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Archive for the ‘Mentor Texts’ Category

kid-lit writing wisdom

The Kid-Lit Writing Wisdom team is gradually working our way into topics such as submission and marketing. But we believe 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. When we last left off with the Wisdom series, we talked all about writing outstanding first lines and beginnings (part1, part 2, part 3). Now it’s time to tackle middles. I struggled with words to describe a good middle and my favorite words were “captivating” “compelling” and “engaging.” They all have similar meanings. If your middle doesn’t compel readers to keep turning pages, it probably needs some tweaking or a rewrite. The same goes for engage or captivate. What will make your readers want to keep reading? With my many years as a professional critique writer and the former acquisitions editor for Blue Whale Press, I can tell you that you can have the best beginning and ending, but if the middle doesn’t keep the story train on the track, the story will never survive.

This month, I’m excited to share our wise authors’ many fabulous tips and examples for writing strong middles. These tips can also be used for revising your stories’ middles, so you get double the treasure with these posts. Today’s post will focus on building a story via cause and effect and how a weak cause and effect thread can lead to an episodic story. Ellen Leventhal and I were on the same wavelength, so we both wrote about cause and effect. Probably no surprise, but my portion is quite long, so I’ll start with Ellen’s wonderful thoughts and examples and then finish with my mini-lesson for writing middles. Before we move into sharing our wisdom, I have some good news to share.

Happy Book Birthday

Beth Anderson’s fantastic book TAD LINCOLN’S RESTLESS WRIGGLE: Pandemonium and Patience in the President House (illustrated by S.D. Shindler) is coming into the world on October 5!

Congratulations, Beth.

TAD LINCOLNS RESTLESS WRIGGLE FC

My friend and fellow Word Birds 2021 member Nancy Churnin has two new babies being born!

DEAR MR. DICKENS (illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe) with a birth date of October 1 and A QUEEN TO THE RESCUE: The Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah (illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg) with a birth date of October 5.

Congratulations, Nancy!

mr. Dickensimage0 (16)

Congratulations!

My longtime critique partner and friend Hannah Holt’s fun, funny, and educational picture book A HISTORY OF UNDERWEAR: With Professor Chicken (illustrated by Korwin Briggs) is now available for preorder.

Congratulations, Hannah!

Final Cover Underwear_Medium

Now for some words of writing wisdom. . . .

Words of WisdomTHE MIDDLE SHOWS US HOW THE MAIN CHARACTER GOT TO THE END

by Ellen Leventhal

Somewhere between the excitement of those glorious first lines and the relief of coming up with a satisfying ending, something has to happen. With picture books, we don’t have much time or space to bridge those two, but the middle IS the story. It’s the journey, and that’s true whether you are utilizing a traditional arc or something a little different. We still need to see the character move forward toward that end. When I teach writing to kids, I talk a lot about cause and effect. For example, in my book, A FLOOD OF KINDNESS, I first jotted down the following. Because there was a flood (cause) Charlotte lost her possessions, and her home was ruined.(effect) Because her home was ruined, (cause) she had to go to a shelter (effect). I did that for each scene until the cause and effect got us to the ending. It would be so much easier to say something like, “Charlotte’s house flooded, but she learned that doing kindness for others would help her heal, so she gave a boy her teddy bear.” Easy, but not a story. The middle is where we learn all about Charlotte, her emotions, obstacles, and growth. It tells us HOW she got to the end.

I don’t always approach middles that way, but when I do, I come up with different cause and effect scenarios. I think about all the different ways my character could reach the ending. How do I want my character to achieve the goal? Or not achieve her original goal? Once I choose a path, I begin to write. I work on flow and transition, always asking myself questions such as, does this work with the beginning? Does it lead to the outcome? Do I want to change the outcome? Is it child-friendly?

This is just one trick in the toolbox of writing middles, and to be honest, it doesn’t always seamlessly lead to a satisfying ending. But that’s ok because, as we all know, writing is revising.

The middle has the power to bring our character to life and truly bring us on the journey with her. It’s where we see her emotions and obstacles. It’s where the reader hopefully connects with the character. Writing the middle is not easy, but when that messy middle flawlessly brings us to our satisfying ending, it’s magic.

