordinary combination of poetry and art which are two of my favorite things! Even if a book is not written in verse, the author has still chosen each word, literary device, and structure in a very intentional way. When I read picture books, I’m not only paying close attention to what authors write, but what they don’t. The white space is so important to create pause and reflection. It’s a true skill to understand how leaving words out can allow the text to say even more. Also, spare text leaves space for artists to use their talents to enhance the overall experience of picture books. For me, studying the balance between text and image is essential to creating memorable picture books and a true pleasure as well.

I also write middle grade, and so read a fair number of novels for that age group as well. Again, it starts from a place of enjoyment. I used to teach middle school and absolutely loved this age group. But, it’s been a long time since I was that age or taught that age and my own daughters are older now, so reading current middle grade is important to keep up with the interests and dilemmas of this important age. It also reinforces how many issues around friends, self-discovery, family, and school are universal and timeless. Studying pacing and structure from various texts (prose and verse) and knowing what types of stories are available, helps me also to explore what works, what doesn’t, and what I can uniquely bring to the world of middle grade literature.

READING MENTOR TEXTS INSPIRES, MOTIVATES, AND INFORMS

by Rosie Pova

If you’re in the business of children’s writing, you better be current on your children’s books reading.

For me, one of the reasons I read kidlit is so that I know what the market looks like. Is it saturated with too many books with the same animal/theme/style of writing?

If I’m working on a story, I need to know where it could be placed and how good of a chance it has to “make it” in the marketplace. How does it measure up to what’s already out there? How and why would it stand out? Has it already been done in the same or similar way? The answers to these questions help me course-correct in order to avoid future rejections and have publishing professionals tell me “it’s already been done” or “it didn’t stand out” whereas I could’ve done my timely research.

Another reason I read picture books is to get inspiration about the type of stories I want to have in my body of work. Sometimes the tone or feeling of a book grab me, other times, it’s the takeaway, or something particular about the character, the brilliance or absurdity of the title, the humor, an unexpected angle etc. I get clarity and get excited!

This gives me great motivation to write a story that would have a similar feel to it or evoke that kind of reaction in the reader, like it did in me. In other words, I use reading to give myself a general prompt. Some of my best stories have come to be that way.

Reading my colleagues’ work also gives me validation, makes me feel like what I do matters and there’s an audience for my work.

Those little gems are also great teachers on the craft! I could keep going with the reasons, but I will stop here and just say, we, as writers, must read. It’s that simple.

CHECK OUT THE FOLLOWING KID-LIT WISDOM POSTS LISTED BELOW

TO READ Part 1 OF WHY KID-LIT WRITERS SHOULD READ CHILDREN’S BOOKS (MENTOR TEXTS) AND HOW TO GET THE MOST OUT OF READING THEM click here.

TO READ PART 1 OF “LONG AND WINDING ROAD TO PUBLICATION” click here.

TO READ PART 2 OF “LONG AND WINDING ROAD TO PUBLICATION” click here.

TO READ PART 3 OF “LONG AND WINDING ROAD TO PUBLICATION” click here.

TO READ THE TEAM MEMBERS’ ANSWERS TO “MY MOST IMPORTANT LESSON LEARNED” click here for Part One and here for Part Two.

TO READ MORE ABOUT THE KID-LIT WRITING WISDOM TEAM AND THEIR BOOKS click here.

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kid-lit writing wisdom

For this round of Kid-Lit Writing Wisdom Q & A, I asked the team why it’s important for writers to read children’s books and how one might get the most out of reading them.

I thought it would be good to start this post with the definition of mentor texts. The Iowa Reading Research Center defines mentor texts as “. . . written pieces that serve as an example of good writing for student writers. The texts are read for the purpose of studying the author’s craft, or the way the author uses words and structures the writing. The goal is to provide students a model they could emulate in crafting their own piece.”

Because I once again have the wordiest answer, I will start with my answer to the question. However, before I get started, I’d like to wish a couple of Laura Gehl’s newly released board books, SOCCER BABY and BASEBALL BABY, a belated HAPPY BIRTHDAY! And I’m excited to share that my book THE WEED THAT WOKE CHRISTMAS has won another literary award! Congratulations to illustrator Polina Gortman and me, of course : – )

Happy Book BirthdayBaseball soccer baby

Congratulations!

