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sub six series 2

When submitting a manuscript, you want to submit your best work. One way to make your story shine is by learning from others. Marcie Flinchum Atkins shows us how to study other authors’ picture books to improve our craft. Thanks, Marcie, for this lesson in using character-driven picture books as mentor texts. Click on the images of the printables to get PDFs.

Using Character-Driven Picture Books as Mentor Texts to Improve Your Own Writing

By Marcie Flinchum Atkins

What is a Mentor Text?

A mentor text is a stellar text that is used as an example of good writing technique. If you study a mentor text, not just reading it as a reader, but reading it as a writer, you can improve your own writing. It’s like learning from the experts.

Professional athletes watch the techniques of others in their field. Artists look at the paintings of others artists and study HOW they created that work of art. Writers should be no different. We can read for pleasure, and we should. But reading with a writer’s eye is critical in improving at your craft.

The Most Important Thing

We can read and read and study phenomenal books for kids, but if we never apply what we’ve learned to our writing, then it’s not much help. Let me give you an example, when I teach kids about using sensory words in their writing, we spend time looking for how authors incorporate sensory language into their writing to help the reader really feel like they are experiencing the story. However, the most important piece of this lesson is giving kids time to actually try it out. After we’ve learned about it, we take a piece of writing that they are already working on and we try to find places to add sensory details. This is the application part.

As a writer for children, we need to do this too. If you are having trouble creating endings for your picture books (I have this problem), the first thing to do is to study a lot of different ways to end it by looking at real books. But the MOST IMPORTANT thing is to TRY IT OUT in your own manuscript. You may have to try many different ones before you nail it, but you must try it.

Character-Driven Picture Books
In this particular “Mentor Texts for Writers” session we are going to take a closer look at character-driven picture books.

What is a character-driven picture book?

The focus of the picture book is on the character and, in most cases, something unique that that character has/does/is.

If you want a great definition and examples of character-driven picture books see Pam Calvert’s website: WOVEN WITH PIXIE DUST.

Why Character-Driven Picture Books?

I read a lot about what agents and editors want because I’m still looking for an agent and/or an editor. Something that I keep seeing over and over again in their wish lists is CHARACTER-DRIVEN PICTURE BOOKS.

I have some character-driven picture books in my work-in-progress stack, but I know they are not quite there yet. So I set out to study them—what makes them character-driven and what were some of the common characteristics.

The Process:

1) Look for books in the area where you need work. In this case, character-driven picture books.

How did I find the picture books I wanted to study?

Trust me, I don’t have the time the go to the library and scan the shelves. I do a little bit of online research and I ordered them on my library’s online catalog.

Book Cover Mosaic

I did scan my kids’ bookshelves. I asked my friend Google: “character-driven picture books.” This led me to a few.

Amazon.com Amazon has this awesome feature that shows you what other books people bought who bought the same book you searched for. Sometimes it’s not helpful, but most of the time, it’s a goldmine.

Screenshot of Amazon

I narrowed my study to ONLY books that were written and illustrated by two different people because I’m a writer only. There are a ton of great character-driven picture books by author/illustrators (OLIVIA by Ian Falconer and MR. TIGER GOES WILD are just two great examples from author/illustrators). But so much of their books are revealed through the pictures, so I knew if I wanted to study writing technique, I’d need to look at books written and illustrated by different people.

2) Read those books.

First I read them just to read them—mostly to myself or to my own kids. I made some notes about things I noticed about them as a genre.

Things that I noticed:

  • Many of the character driven books are author/illustrator books
  • Girl characters outweigh boy characters by a LOT (note to self: hole in the market). There are some boy characters, but many of them upon reading them are not about the character, they are all about action. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
  • Some of them have turned into franchises or multiple book deals and branching into other areas. For example, Fancy Nancy has multiple books and now is in beginning readers. Pinkalicious has brought about Purplicious and many others.
  • Many of them are stand alone titles and are really good all by themselves.

3) Pick a handful of the ones you thought worked really well. You probably will not LOVE all of them. But really delve deeper into the ones that you wouldn’t mind reading again and again.