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SOLID MIDDLES VS FRACTURED MIDDLES

by Alayne Kay Christian

I went through the Art of Arc course to see if I could choose just a couple top tips, but there is so much that goes into writing compelling middles that it was difficult to choose. However, the fact that I dedicate two full lessons to the topics of cause and effect and episodic stories convinced me to share some already existing blog posts on these very important topics. You will find the links below. These two posts don’t only have a wealth of information, they offer worksheets and ways to test if your story is episodic. These are old posts, so any deals or giveaways are no longer valid.

EPISODIC STORIES AND CAUSE AND EFFECT

FRACTURED MIDDLES

What would a Dachshund look like without a middle? A school bus? The Eiffel Tower? Imagine just about anything without a middle, and what do you get? What if the Dachshund, school bus, or the Eiffel Tower look like if they had a weak middle? What if the middles of the Dachshund, school bus, or Eiffel Tower were disconnected from the beginning and ending of your story? In the following video, I have a little fun demonstrating solid middles vs fractured middles using crude and wacky drawings.

Read my blog post about EPISODIC STORIES here.

CAUSE AND EFFECT RUFFLE

In the following video I do a clumsy ruffle demonstration explaining how a solid cause and effect thread vs a broken one can impact your story’s middle.

Read my post about CAUSE AND EFFECT here.

EMOTIONAL ROLLER COASTER RIDE (a little something extra)

EMOTIONAL ROLLERCOASTER v3

I love picture books that offer an emotional roller coaster ride. Since, I already have an example that I did for a few recent manuscript critiques using the book THOSE SHOES by Maribeth Boelts and illustrated by Noah Z. Jones, I share the PDF via the following link Middles Those Shoes. This example highlights the many wonderful ups and downs this story ride offers. In addition, it points out the links in the cause and effect chain. This analysis is a good example of one way to use published books as mentor texts.

The ups and downs of the roller coaster ride are usually created by tension that results from obstacles/conflict/struggles. As I was going through Art of Arc’s lessons about writing middles, the following blurb jumped out at me. I thought it worth sharing as I end my portion of this post and start preparing my next blog post with more great words of wisdom from our blog team.

Straightforward and struggle-free stories, with no apparent consequences or sense of what might happen if the main character doesn’t succeed, will generally lose a reader’s attention. But when obstacles (conflict) create struggles and force the main character to make choices and decisions, the story is taken in new and exciting directions. This engages the reader.”

I can’t wait to share more good news and the treasure trove of wisdom about middles from our other wise authors. Follow my blog or keep a close eye out because we have more “writing middles” wisdom coming from Beth Anderson, Kirsti Call, Pippa Chorley, Vivian Kirkfield, Michelle Nott, Rosie Pova, Dawn Prochovnic, Rob Sanders, and Melissa Stoller.

FOLLOWING ARE SOME LINKS TO OTHER KID-LIT WRITING WISDOM POSTS

WHY KID-LIT WRITERS SHOULD READ MENTOR TEXTS AND HOW TO GET THE MOST OUT OF READING THEM PART ONE and PART TWO

THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSONS LEARNED IN MY PUBLICATION JOURNEY PART ONE and PART TWO

LONG AND WINDING ROAD: PUBLICATION DOESN’T (USUALLY) HAPPEN OVERNIGHT PART ONE, PART TWO, and PART THREE

INTRODUCING THE KID-LIT WRITING WISDOM TEAM

REMINDER SEASON OF KINDNESS

Before I move on to the video, I want to remind everyone that your opportunity to win fabulous prizes for you, your children, or your classroom will end on October 1. The Season of Kindness guidelines can be found here. I hope you’ve been working on creating kindness, and I will be pleasantly surprised in the coming days when you share your acts of kindness in comments.

CHECK OUT THESE FABULOUS PRIZES

PRIZES, PRIZES, PRIZES!!!!

Winners will be chosen based on creativity, humor, fun, kind acts, bonus book photos, and following the guidelines accurately. The top eight winners’ names will be drawn from a hat randomly, and prizes will be offered in an elimination process. So, the first name drawn from the hat will have the first pick of the 8 prizes. The next person will choose from the remaining seven prizes, and the third will pick from the remaining six prizes, and on and on.

