Carrie Charley Brown is hosting ReFoReMo (Read for Research Month), a time when writers challenge themselves to read picture books as mentor texts to improve their writing. I’m the guest author/educator there today talking about back matter in picture books. Hop over to her blog and give it a read.
I’m struggling with plotting in my middle grade novel. While I’m getting better at plotting, it’s still something that doesn’t come naturally to me. I wrote a post recently about the resources that I use when plotting. If you are struggling with plotting, these resources might help you too!
This is the first time I’m doing a 10 for 10 post as a librarian instead of a classroom teacher. There are a few differences in this: 1) I’m in a position now where people are asking for book recommendations on a daily basis, and 2) I am in a position where I’m reading the same book multiple times. If I choose to read a book to third grade, it has to be a book I love enough to read aloud and hook them and absorb ME for seven readings.
The books that I chose for this year’s list are books are all nonfiction that completely absorbed me. They are delightful as read alouds and they are stellar examples of nonfiction writing.
For each book, I’ve highlighted writing craft that I particularly like.
Most of these books are strong in specific word choice, which I refer to as “specificity.” For me, this means that the author uses domain-specific language. One of the treasures of these books is that none of these books use the words like vocabulary words, but they use words that true to the world they are writing about.
Written and Illustrated by Bethany Barton
* Specificity in word choice
Written and illustrated by Elise Gravel
Tundra Books, 2015
I also recommend reading both of these spider books and having a discussion about how two authors chose to write about the same topic.
By Lindsay Mattock
Illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Little, Brown, 2015
* Word choice
* Dual Narrative
* Lyrical language
I also read this book alongside Winnie by Sally M. Walker. Students discussed how two authors took the same topic and wrote about it. They especially noted how they started the stories in different places.
By Steve Jenkins and Robin Page
Houghton Mifflin, 2015
* Point of view
* Organization (How-To Text)
* World Play
* Specificity in word choice
By Nicola Davies
Illustrated by Emily Sutton
* Specificity in word choice
* Sentence variety
By Anita Sanchez
Illustrated by Robin Brickman
Boyds Mills Press, 2014
* Vivid Verbs
* Specificity in word choice
By Laurel Snyder
Illustrated by Julie Morstad
* Lyrical language
* Vivid Verbs
By Miranda Paul
Illustrated by Jason Chin
Neil Porter: Roaring Brook, 2015
* Vivid verbs
* Word Play
* Specificity in word choice
By Mara Rockliff
Illustrated by Iacopo Bruno
* Specificity in word choice
* Vivid Verbs
By Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews
Illustrated by Bryan Collier
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2015
* Specificity in word choice
* Refrain (repetition)
* Personal narrative
The 10for10 posts are happening all over the web today. Click here to join the Google+ Community where post links are being shared.
Previous 10for10 Posts
For the past several years (2012, 2013, 2014), I have kept track of the accomplishments for the year. Last year I kept a monthly celebration page, which I called my “Book of Stars” (I originally posted about that here). This year was particularly challenging for me, which I wrote about yesterday, so I’m particularly excited to look back on all I did accomplish. I didn’t meet every goal, but I know I’m a better writer on December 31, 2015 than I was on January 1, 2015, so that is something that I can be excited about.
- Moved to a new city across the state from where we were before
- Got a new dream job (school librarian)
- Transitioned family, sold old house, bought new house
- Taught 2 week summer writing camp at Hollins
- 1st book published—Ancient China (ABDO, 2015)
- As a result of that, I got to sign my first books, see my book in a public library, and speak at a literacy conference.
- Mentor Text E-book published and up for sale on my website
- Writing Marathon–February
- Poem a Day—April, I completed 30 poems alongside Linda. Many thanks to Renee for teaming us up!
- PiBoIdMo—I was not a winner, but I did work on getting ideas down in November.
- Write Daily 30—December, I worked on revising a middle grade in 45 minute sessions each day. Thanks to Linda Urban for organizing this!
- 12×12—All year. I wrote 6 new PBs and did 25+ revisions.