I have provided a printable form as a guide for some of the things you might want to notice.

screenshot of character analysis chart blank

Screenshot of Explanation Slide

Here’s one that I filled out for LITTLE HOOT by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Screenshot of Little Hoot analysis

4) The form I created is only ONE way you could study your favorite texts. Here are some more ideas:

Photo of Ribbit with sticky notes

5) Apply what you learned to your own writing

REMEMBER: This is the most important part. There are a number of ways you could apply it to your own writing, but a lot of it depends on where you are in your writing.

  • BRAINSTORMING. If you are just thinking about a new book but haven’t drafted it yet, this is a great time to brainstorm more about your character.
  • ANALYSIS OF A CURRENT DRAFT. If you have been noodling around with a character-driven picture book draft(s), and you can’t put your finger on what’s working or not working, it might be time to analyze your draft to see where you can improve.

I’ve created a printable for you to insert your own idea or analyze your own draft.

Screenshot of brainstorming chart blank

If you want some suggestions for character-driven picture books (written by different authors and illustrators), here is a list.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

BIG MEAN MIKE by Michelle Knudsen, illustrated by Scott Magoon

DESMOND AND THE NAUGHTYBUGS by Linda Ashman, illustrated by Anik McGrory

FANCY NANCY by Jane O’Connor, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser

LADYBUG GIRL by David Soman, illustrated by Jacky Davis

LITTLE HOOT by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Jen Corace

MY NAME IS NOT ISABELLA by Jennifer Fosberry, illustrations by Mike Litwin

PART-TIME PRINCESS by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Cambria Evans

PINKALICIOUS by Victoria Kann, illustrated by Elizabeth Kann

PRINCESS IN TRAINING by Tammi Sauer, illustrated by Joe Berger

PRINCESS PEEPERS by Pam Calvert, illustrated by Tuesday Mourning

THE RECESS QUEEN by Alexis O’Neill, illustrated by Laura Hauliska-Beith

RIBBIT! By Rodrigo Folgueira, illustrated by Poly Bernatene

SPOON by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Scott Magoon

TALLULAH’S TUTU by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger

VAMPIRINA BALLERINA by Anne Marie Pace, illustrated by Le Uyen Pham

THE VERY FAIRY PRINCESS by Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton, illustrated by Christine Davenier

If you’d like a printable PDF of this list click here.

I’d love to know how this exercise worked for you. Leave a comment below or shoot me an e-mail (MARCIE [AT] MARCIEATKINS [DOT] COM).

What are your favorite character-driven picture books? I want to study more of them (preferably ones written and illustrated by different people). Leave a comment below to tell us your favorite character-driven picture book.

Want More Information on Mentor Texts?

If you want more information about how I use mentor texts in my classroom, you can visit my website and/or sign up for my teacher useletter. I also do workshops on teaching with mentor texts in the classroom.

If you want more information about using mentor texts as a writer, you should watch the webinar I did with the WOW Nonfiction Picture Book group. I also created a resource page to go along with that webinar with links and printables.

Bio:

marcie 15 for web small

Marcie Flinchum Atkins teaches fourth graders how to write by day and writes her own books for kids in the wee hours of the morning. She can also be found wrangling her own kids and reading books with them. She blogs about making time to write and using mentor texts at www.marcieatkins.com. Marcie holds a MA and MFA in children’s literature from Hollins University.

REVISING OR POLISHING YOUR PICTURE BOOK MANUSCRIPT

CONTESTS AND OTHER SUBMISSION OPPORTUNITIES FOR BOTH WRITERS AND ILLUSTRATORS BY SYLVIA LIU

ANNOUNCING THE NEW SUB SIX BLOG SERIES: ALL ABOUT SUBMISSIONS

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hummingbirdBefore I get into the Trapped Hummingbird: Self-Created Fear portion of the post, I want to offer a quick blurb on picture book writing courses. One of the winners in the Grandparent’s Day writing contest mentioned that she is looking for more writing courses after completing a course through the Institute of Children’s Literature. Here is a short list of courses that are getting a lot of buzz. Please feel free to share additional courses in comments.

Susanna Leonard Hill’s MAKING PICTURE BOOK MAGIC course.