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kid-lit writing wisdom

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, examples, and mini-lessons. These tips can also be used for revising your stories’ beginnings, so you get double the treasure with these posts. Some authors have shared first lines of books in Part 1, Part 2, and now Part 3 on this topic. Study them and see if you can find some of the techniques mentioned in the two parts for this topic. Also notice if they inform you and draw you into the story–hook you. And if so, why? For those of you who are working on nonfiction picture books, Vivian Kirkfield’s first line examples and some of mine are from nonfiction picture books. However, they are good examples for works of fiction as well.

This is such an important topic that we will have three parts for this topic. This is part two, and just in case you missed it, you can read part one here and part two here.

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. Now for some great words of wisdom.

Words of Wisdom

HOW TO CUT AN ORIGINAL 304-WORD BEGINNING TO 76 WORDS

by Michelle Nott

Often when we sit down to write a new story, our beginnings are like Fred Flintstone’s feet scurrying fast underneath his car before it really gets going. But what the reader needs is not all the revving up, but the final kick that sets your story in motion.

As you begin to write, let your mind spin, write everything down. Then, once your manuscript is complete (not necessarily done, however), go back to the first words, paragraphs, pages, and see where your story really gets going. It may sound painful but go ahead and delete whatever doesn’t really jump-start your story.

What should be left is:

A hook – a detail about the setting, an interesting fact about your character, a catchy phrase, anything that will literally grab your reader’s interest and make them to want to read more.

An inciting incident – the hook will lose its grip on your reader if something doesn’t happen to your character. This moment should motivate your reader to want to see how events play out.

Here is an example from my upcoming picture book, TEDDY LET’S GO!

The absolute very first draft went like this… (and you don’t have to read it all to see it was entirely too long!)

“Many, many winters ago, a little girl was born. Her grandmother sat by her hospital window. She looked at the tiny hairs on the baby’s head and started to thread a needle. She touched the baby’s cheek and cut some shapes out of cotton fabric. She giggled seeing the little baby’s tongue slipping through her tiny lips and snipped a piece of red felt. The baby’s eyes were often shut, so Grandma picked some wide-open eyes from her craft box. She sat for hours threading, stitching, cutting. With every paw sewed, she smiled. With every arm attached, she laughed.

Then, with the strength of stiff fingers, she stuffed me with all the love she had. Up into my ears. Around my belly. Down to my toes. The opening was just under my bum. She patched it with a label.

‘Specially hand-made by Grandma’.

What a relief to be done! We left the hospital. Grandma gave me a final squeeze and packaged me up for Christmas. I peered out of a corner of the wrapping paper. The sun came and went several times. Lots of people came to visit and stood around a big tree with bright lights and colors. I could see Grandma’s mouth wide-open laughing. I could see a baby’s mouth wide-open crying. A bigger girl sat under the stockings. Her mouth was closed. She was combing her doll’s hair. Who will unwrap me? Grandma’s voice came closer, then I felt like I was flying. From my view, the baby was no bigger than I was. A lady whispered to her, “Look at this. It’s your first Christmas present. Let Mommy open it for you.”

That’s how it started…and how the crying ended. I lay down next to the baby. She rubbed her nose against my cheek. We were made for each other.”

A much later draft that caught the attention and interest of my agent and editor went like this… (a much tighter version of 76 words from the original 304!)

“The wavy-haired woman with love in her eyes pulled me close and whispered in my ear. Then she wrapped me up. And I floated.

The smell of pine drifted through my paper. I drifted from one pair of hands to another.

My head spun. My tummy clogged up with cotton. I pushed through the packaging.

“Teddy,” she said, “for you.”

[ILLO: A patch on the bear reads, “Specially hand-made by Grandma.”]

A nose as small as mine rubbed against my cheek. We were made for each other.”

By cutting out all the “revving up,” the story is more interesting, and the reader gets hooked much quicker. But all that preliminary spinning is often necessary for you, as the writer, to understand your characters and to be able to write the best version of their story. So, write as much as you need when you start, all the while knowing that you will go back and tighten in a way that serves your story best.

As for the final version of Teddy Let’s Go, it is slightly improved yet again. And that, you’ll be able to read as soon as it releases in 2022.