- Marcie Flinchum Atkins Challenges You to Steal Second, A Mentor Text Post on using 2nd person POV (ReFoReMo, February 1, 2015)
- A Case of the Why Nots: How I Built (and am still building) My Platform (Alayne Kay Christian, April 18, 2015)
- Picture Book Refrains: ReviMo May (Meg Miller, May 16, 2015)
- Read 423 picture books (this does NOT include the books I read for my job at my job, just the ones I read at home for personal writing growth)
- Read 47 longer works—novels and adult NF
- Luray retreat with Candace Ransom
- SCBWI MD/DE/WV Conference
- WOW Conference
- SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Conference
Book Events I Attended
- Kate DiCamillo at Virginia Festival for the Book
- Cece Bell (at Hollins)
- Maggie Steifvater (at Hollins)
- Elizabeth Gilbert
- Politics and Prose Picture Book Panel
- National Book Festival—so many authors
- Margarita Engle
- Duncan Tunatiuh
- Natalie Lorenzi
Middle Grade Novel Writing
- Revision in progress since November
- Got back into the submission game again after a hiatus
- Received several helpful critiques from agents and editors at various events
Keeping track of the things I DID accomplish definitely does make me pumped to do more writing. So here’s to 2016!
What are you most proud of from 2015?
It’s no secret that we moved this year. I’ve moved a lot in my life, having grown up in Thailand and Malaysia, and moving multiple times in my adult life. But this one was different. This time I said good bye to a place I’d lived in longer than any place else in my life. And this time I had kids.
Before the move, I had a great writing routine.
Then we put our house on the market, and I started job hunting. We sold our house, and moved into my parents’ condo. Then we had to find a new house and I had to make decisions about my new job. I had a summer full of temporariness. We moved into our new house, but I still had commitments for the summer to keep, so we were back and forth across the state all summer.
I’m now a few months on the other side of the move, several months into my new job, my kids are settled, and I am back in a good writing routine.
Looking back on the transition makes me absolutely exhausted.
One of my biggest fears was not being able to hang onto my creative life in the midst of it all. I definitely don’t think I excelled at it, but there were some things that keep me afloat during a stressful time.
I had big plans to revise a novel in March-May of 2015. That was right in the thick of my house selling, me getting job offers and having to make decisions, and us buying a house.
For me, I have to be in a book, really in it, almost every single day when I’m drafting and revising a novel-length project. I just know that’s how I work best. Otherwise, I spend a lot of time trying to remember where I last left off.
When all of the major decisions hit at once, I abandoned that novel-revising goal, and I told my writing friends I abandoned it. You know what happened? They wholeheartedly supported my decision and they helped validate that decision. They helped me give myself permission to take a break from it.
I picked it back up in November and December of 2015. And that time away was actually so helpful. I ended up cutting characters, cutting chapters, rewriting big chunks of it. I’m still working on it, but I am sure that it’s a better revision that I could’ve done in the spring.
I realized during all of those times I was trying to separate one decision from the other one, I needed to write. I process things both verbally and through writing them down. So, as my husband and I talked over our choices, I also wrote down pros and cons and my feelings, those intangible things that still played into my decisions.
Once we moved, I had a thousand things on my mind. I had my to-do lists and I also had my emotions, and my children’s emotions, and the emotions of reuniting our family after living apart for nine months.
Moving takes up a lot of headspace. I wasn’t coming up with the most stellar writing at this time and I was having trouble focusing on the writing at hand because I had all of this junk in my mind. I also had new job stress and the kids’ new situation stress.
I brought the morning pages back out. There were some mornings that all I could do was morning pages. But it was okay because it helped me free up some of that creative energy.
Eventually, I was able to do more than just morning pages.
My life was upside down for many months—basically from February-August. I used a bullet journal to help keep all of my to-do lists organized. It helped me keep all of my writing goals and my life transition mess organized. For more information on how I do bullet journaling, read this.
Small Victories Matter
Last year I wrote about my Book of Stars. This year, I incorporated it into my bullet journal.
When August rolled around, and I was feeling pretty depressed about all of the goals that had derailed, I flipped through my “book of stars” pages for each month. When I saw the books that I had read and book that was published and the speech that I delivered and so much more, I began to get out of my funk.
No, I didn’t accomplish all of my goals in 2015, but dang it, I did a lot!
Revise Your Goals
For me, I had to pare things down to what was really, really important. My day job hours changed, my commute increased, and I wanted to make sure that our family time was intact. That meant, I had to be strict about my writing hours and really keep them to the morning only.
That meant, some things had to give. I blogged less. I tried not to be scattered in a million different directions. I tried to be focused on what I really, really wanted to do.
