Historical Fiction and Nonfiction Mentor Texts

Mosaic of book coversMentor Texts

Whenever I’m reading someone else’s work for critique or whenever I’m struggling in a particular area of my writing, I always turn to mentor texts. They are like “guiding lights.”

I’ve been involved in some discussions online that are asking for great suggestions for picture book biographies (recent ones), historical fiction examples, and even books for the youngest of readers.

I created the list for writers who need some good mentor texts to guide them in learning about the genres and writing their own books. However, this list could easily be used for the classroom and I’ve shared many of these books with students.

I have also included this list in a PDF for easy printing.

But you may wonder why I delineated between historical fiction and nonfiction in my list or HOW I delineated.

Nonfiction vs Historical Fiction

I’ve noticed a lot of people who have been asking about what makes a book historical fiction. Here are some of my rules of thumb:

  • Parts of the narrative that cannot be proven as fact
  • Invented Dialogue
  • First person POV (unless it’s an autobiography)
  • Using the historical facts to create a believable, but fictional, story (example: using the facts of the Civil War battles and times to create a fictional story about a child during the Civil War)

How Can I Tell the Difference?

  • Read it yourself.
  • Read the author’s note at the back of the book. Most of the time, the author points out parts that he/she couldn’t find and had to imagine or invent. But they usually back up those imagined parts with impeccable research.
  • Take a look at the CIP (Cataloging in Publication) information on the copyright page. While sometimes, it claims that books are biographies when they use invented dialogue, it does give you some guidance. It points you to where it should be shelved in the library (though there is some wiggle room), which also will give you a clue.

But, What if??????

There are those books that seem to fit firmly in one category, but really aren’t clear cut. Case in point: THE RIGHT WORD: ROGET AND HIS THESAURUS. The main text is absolutely nonfiction, but there are parts of the text (not the main text) that have speech bubbles. My guess is that’s invented dialogue.

This is an excellent book! One of my absolute favorites this year. Because the main text or story is nonfiction, I’m going to include it in my nonfiction list. However, you could read this book without reading the dialogue and still understand it. The dialogue is woven into the illustrations, and it creates a kid-friendly part to the text.

Would I let students use this text as a reference source? Absolutely.

Betsy Bird articulated this very issue much more clearly than I did. Here’s her post about these books. I particularly encourage you to read the comments, for the conversation that occurred there is very, very important.

I also really like Tanya Lee Stone’s article about invented dialogue.

Some links were shared in the comments that delve even deeper into this issue. Marc Tyler Nobleman’s article in The Horn Book is excellent. and another article about what can happen when you invent dialogue.

I’m not an expert on this. I think the line between historical fiction and nonfiction is important. What is amazing to me is that the quality of books out there is continue to increase. All of these books are on my list because they are excellent. I enjoy reading them and sharing them with children.

My main goal for this list is to give writers some stellar mentor texts to take a look at when writing nonfiction or historical fiction. This has been a discussion on several Facebook groups I’m a part of.

I read widely to create this list, but I know there are books that I missed. If you disagree with my delineation, feel free to say so. Or if you have books to add to the list, please comment as well. I’m really interested in having you lead me to more good books!

Click here for the printable PDF version of this list.


All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom by Angela Johnson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis

Amelia and Eleanor Go For a Ride by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick

Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by S.D. Schindler

Boycott Blues: How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney

The Flag Maker by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, illustrated by Claire A. Nivola

Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue

George Washington’s Birthday: A Mostly True Tale by Margaret McNamara, illustrated by Barry Blitt

Georgia’s Bones by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Bethanne Andersen

Going North by Janice N. Harrington, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue

Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

The Mighty Lalouche by Matthew Olshan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

The Noisy Paintbox by Barb Rosenstock by Mary GrandPre

Queen Victoria’s Bathing Machine by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey, illustrated by Gwen Strauss

Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales



Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos written by Deborah Heiligman, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Dream Something Big by Dianna Aston, illustrated by Susan Roth