AWARD WINNER FOR HOLIDAY BOOKS TWITTER

Words of Wisdom

IN THE END, YOU’LL END UP BEING A DIFFERENT WRITER THAN YOU WERE BEFORE YOU STARTED DIGGING DEEPER

by Alayne Kay Christian

When I first started studying the art of children’s writing, veteran authors advised repeatedly, “read, read, read.” And so I read. I would bring home 50 picture books from the library (usually biweekly) loaded in my bag with wheels. What I didn’t understand, until I had read hundreds of picture books, was reading them wasn’t enough. What I really needed to do was analyze them. But how could I analyze them, if I didn’t know what I was looking for? So, my next step was to take writing courses specific to picture book writing. In those courses, I got a sense of story arc (narrative arcs and character arcs). When I started doing professional critiques, the “sense” of arc that I had learned from courses gave me enough instinct to know when something was off with the plot of the picture book I was critiquing. But I didn’t always know how to explain the problems to the author of the manuscript. So, I worked to find the answers and explain the issues. I continued to work to understand arc and plot deeper. I read craft books, I did searches on the Internet when something wasn’t clear to me, I took more courses, and I continued reading picture books. That’s when I discovered that the only way I was really going to learn what I wanted to know was to dissect the stories I read. And that’s exactly what I did. In the process of trying to help others, I helped myself as an author. I came to understand fully what makes a powerful beginning, what makes an engaging or compelling middle, and what makes a satisfying ending. I learned the importance of knowing your character’s motivation, want, and need. I discovered the power of solid cause and effect and growing tension. I love seeing how authors leave room for illustrators and how they both tell part of the story. I discovered the importance of pacing and so much more. Once, I understood how to build stories, and I had helped a hundred or so writers understand the same via my critiques, I wrote my picture book writing course, Art of Arc: How to Write and Analyze Picture Books and Manuscripts. Does the fact that I’m a retired acquisitions editor and I offer professional critiques, a bit of mentoring, and a writing course mean that I no longer need mentor texts? Absolutely not. There is still much more to picture book writing besides the plot. Today, I analyze picture books for word choice, voice, and execution of the idea or theme (usually looking for why it stands out). I pay attention to unique characters and character building. I study the huge variety of storytelling structures. I read humor and dream of one day writing something funny. I read heart-tuggers that connect me emotionally to the character and story (That’s the kind of story I tend to write.) I look for “why” I enjoy a book or “why” I sometimes wonder how a book ever ended up published (meaning I didn’t enjoy it). I’m always looking for something, and I’m always learning. I love studying books for language—especially lyrical stories—love them! I could go on forever about the treasures found when you start looking deeply into a story instead of just reading it. But I won’t.

Analyzing or dissecting mentor texts will stretch you as a writer. You’ll be more willing to take risks and try new things. You’ll start wondering things like, what if I used that format instead? What if I tried that cool or clever strategy? The puzzle pieces of what makes a sellable picture book will start slipping into place. And in the end, you will be a different writer than you were before you started digging deeper.

We have lots of great wisdom on this topic, and it’s time to make way for those answers. I do want to say that many moons ago, I discovered that our wise author Marcie Flinchum Atkins knows her way around a mentor text, and you can find some of her posts here and here. At the end of this post, Marcie offers some excellent tips and tools for using mentor texts. Also, our wise author Kirsti Call is the co-founder and of Reading for Research Month (a.k.a. REFOREMO) along with Carrie Charley Brown. They not only offer this very focused annual challenge. They also offer posts year round that walk us through a variety of books with hints regarding what they might teach us as writers. In addition, look around their site for lots of resources. Finally, if you join their Facebook page, they have lots of files that list great mentor text books by categories.

Some of our authors, Vivian Kirkfield for example, participate in Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book Fridays. Participating in this activity will expose you to lots of different books, plus Susanna offers a list of books by themes (scroll down on linked page). Following are some other links that will lead you to mentor text info from Marcie and Reforemo.

http://www.reforemo.com/2019/09/mentor-text-talk-with-author-marcie.html

https://www.marcieatkins.com/tag/reforemo/

https://groggorg.blogspot.com/2015/03/show-me-way-mentor-texts-as-lights-into.html

10 REASONS TO READ CHILDREN’S BOOKS

(ESPECIALLY PICTURE BOOKS)

(AND DEFINITELY PICTURE BOOK BIOGRAPHIES)

by Rob Sanders

1. To learn something new.
2. To soak in the story.
3. To examine the structure.
4. To observe the page turns.
5. To analyze what makes the story work.
6. To dissect the craft.
7. To enjoy the illustrations.
8. To investigate the word choices.
9. To evaluate the back matter.
10. Because you can’t not read them!

GET INSPIRED TO SIT DOWN AND WRITE!

by Laura Gehl

I read children’s books to marvel at thoughtful page turns, to laugh at witty spreads, to appreciate the interplay between text and art, to let various rhythms and cadences wash over me, to get refrains stuck in my head, to admire different text structures, to soak in new information, to feel characters tug at my heartstrings, to think, “I wish I had written that,” and…most of all…to get inspired to sit down and write!

