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Posts Tagged ‘Using Mentor Texts’

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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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.

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