Edward Hopper Paints His World by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Wendell Minor

Jack’s Path of Courage: The Life of John F. Kennedy by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Matt Tavares

Miss Moore Thought Otherwise by Jan Pinborough, illustrated by Debby Atwell

Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson

Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein by Don Brown

On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky

A Splash of Red by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos by Stephanie Roth Sisson

Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Everything by Maira Kalman

The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by H. Joseph Hopkins, illustrated by Jill McElmurry

The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps by Jeanette Winter

Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman


An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long (and all others in this series)

No Monkeys, No Chocolate by Melissa Stewart and Allen Young, illustrated by Nicole Wong

Parrots Over Puerto Rico by Cindy Trumbore, illustrated by Susan Roth

Redwoods by Jason Chin

Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Emily Sutton

Events/Slice of Life/Niche areas

Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1901 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Stewart

Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas by Lynne Cox, illustrated by Brian Floca

Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney

Miracle Mud by David A. Kelly

My Country ‘Tis of Thee: How One Song Reveals the History of Civil Rights by Claire Rudolph Murphy, illustrated by Brian Collier

Now and Ben: The Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin by Gene Barretta

Sit In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney

Timeless Thomas: How Thomas Edison Changed Our Lives by Gene Barretta

We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton


All the Water in the World by George Ella Lyon by Katherine Tillotson

Bring on the Birds by Susan Stockdale (she has several NF animal books for young readers)

Gravity by Jason Chin

The Iridescence of Birds by Patricia MacLachlan

Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Life by Lola Schaefer, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal

Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell

No Monkeys, No Chocolate by Melissa Stewart and Allen Young, illustrated by Nicole Wong

PiBoIdMo Prep 2014: Mining for Ideas

Come November, I’m usually physically and emotionally spent. I’m exhausted from the first few months of school and anticipating the exhaustion of the holidays.

But a challenge comes along every November that I just can’t pass up.


PiBoIdMo. Picture Book Idea Month, started by the amazing Tara Lazar. I’ve written about my experiences with PiBoIdMo in 2012 and 2013.

I should have declared 2014 the “Year of the Picture Book” because when I reflect on all of the writing classes and conferences I’ve attended, they’ve leaned heavily toward picture books. As PiBoIdMo creeps closer on the calendar, I realize, I’m armed and ready.

I take copious notes at conferences. Not only do I write down the key points the speaker is making, but I also jot notes to myself while they are talking. Reflections of how I could use this point in my own writing. What WIPs (works-in-progress) does this apply to? Or what new ideas does this conjure up?

For PiBoIdMo 2014, I’m planning to mine my notes. Usually I spend my year mining my PiBoIdMo journal when I’m looking to write a new picture book draft.

2013 PiBoIdMo Journal

2013 PiBoIdMo Journal

But this year, I’m going to do a bit of a reverso.

This year, I’m going to mine my other journals and notes from conferences to come up with my PiBoIdMo ideas.

I once heard Candice Ransom talk about how she keeps a journal, but also spends time going back through the journals to mine them for ideas. It’s hard to utilize all of those gems you captured in a journal in your writing, if you don’t go back and dig through them.

One of the journals I'll be mining for ideas for PiBoIdMo 2014

One of the journals I’ll be mining for ideas for PiBoIdMo 2014

This year, instead of trying to pluck ideas from the clear blue sky (though I would be happy if they did coming falling down), I plan to mine them out. I know I have ideas sitting there, ready to be grabbed. I just need to dig deep and pull them to the surface.

I’m gathering…

1) journals from the last year (yes, plural, I have them in my car, my purse, by my bed, and on my desk)

2) notes from Susanna Leonard Hill’s Making Picture Book Magic class

3) notes from Renee LaTulippe’s Lyrical Language Lab class

4) notes from the WOW conference (I took particularly copious notes in Lisa Wheeler, Stacy McAnulty, Miranda Paul, and Jodell Sadler’s sessions)

5) notes from the Picture book workshop I took with Lola Schaefer and Rebecca Kai Dotlich

6) notes from Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen’s Picture Book Plotting class

As I look through all of my notes, I will get to revisit those “in the moment” ideas I wrote down. These ideas will go down in my PiBoIdMo journal for 2014. And I’m sure that I’ll be mining that journal all of 2015 when I write my picture book drafts.