HOW TO USE MENTOR TEXTS TO GUIDE YOU WHILE WRITING BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS

by Marcie Flinchum Atkins

I usually study beginnings before I write a beginning. This is where I turn to mentor texts. When I’m studying comp titles for a particular book I’m working on, I often keep a spreadsheet of things I want to keep track of. For more of how I keep track of mentor texts on spreadsheets, you can read my post here.

When I look at beginnings, I look at how the author bookended the first and last lines. When they are right next to each other on a spreadsheet, it’s easy to see how they fit together or diverge. I also notice what the author included on that first page. What are the things they wanted the reader to know right away? What did they leave out? Then I look at how they fashioned the beginning lines. What is the construct of those lines?

Then I look at my own work. I might try on first lines in various styles. I try out various starting points for the story. I sometimes even set a timer and write as many first lines as I can. Are there any gems? Are there ways I can combine? I realize it might take me lots of tries to get my first lines just right.

BEGINNINGS ARE A HUGE CHALLENGE, BUT WHEN YOU FINALLY GET THERE, THE STORY IS TRANSFORMED

by Beth Anderson

Thanks for this great topic – beginnings are such a challenge! Here are my thoughts….

Beginnings are difficult, require LOTS of work, and can make or break a story for an editor and readers. They have to be strong—they have a lot of heavy lifting to do. Pressure! I have to push myself to just dive in and know that I’ll be working on that beginning later – after I know the arc, the heart thread I want to resonate, and where I end up. Beginnings and endings are integrally related. Here are my essential elements for beginnings with the kind of stories I tell (narrative NF and historical fiction) and some examples from my books.

> The hook: kid friendly invitation to readers that sets up the story question to be answered at the end, often it sparks an emotional response in the reader. Readers are pulled in by that question and read to find out the answer. In “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses we get the superhero kid hook and, literally, a question. The opening of An Inconvenient Alphabet addresses the reader and offers the promise of something puzzling—a battle with the alphabet.

> The essentials: What do you need to know about the character and setting? (nothing extra!) The main character and their goal/want/need should be up front. The setting can be implied by illustrations with specifics added later—we don’t need to start with dates and places, but we need a sense of time and place. While you want to ground the reader, you don’t want anything that’s not essential to bog it down. Fill in needed back story and context as needed later, interwoven with action. Examples: I open with Tad Lincoln’s wriggle from birth, clearly involuntary; Prudence Wright’s (2/1/22) spark of independence; a bit about Ben Franklin and Noah Webster (but without names) and the American Revolution as rejecting the rule of England to set up the context and conflict.

> “Plant” seeds: What items or ideas will you need to support for later? What idea do you want to resonate at the end? I had to set up “Smelly” Kelly smelling water and recognizing the odor of elephants, and also the heroism “heart” of the story. On the first spread, Prudence Wright is visually connected with the antagonist that comes later. Sometimes the illustration on the title page or an epigraph (quote) with an illustration, as in the case of Tad Lincoln’s story, strengthen the opening by providing essential information and/or a few seeds.

> Action ASAP: What’s your inciting incident? How can you get to the action, the problem, the emotional response immediately? Often when sharing manuscripts, a critique partner will point to the spot where we first see characters in motion and conflict, and say, “This is where your story really starts.” There’s nothing better than beginning with action. That’s what pulls a young reader in, though that’s often a challenge. It’s harder to get the essentials, the seeds, and the hook embedded immediately in the action. But…I think it’s the most powerful. In Lizzie Demands a Seat!, the first spread has Lizzie in motion, heels clicking, in a hurry, purposeful. Also streetcar, horses, NYC, the pieces of setting we need right away. We get the heat, the stress of being late, and BOOM inciting incident. The shocking unfairness of what happened is obvious – kids recognize unfairness. Then after that emotional hit, we get more context to fully understand society of the time—incentive to keep reading.

Beginnings are a HUGE challenge, but when you finally get there, the story is transformed. The test is to see if you can keep crafting it until you’re there. I think it takes a lot of practice, ongoing learning, to learn how to embed all this information in a short, powerful opening. How can you embed key points without devoting a sentence to each of those pieces? How can you interweave the essentials within the action? The best way to learn about beginnings is to analyze those you consider effective. Good luck!

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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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