READING PICTURE BOOKS ALOUD HELPS ME DELIGHT IN STORYTELLING AND LUSCIOUS SOUNDS

Kirsti Call

I read picture books to learn about what works and what doesn’t, to appreciate the poetry of sparse text, to feel and to heal. Reading picture books aloud with children helps me delight in storytelling and luscious sounds. And of course reading picture books inspires me to create my own stories, putting words together in ways that (hopefully) evoke laughter, love and connection.

WHY I LOVE READING CHILDREN’S BOOKS

By Melissa Stoller

As a children’s book writer, it’s vital for me to read children’s books. I write chapter books and picture books, so those are the book genres that I mainly read. I like to read children’s books for several reasons. First, it’s important to keep up to date with all the new books. I love reading newly published picture books so I can stay current about topics and what is selling at the moment. Second, I can apply the knowledge I gain from reading children’s books to my writing process. I use books as “mentor texts,” meaning they teach me about writing in some way. For example, if I’m writing a non-fiction book about sea life, I will read every current similar book I can find to see how other authors handled the subject. Or, if I’m trying to add more “heart” into my fiction picture book manuscript, I will read books that I know pull at the heartstrings. I also notice how the author chose specific words and language patterns, handled pacing, left room for the illustrator, and other craft points. Third, I use current children’s books as “comparative titles” that can help me pitch my manuscripts and place them in the marketplace, comparing my manuscript to a recently-published title, and also showing how my manuscript is different. Finally, the most important reason that I read picture books and chapter books is that I LOVE them! I enjoy reading children’s books almost as much as I like writing them! A perfect afternoon would be spent curling up with a cup of mint tea, a gluten-free muffin, and a stack of wonderful children’s books!

READING KID LIT MAKES ME FEEL LIKE A CHILD AGAIN, WHICH IS HOW WE NEED TO FEEL TO WRITE BOOKS ABOUT AND FOR CHILDREN

Pippa Chorley

Every Wednesday morning, we start our critique session with a table piled high with books; childhood favourites, classic picture books, brand new purchases, library searches and recommendations. It’s one of my favourite parts of the week. I always feel like a kid in a sweet shop!

It gets our conversation bubbling immediately, what we like, what we don’t like, what we find clever, beautiful, funny, endearing, or even why we don’t like something or think it could have ended differently. It opens up conversations about craft and style, and it also gets our own creative juices flowing. It helps us generate new ideas or writing styles and helps us critique our wobbly new manuscripts at a much higher level and gives us courage to try new things. Sometimes it even sparks a whole new idea for a manuscript too!

I think the reason why we read children’s picture books as authors is endless and unquestionably important. But, for me personally, why I love it so much, is because it brings me and my fellow critique partners together weekly through a shared love of children’s writing. And most importantly, it makes me feel like a child again. Which is just what we need to feel when we are writing books about them and especially for them!

IF WE’RE GOING TO WRITE BOOKS, WE NEED TO LEARN FROM THE BEST

by Marcie Flinchum Atkins

If we are going to create stories, we must also admire stories. If we are going to write books, we must learn from the best. One of the most accessible ways to learn about what the greatest writers are doing is to utilize your library card. I make a habit of keeping my holds and checkouts at the library maxed out. At least once a week, I take a big stack of picture books and read and analyze them.

One of my favorite ways to determine which ones I want to study in depth is to read through the stack of books. I make three stacks:

1) Not for me.

2) These are great, but not my style.

3) THIS is the kind of writing I want to do.

Pile #3 is the one that I take more extensive notes on. It’s the type of books I type up to see how it looks on the page, examine the structure, and bask in the language.

For more posts about reading mentor texts, you can check out the many mentor texts posts on my blog.

For a more extensive post on how I organize and keep track of my reading, you can check out this bullet journaling post.

One other tip: If I’m feeling stuck or mired in muck about my own writing, often reading stellar books can bring me back. It usually takes me only about 20 minutes of immersive reading to realize I really DO want this writing life, and I really want to create stories.

Next week, we will get more great tips and stories from Beth Anderson, Vivian Kirkfield, Ellen Leventhal, Dawn Babb Prochovnic, Michelle Nott, and Rosie Pova.

TO READ PART 1 OF “LONG AND WINDING ROAD TO PUBLICATION” click here.

TO READ PART 2 OF “LONG AND WINDING ROAD TO PUBLICATION” click here.

TO READ PART 3 OF “LONG AND WINDING ROAD TO PUBLICATION” click here.

TO READ THE TEAM MEMBERS’ ANSWERS TO “MY MOST IMPORTANT LESSON LEARNED” click here for Part One and here for Part Two.

TO READ MORE ABOUT THE KID-LIT WRITING WISDOM TEAM AND THEIR BOOKS click here.

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