This year's PiBoIdMo Journal

This year’s PiBoIdMo Journal


How are you prepping for PiBoIdMo this year?

New Teacher Resources


Mentor Texts for Word Choice Downloadable

My most popular post on my blog is my “Top 10 Mentor Texts for Word Choice.” I took the bones of that post, expanded it, and turned it into a downloadable PDF. You can get it for FREE if you sign up for my newsletter (sign up is to the right).


New Books Page

I have added a books page to my website. I will keep this page updated with any resources that I have written or contributed to. Right now there are two new items on there.


Mentor Text Tips E-Book

The “Mentor Text Tips” e-book is now available for purchase.

Screenshot 2014-10-08 16.29.50







Haiku Educator Materials

The amazing Laura Purdie Salas is releasing several e-books and paperback poetry books this fall. I contributed educator materials for one of the books, Riddle-Ku.

Riddle-Ku is now available on Amazon. 

RiddleKu Cover

Learning Never Stops

My brother teases me that I’m a perpetual student. I never seem to quit going to school. It’s true. I have a MFA, MA, and soon an endorsement in Library Media to prove that this statement is true. But I think the more I learn the more I realize I have so much left to learn.

At the beginning of 2014, I made a promise to myself that every month I’d be busy learning something, reading something, and writing something.

Some of the things that have impacted me the most in 2014 include the following:

Making Picture Book Magic with Susanna Leonard Hill

I’ve been in several graduate picture book writing classes, so I wasn’t sure if I would learn anything new, but I did. Not so much new things about picture books, but a new process. Susanna broke down the process in a way I’d never done before.  And sometimes, when you approach things in a new way, it helps you write things in a whole new way.

I’d recommend this to newbies and advanced pre-published picture book writers. In fact, I’ve been recommending picture book writer friends to give this class to themselves as a gift. It makes a great birthday present or Christmas present for a writer. It’s far cheaper  than graduate school and it comes right to your inbox. Even better.

I was able to write a picture book in this class that has a lot of promise.

Lyrical Language Lab with Renee LaTulippe 

I’ve never really written picture books in rhyme. I do enjoy writing poetry, but I was struggling with really understanding the ins and outs of rhyme. This online class was a gift. I learned a LOT about poetry and Renee is a girl after my own heart. She made these reference charts that made so much sense to my brain. Plus her feedback was so fabulous and detailed. Lyrical writing is a strength of my prose, but this helped me make it even better.

If you want to challenge yourself to dip your toes into the world of rhyme, or if you just want to use language more effectively,  then go for this class.

I was able to write a picture book in this class that is totally in rhyme. I also composed several poems as exercises. The best part? I now have the tools to continue this on my own.

WOW Retreat

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to go to the WOW retreat—time wise, money wise, kid-care wise. But somehow, it all came together, like it was supposed to happen. Why was I glad I went? 1) I love small conferences where you actually get to know the attendees and make connections with them 2) I got to chat with agents and editors casually and formally 3) I learned a ton at this conference. Each session was packed full of good information, 4) I got my agent as a result of this conference—need I say more?

Books that Impacted Me


Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less 

by Greg McKeown

I’ve been too busy. Busier than I’m comfortable with. I think some of it has paid off but I see a need to give myself some more margin in my life and start pursuing where I really want to be in a few years. This book makes it clear that some of the most successful people in life are not the people who say yes to everything. They are the people who cut their lives down to the most important things. I listened to this on audiobook on one of my many solo trips this summer. It’s not just for writers. In fact, it’s probably intended for those in business, but it has great implications for writers. This is a book I will return to again and again because I’ll need to be reminded of what I need to keep in my life and what I need to shed.

wild things

Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature

by Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson, and Peter Sieruta

I have an MA and MFA in children’s literature, and one of the books I wished I’d had during those years was the new book by blogger-extraordinaires, Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson, and the late Peter Sieruta. I had to take History and Criticism during graduate school, but this book is like history and crit with a bit of scandal mixed in. It’s fun, it’s serious, and these authors know their stuff. If you are a kidlit aficionado, then you need to get this book.