As you’ll see in my post tomorrow, I’m excited about all that DID accomplish. I did way more than I gave myself credit for. However, one of my big, disappointing setbacks was not being able to draft a new novel.
However, I am embracing it. I realize that this got put on the back burner NOT because of procrastination, but because I made a conscious decision to hold onto my sanity and put that goal off for a few more months.
It’s on my list for 2016. Am I disappointed? Yes. Do I regret it? No.
I’m a type A, driven person. Sometimes it’s harder for me to say NO to myself than to push myself.
So, I think this setback was, in fact, a victory. I learned to recognize when I’d taken on too much and that I needed to re-evaluate.
Trust me, the move wasn’t perfect. The transition to my new schedule required some adjusting. But I’m happy to say I found my way back to my writing.
What life transitions have derailed your writing? How did YOU find your way back?
After a very long hiatus, I am back to blogging. I blog occasionally with a group of writers called the GROG. When Sherri Jones Rivers, a fellow grogger, asked me to give her some ideas for organizing her writing space, I gave her a tour of my space. Click here to find out how I organize my office.
I have been following Jen’s blog for years. We both are teachers and writers and we both love mentor texts. I love that Jen gives us a glimpse into the various ways she uses mentor texts. Please be sure you visit Jen’s website where she is one of the Teachers Write hosts every summer.
I believe a mentor text is anything we can look to as an example of good writing. It can be a book, a poem, a quote, words on a Starbucks cup. I especially love how Ralph Fletcher defines mentor texts as, “…any texts that you can learn from, and every writer, no matter how skilled you are or how beginning you are, encounters and reads something that can lift and inform and infuse their own writing.”
The beauty is any text becomes a mentor text in the hands of a writer. In that sense, a mentor text is as unique as its reader. If it inspires your writing, it’s a mentor text. I find myself taking pictures of things that inspire me. My phone ends up being a virtual writer’s notebook, full of ideas, snapshots of things that inspire me…including quotes on walls and words on Starbucks cups.
Thinking of a mentor text this way, we might not even realize what we have read that has influenced us! There is a big shift; going from a reader and a consumer to a writer who finds inspiration all around takes practice. The more I write, the more I pay attention to words and ideas all around me.
Depending on what I’m writing, I immerse myself as a reader in different formats or genres. When I’m doing research, I flood myself with every book I can find about a certain topic. I want to see what others have done so I can see how might story might fit in but also be different. I have a teeny seedling of an idea for a story about donuts so I checked out as many donut-related books as I could find from the library (I was surprised there weren’t that many!). In these mentor texts, I was looking for big picture ideas and themes.
Last year, I wrote a fiction picture book inspired by my sons. I compare it to a blend of Ninja! by Arree Chung and Must. Push. Buttons! by Jason Good so naturally I had to reread those books and others with a similar feeling. I paid attention to the pacing, how the author introduced the main character, and how the words worked with the illustrations.
When I worked on a non-fiction picture book biography earlier this year, I reread lots of my favorites in the same genre like The Right Word by Jen Bryant and Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet. At the same time, I also read some fiction picture books I love to see if any ideas there might transfer over into my non-fiction picture book. I love the word choice in Velma Gratch and the Way Cool Butterfly so it was one I looked at as a mentor text.
I’m a fan of descriptive writing and I love studying beautiful writing and admiring how authors use words to bring ideas to life for readers. With students, I love to share a piece of text and ask them read it a few times and think about what stands out to them. What I love about an excerpt might be very different from what someone else likes. Taking time to relish in great writing helps me realize what the author has done that I might like to try in my own writing.
For my YA novels, I adore Jenny Han’s writing as a mentor text but I also read lots of contemporary young adult and pay attention to how the authors bring characters to life, characters’ story arcs, and how the protagonists interact with the antagonists. What I notice about Jenny Han’s writing in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is that her writing is so concise. She packs a lot of information and background knowledge into the first few pages. It’s amazing and very well done.
Like I said, anything can be a mentor text. If it stands out to me, I usually take a picture of it so I can refer to it later. Oftentimes, what stands out to me is something I’m grappling with. This is from the back cover of Lost In The Sun by Lisa Graff. I love the alliteration and the way words are matched together so I snapped a picture.