Mira Reisberg’s PICTURE BOOK ACADEMY

This one is FREE! Pam Calvert’s PICTURE BOOK UNIVERSITY

SELF-CREATED FEAR

Fear is a common stumbling block for writers and, for many people, in life. Before you continue reading, stop and take a moment to list some of your current fears. Once you have your list move on to the next paragraph.

The fears you have listed would most likely be nonexistent if you had no memory of your past and you did not have the ability to imagine your future. We all have our natural reactionary fear when we are in true danger, but I doubt that the fears you have listed are such. Look at your list, and consider the following questions for each fear. Is this fear something I have created in my mind based on past experiences or an imagined future? Is this fear keeping me stuck in place or leaving me feeling anxious?

One of the biggest fears that stand in our way as writers, and in life, is fear of the unknown. Most of us cannot possibly know the outcome of something, yet we create frightening scenarios in our mind that seldom come to be. Living a fearful life blinds us to new perspectives and opportunities. The darkness of our fear overshadows the light of our spirit.

TRAPPED HUMMINGBIRD

One morning, when I opened the garage door, I discovered that a hummingbird had been trapped in the garage overnight. Even though the now wide-open garage door left a huge escape route, the poor hummingbird could not find her way out. Why? Because she would not change what she was doing. She fluttered along the ceiling until exhaustion forced her to stop and rest on the garage door’s support brackets. Within moments, she commenced fluttering again – using up all her energy.

We opened the upper portion of a garage window that was only about a foot away from her resting place. Yet, with two good routes to freedom, she could not find her way out. She continued her exhaustive fluttering – resting routine over and over. I tried to lure her lower with a hummingbird feeder, so she could see the expansive escape route of the garage door. I went outside the window with the feeder and talked to her. My husband and I tried every way we could think of to guide her out of the garage. I believe she was so full of fear that she could not see the light emitting from her path to freedom. Finally, we decided to leave her alone, trusting she would eventually find her way out.

That evening she was gone. I believe she spent some time alone in peace where her fear subsided, and she could finally see the light and reclaim her freedom.

This story had two messages for me that I would like to share with you:

  1. My husband and I had to let go of our fears that the little bird would suffer injury or death. Then we had to let go of our efforts to control the situation. We had to let things unfold naturally.
  2. We only had goodness in our hearts and wanted nothing but the highest good for our little winged friend. Yet, her fear would not allow her to trust us. If she could have trusted, all her exhaustive struggling would have been unnecessary, and she could have found freedom with ease and much sooner.

What fears are creating struggles in your life? Holding you back? Slowing you down? Preventing you from trusting?

Read about other writers’ fears at Marcie Flinchum Atkins “WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER: FEAR.”

BONUS INSPIRATIONAL WORDS

This morning, I opened up Facebook to find some comments by Debbie Bernstein LaCroix. I thought her words would be perfect for this post. With her permission, I have included the comments below.

Here’s the thing… sometimes you have to take risks. Sometimes those risks will pay off, and sometimes they don’t. But if you want to be successful, it means trying new things and stepping outside your comfort zone. Later this week I will have a success story with Usborne that started 3 years ago. I totally took a leap of faith, and got nothing. Until 2 weeks ago… With writing, I take risks every time I send out a story. And most of the time, it comes with a rejection. It would be so much easier to quit. But I want to build and foster imaginations, so I don’t. When I share an idea with someone, it has the risk of failing. Some of my ideas end up horribly. Some of them take over 10 years to complete (The Children’s Museum)… but it’s all about knowing that you can do it, and not giving up. It’s OK to be scared. I am, a lot. But I know I have things to do. And I can’t do them if I just sit back and do what is easy. So here is my question to you, what risk will you take tomorrow?

(additional comment)

Just adding, I have a lot of people bringing me in to do author visits. For this, it’s a risk, an unknown. But the rewards for each are different… in building relationship, upping sales, fostering the love of reading or what ever their goal is. Just heard back from one that a Kindergarten teacher is really happy that I am going to be speaking to her classroom. She says they always get forgotten or ignored. Sure, speaking with the younger kids is a little more of a challenge in some ways. But they love to learn about where books come from too. Anyway, glad this consultant took a risk and that I can help make them happy.

To learn more about Debbie and Usborne visit the following.

Debbie’s Website

Debbie’s Blog

Usborne Books

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