What about You?

What classes or books have impacted you recently? Maybe I will add them to my learning for 2015.

Take a Risk

You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down. – Annie Dillard

Summer of 2014 might have been my busiest summer yet. I had a week and a half to breathe—to sleep in past 5:00AM, to not work 12-14 hours a day, and to really reflect on all that I’ve experienced.

I’ve been writing religiously every morning, working on project after project, and feeling like I wasn’t making much headway. My mom planned to be here for the summer (from Thailand, where she usually lives) and I knew I had an opportunity to attend the week-long WOW conference in Georgia, organized by Kristen Fulton. Childcare, one of my biggest obstacles in being gone for a week, was taken care of. I took a risk. Hesitant about leaving my kids for a week, I had misgivings. I’d be sharing dorm space with strangers. Would the money and the time given up be worth it?

I took a risk and went.

All of my fears were replaced by friends. Friends that I knew online and finally met in real life. Sharing dorm space wasn’t a problem, it was fun. I felt like I got my money’s worth on day 1 in a day long workshop with Lisa Wheeler. I knew if I learned nothing else that week, I’d already made a good investment in myself as a writer.

Jodell Sadler, literary agent, was in attendance. She came about halfway through the week. I introduced myself. She spoke about picture book pacing. I’d been following her for awhile and really connected with her use of mentor texts, even reaching out before the conference via e-mail as a possible poster on my blog. I hadn’t signed up for a critique with her though.

I took a risk and asked her for a critique.

She willingly worked me in. In my risk, all I’d hoped for was an honest critique. I knew she was an editorial agent, so I wanted to get some feedback on a picture books I’d never sent out before. She really liked it and offered to represent me. I wanted to make sure she really liked more than one thing, so I gave her more work. Which she also liked.

I prepared lots of questions to ask her before accepting her offer. We chatted in person and by phone.

My husband finally said, “Marcie, take a risk.”

It didn’t seem like a risk, but more of a step in the right direction.

Then in August, I had the privilege to attend a picture book workshop with Lola Schaefer and Rebecca Kai Dotlich in Indianapolis. One thing that Lola said stood out to me. She said,

When writing your stories, take a risk.

She encouraged us to try something different and not be afraid to stretch ourselves as writers.

I’m not much of a risk-taker. But sometimes I realize, I have to leap, even when I don’t know the outcome.

In the words of fellow Hollins gal, Annie Dillard, “You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.”

My goal for the remainder of this year is to be braver in my writing life. To take more risks. To not play it safe, but to stretch myself.

The Halfway Mark of 2014: Are You Where You Want to Be?

Halfway There

It’s the end of June. We are officially halfway through 2014. The question is, are you pleased with where you are as a writer this year? Are you working toward your goals? Are you making time to write? If so, keep going and planning out the rest of your year. If not, it’s not too late. Time to get working.


It’s the end of the month, so I always plan my next month’s focus. Here is the template I use for that task. For me, July is going to be busy with me working and writing. But I still have several writing tasks needing to be accomplished.

We have finished two quarters of the year. Each quarter, I look at my goals again. If you want to plan out your next three months, here is a template that I use.

At the beginning of the year, I created a book where I could write down my accomplishments–big and small. If I get an encouraging rejection letter or a request to revise and rewrite, it goes in the book. Read more about my book here.

Book of Stars

I’m sorry my posts have been missing lately. I was working on a big project with a very tight deadline.

How about you? What are you proud of accomplishing so far this year? What do you want to do in the remainder of 2014?