In his book Steal Like An Artist, Austin Kleon talks about how nothing is original. Everyone is just taking bits and pieces of what others have done and creating something new. It’s nice to think that authors who have come before me are my mentors. When I think I might be stuck or I’m not sure how to start a story, I know I can always look at what others have done and see if they have an idea I might try in my own writing. All that matters is the words influence me and I’ve got a mentor text.
Jen Vincent is a Technology Integration Specialist for Mundelein School District 75 in Mundelein, Illinois. As a writer, blogger, and educator, she strives to model and inspire others to live a growth mindset in everything she does. Her passion is connecting people and ideas and believes in the power of being a connected educator to impact teaching and learning. Jen hosts Sunday Check-Ins for Teachers Write, co-hosts the kidlit It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? meme, and blogs at teachmentortexts.com. She can be found on twitter at @mentortexts and her website is jenvincentwrites.com.
One thing is for sure, I couldn’t do this series “Mentor Texts for Writers” without a little help from my friends. I have been so fortunate to have amazing writers post about their experiences using mentor texts. Pat Miller and I both blog on the GROG blog. I also had the privilege of meeting her at the WOW Retreat last summer. If you have never read her posts on the GROG, here is the link to her posts. She always shares an amazing amount of knowledge in each post! She also hosts a nonfiction conference in the fall called NF 4 NF. Hold onto your hats, Pat knows nonfiction and you will learn a lot from this post.
Authors don’t intend that their work be used by writers as mentor texts. But they spin a story or narrate a topic so well that you can often use their work as a blueprint for your own.
How do you find mentor texts? I have three strategies:
- READ Each library visit, I beeline to the new book section. I come across mentors by reading widely. Even if you aren’t reading for a specific need, your author brain will be silently mentored.
- FIND LISTS I can’t search the library’s catalog for “Strong Endings” or “Powerful Characterization”. But categorized lists of mentor texts are readily available on the Internet.
- SEARCH BY SIMILARITY I’m writing about an unassuming woman who was pushed by circumstance to act in ways that affected history. So I searched for biographies of similar women.
Here are some of the books that added ingredients to my biography’s recipe.
(Disney/Jump at the Sun Books, 2009)
Belle escaped her owner as a young woman. “Belle ran right up to hope’s front door.” After a Quaker bought her and set her free, Belle named herself Sojourner Truth. I plant to imitate the author’s emotion and detail selection. “[S]omeone threatened to burn down the building [in which she was to speak.] She said, ‘I will speak upon its ashes’.”
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013)
Quiet Annie hears that libraries are hiring women in NYC, so she moves, earns her degree, and gets her first job. Children weren’t trusted with library books. “But Miss Moore thought otherwise.” Page by page, Miss Moore makes changes that created today’s children’s service. Pinborough showed me how to choose events and build a life with them.
(Albert Whitman, 2013.)
My book’s subject, constrained by her times, accomplished things considered inappropriate for women. I chose this title to show me how to portray that. “[She’s wearing] the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration a man can get. But she’s a woman! And she’s wearing PANTS!”
(Holiday House, 2011)
This book is a crash course in how to tell a life story in a single page with enough detail and feelings to leave no doubt why each of fifteen women was “wild”. “Long after the Wild West was over and she was 74 years old, Nellie Cashman drove a team of huskies 750 miles across the Arctic Circle—750 miles!” This book is full of action, emotion, and appeal, all things I want to include about my own wild woman.
(Calkins Creek, 2013)
In another manuscript, I’m writing about a woman who kept journals and published two books of her experiences. How to include excerpts in my biography? I found several mentors that masterfully handled the same problem. Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library by Barbara Rosenstock (Calkins Creek, 2013) includes Jefferson’s writings in sidebars shaped like books.
In Helen’s Big World: The Life of Helen Keller (Disney/Hyperion, 2012), Doreen Rappaport includes a relevant quote on each page, written in a larger font. Her choices of quotes are crucial—one can read only the quotations and still get a vivid picture of Helen Keller.
Sometimes, mentor texts simply inspire. When one of my manuscripts became tedious despite my best efforts, I was at a loss. Then I discovered Franklin Delano Roosevelt: A National Hero by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen (Sterling, 2007). Despite the unassuming cover, this book is a grabber. Sudipta likens the Depression inherited by FDR to the Dark Ages. “FDR led the country through the crisis of the Great Depression—in thirteen years, not four hundred.” Her knack for weaving history with details that interest children made Sudipta’s book a literary tow truck that pulled my text from its muddy mire.