June Monthly Focus Reminder and New Planning Template

Where did May go? I looked up behind my computer where I hang my monthly focus paper, and it still says April. Oops. It’s not that I haven’t been working in May. I’ve actually had one of the busiest writing months ever, but it was so busy, I never did  May focus sheet. I guess since I had some pretty clearly defined deadlines, I didn’t have trouble focusing. I had to focus on the thing that I needed to do to finish the job.

Consider this your reminder to do your monthly focus for June. For the template click here. For more information on monthly focus forms, read this post.

New Planning Template

My planning mind often resembles that of planning for instruction in my classroom. I look at the blocks of time and adjust my instruction, mapping out what needs to be covered in the time that I have. I had a brainstorm to try something similar during the last busy month that I have and going  into a very busy summer of writing.

Click to download the template.

Click to download the template.

I found a weekly meal planning template on Microsoft’s website. Then I customized it and saved it as a template in Excel, so it comes up as a template choice every time I open up Excel. I blocked off my time. I don’t write full-time. I have a day job as a teacher, so I only have certain times available to me. I write every single morning before school because it’s a time that I can grab every single day. Evenings or “extra times” I may or may not be able to fit in. On weekends, I try to write before everyone gets up. Sometimes it’s an hour, sometimes (like this weekend) I get up extra early and get in several hours.

On Sundays, I look at my upcoming week and block off the times and the things I need to get done. I try to save the mornings for writing only (as much as is possible). Any other writing-related activities like critiquing, blogging, freelance editing, I try to save for evenings. I love my old to-do list, and I may go back to that eventually, but I’d find some days I’d sit and negotiate what I needed to do first. This new template helped me prioritize.

This summer, if I have days with bigger chunks of time, I might break this down even further.

Try it out, if you think it would help you. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Some of you are night writers, so change your chunk of time to evenings, instead of mornings.

Survey Reminder

If you haven’t had a chance to add your opinion to my next writer and teacher resources, please do so. I’d love to know what you think. I have lots of ideas and a limited amount of time, so vote on what you think I should work on first.

Help Me, Help You (Mentor Text Resources Survey)

Summer is approaching, and while I’m knee deep in deadlines at the moment, I’m still thinking about what cool mentor text resources I can start providing. I have ideas about mentor text resources I’d like to create, and I’ve even started on many of these ideas. However, with time short, I’d love to have a VOTE. What mentor text resources would you like?

If you are a WRITER or a TEACHER (or both), please fill out this two question survey. I will use the results to help me develop future mentor text resources.

Survey Link


Feel free to pass this link on to other teachers and writers also. I need all the feedback I can get.

Baseball Books as Mentor Texts: BARBED WIRE BASEBALL by Marissa Moss

barbed wire baseball

Barbed Wire Baseball

By Marissa Moss

Illustrated by Yuko Shimizu

Abrams, 2013

Kenichi Zenimura loved to play baseball. He play baseball for years. Until World War II, when he and other Japanese families lived their lives in internment camps. But inside that bleak camp, Zeni made a baseball field. He spent a lot of time constructing and making the best baseball field he could. Then he organized teams and games, giving a little bit of hope to himself and the people living there. This would be an excellent text to also incorporate into a WWII unit.

Writing Skills

* Figurative Language

         * Similes

* Descriptive Language

* Sensory Words

* Vivid Verbs

Other Baseball Mentor Texts:

Miracle Mud

Mighty Jackie

Mentor Texts for Writers and Character Post

Mentor Texts for Writers

Recently I had the privilege of doing a workshop in Northern Virginia for a group of writers. The lovely and amazing Dianna Aston spoke in the morning about the stories behind her books. I spoke in the afternoon on using mentor texts to become a better writer. Johnell DeWitt, the organizer, took video of it. Here are some of the highlights in case you are interested.

Videos from the Mentor Texts for Writers Workshop

Character Post at Kids Are Writers

I have a new post up about character at Kids are Writers. Check it out here.