With mentor texts so readily available, you no longer have to write alone. A visit to your library or bookstore will quickly supply you with a little help from your friends.
Unfortunately, Pat Miller didn’t know about mentor texts when she wrote her biography, The Hole Story of the Doughnut (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Spring 2016). She whined and suffered needlessly. But she knows better now and is happy to share her love of nonfiction writing. Join her and a stellar faculty at NF 4 NF: Children’s Nonfiction Writers Conference.
I can not wait for Carter’s books to come out because I know they will be absolute treasures! I hope this blog post will have you basking in words, one of the main reasons we writers want to write ourselves. If you missed Carter’s blog post for teachers and librarians, I encourage you to go back and read it (even if you are not a teacher or librarian). Both of her posts ooze a love for books, so go there, then come back.
As a writer, my biggest fear is not capturing kid-ness accurately, truthfully, and with honor. And perhaps it’s not so much fear as a living, breathing promise to myself to not put something into the world without each of those things.
That’s what matters to me—because, I think, that’s what matters to a reader that can’t voice that yet for themselves. That’s what matters to a kid.
My editor responded to a new text from me as “a love letter to language so honest it makes you squirm.” Hearing compliments like that is a heart-patter for sure, but a paraphrased version of that quickly found its way to a post-it on my desktop:
It obviously resonated with me.
So here are some texts that are so honest they make me squirm.
Giant John by Arnold Lobel, 1964
Long ago in an enchanted forest there lived a large giant named John.
We Were Tired of Living in a House by Liesel Moak Skorpen and Doris Burn, 1969.
We were tired of living in a house. So we packed a bag with sweaters and socks, with mittens and earmuffs. And we moved to a tree.
Everybody Needs a Rock by Byrd Baylor and Peter Parnall, 1974.
Everybody needs a rock. I’m sorry for kids who don’t have a rock for a friend.
Hide and Seek Fog by Alvin Tresselt and Roger Duvoisin, 1966
The lobsterman first saw the fog as it rolled in from the sea. He watched it turn off the sun-sparkle on the waves, and he watched the water turn gray.
Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran and Barbara Cooney, 1991
Marian called it Roxaboxen. (She always knew the name of everything.)
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren, 1961
It is the dead of night. The old farm lies fast asleep and everyone in the house is sleeping too.
Amos & Boris by William Steig, 1971
Amos the mouse and Boris the whale: a devoted pair of friends with nothing at all in common, except good hearts and a willingness to help their fellow mammal.
Rosie and Michael by Judith Viorst and Lorna Tomei, 1974
Rosie is my friend. She likes me when I’m dopey and not just when I’m smart.
I Want to Paint My Bathroom Blue by Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, 1956
I want to paint my bathroom blue—my papa won’t let me paint it blue—once I painted a rocking chair blue and it was pretty.
You probably noticed the similarities in these texts: they are old. Some, really old.
You’ve probably heard the ‘only read recently published books’ advice, which is sage and wise when you are learning about today’s industry, but for now: forget it. We’re not talking about the business, we’re talking about stories.
Really, forget it. Stories matter more.
What’s the best way to find them? Pop a squat in the library, and run your fingers over the shelves until you hit the dingiest, rattiest looking spines you see. Pull them out and give them a little sniff if you need to. Book people won’t judge you for that. Make a pile; check them out.
Read them closely and carefully, and look how they capture kid-ness.
I get goosebumps hearing that we are in a golden age of picture books—a resurgence and a renaissance. Making picture books today is an honor. But we are standing on the shoulders of some giants like John, and going back can mean going forward.
Lasting stories are the ones that stand up to a thousand readings, to a thousand different tote bags, to a thousand tiny hands. That does some damage, so look for the dings. Look for the smudges. Look for squirming honesty.
Carter is a librarian at an independent K-6 school in Los Angeles, California. (Like Marcie, she’s a Virginia girl at heart, though! Go Braves!) She writes about picture books and graphic design at her blog, Design of the Picture Book, and she’s counting down the days until both her middle grade novel and picture book debut. Be on the lookout for A Rambler Steals Home (HMH, 2016) and Everything You Need For a Treehouse (Chronicle, 2017). You can find her on Twitter @carterhiggins.