Mentor Texts for Writers: Doors and Maps: Digging for Treasure in Middle Grade Mentor Texts by L.M. Quraishi

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It’s time to dive into middle grade mentor texts. Like L.M. Quraishi, our guest blogger today, I love to read and write middle grade. In fact, when I’m stuck in any kind of writing, I particularly like to read middle grade novels because it always helps me savor words again. After reading this post, I’m sure you’ll be like me and want to run out and get your hands on the copy of the mentor text she walks us through. 





© L. M. Quraishi, 2015

I cannot read without writing anymore.

When I’m half a page into a new novel and think to myself, Oooh, this is gonna be good! the reader in me loses herself in the story. And the writer in me keeps a detailed map of all the story’s doors to Neverland.

  • How exactly did the author frame this door into her world?
  • What grain of wood did she choose, so that when I place my palm against its texture and inhale its fragrance, I understand her characters with my very skin and senses?
  • Where was the door placed along the path of story, at just the spot to entice my fingers to the knob?
  • What did the door reveal as it swung open wide?


For me, a mentor text is any book that beguiles the reader in me, and rouses the writer in me.

When I find one, I slow down to savor it. I am looking for each curtain of Oz, because I want to peek behind every one.


I’ve learned to notice the different kinds of doors that authors build into their stories.

Sometimes when studying a mentor text I use an exercise I call Digging for Treasure.

  • Keep smartphone handy while reading/re-reading.
  • Copy sentences and page numbers that stand out into the Notes app.
  • Email file to self.
  • Take a closer look at the author’s craft.

Like invisible ink staining parchment with a secret map, the patterns of artistry reveal themselves under the heat of careful examination.


Most recently I’ve been enchanted by Tricia Springstubb’s new middle grade novel, Moonpenny Island (Balzer & Bray, 2015).

I couldn’t turn more than three pages of this book without wanting to dig out a piece of her writing and hold it in my hand. Treasures I found on Moonpenny Island:



© L. M. Quraishi, 2015


Relevant and compelling characterization…

When Flor was in the third grade and had to draw a spelling picture for secret, she drew a rock.


for ALL the characters…

Cecilia reaches for a towel and slowly dries her hands. First one, then the other, then the first one again, like her hands are precious objects.


with humor:

Between that hat and the oversize clothes, approximately two percent of this girl is visible.


Characterization that reveals relationship:

Across the road, Mrs. Defoe calls her name. “Flor!” She makes it sound like something you step on.


Dialogue with minor characters that reveals deeper truths and themes of the story:

“People have been leaving home as far back as Adam and Eve,” she calls as Flor heads out the door.


Fresh and relevant language—images, metaphors and description that elaborate character…

Flor’s afraid of the dark, and out here, she can tell, the dark would be that thick, suffocating kind, the kind that runs against you like black fur.


…set the mood…

An empty chip bag skips across the sidewalk and hugs her ankle like it wants company.


…or hint at story/character arc:

The sun’s slipped a few notches, and when she stands up, her shadow wears stilts.


Outstanding sentences placed at the beginning or end of a chapter:

Life’s a crooked shelf, and things keep rolling off before Flor can catch them.


Flawless foreshadowing…

The water stops their breath.


…even when it’s just about the weather:

The rain is mean. Mean like cruel and mean like this means change is coming.


Change for EVERY character:

Mrs. Defoe steps outside. Her brown jacket is buttoned to her chin, but what is this? Around her neck is a yellow scarf….the pure yellow of buttercups.


The next time you’re reading a book and it gives you chills, try taking a closer look at the story’s doors. Draw yourself a map, and dig out that treasure for your own chest. If you have coin to spare, send it my way via link to your post. I’d love to read what you’re reading.


Find Moonpenny Island reviews in The New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, and Publisher’s Weekly.





Born to a Pakistani father and American mother in California, L. Michelle Quraishi was raised on a steady diet of liverwurst, Madeleine L’Engle, and sitar music. After college, she spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay, before moving to the Mission District of San Francisco where she taught Spanish bilingual kindergarten. She now lives in the San Francisco East Bay with her husband and two children, finding inspiration for her children’s books in goddess lore, brain science, animal behavior, calculus and kung fu. You can connect with her at, or on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.

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Mentor Texts for Writers: Finding Authentic Voice in Cultural Mentor Texts by Keila Dawson


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Keila and I share something in common. We are both Third Culture people. Keila is a TCA (Third Culture Adult) and I’m a TCK (Third Culture Kid). In other words, we’ve lived in countries that are different from our passport country. What I love about Keila’s approach to mentor texts is that she takes multicultural children’s books and teams them up with the ever-important voice. Welcome, Keila!



Write what you know.


Write from the heart.


When we write what we know and from the heart, readers will hear our unique “voice”. Or so we are told. Does “voice” come naturally to writers? Can a writer study it? Wait, what is “voice” anyway?

“Voice is the sum of all strategies used by the author to create the illusion that the writer is speaking directly to the reader from the page.” (Don Fry, quoted by Roy P. Clark, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Little, Brown, 2006)

Voice involves a lot of simultaneously moving parts! I get it, it’s complicated. Yet, although hard to explain, I know it when I read it. As picture book writers, we read a lot of picture books. My favorites have a certain je ne sais qua, that ‘I don’t know why, but I love this book’ feeling. Trying to figure out what makes a book so appealing is worthy of a deeper look. So I took a look inside books, to study different parts. I like to learn about the authors too and hear about their story behind the story. Given my passion for genealogy and travel, I am drawn to books about culture. Books that I want to read over and over, or read aloud, or hear the author read aloud, are the ones where I connect to an author’s voice or the story’s voice. Below are examples of ways in which I hear “authentic voice” in books. The books I chose to share are all representative of a specific culture. And today, with an emphasis on inclusion and diversity in children’s literature, there are many, many different voices waiting to be heard, and audiences eagerly waiting to hear them.

Word Choice & Vocabulary



Clovis Crawfish and the Big Bétail by Mary Alice Fontenot, illustrated by R. A. Keller, Claitor’s Publishing, 1963-1977.

Republished by Pelican Publishing Company, Inc.

I believe voice was introduced to me unconsciously by Mary Alice Fontenot. Above is a photo of my very used, beloved, first edition black and white copy. Her stories about Clovis and friends remain popular today.

When I read this book, I can hear the author’s voice through her word choice. The words flow. The vocabulary is familiar and personal because I grew up listening to Louisiana languages and lingo, pronunciations, and cadence.

 “That’s René, said Clovis. “He’s a rain frog, and he is my friend. He is singing his rain song because he wants it to rain so he can get cool. “J’ai chaud, j’ai chaud” is a way to say, I’m hot, I’m hot’ in south Louisiana.

“You folks over here sure do talk funny,” said Andrew.

Clovis [klaw-VEES]   bétail [bay-TA-yuh]   René [ruh-NAY]   j’ai chaud [ZHAY-SHOH]


How to dress

How to Dress a Po’ Boy by Johnette Downing, Pelican Publishing, 2013

 Johnette Downing is an example of a read, re-read, and read it again “voice.” Her books are sing-a-longs too! Through poetic verse and music she oozes southern charm and love of culture.


“A po’boy is a sandwich, everybody knows,

“Dressed” with all the fixings and this is how it goes.”




Tales of Tutu Nene and Nele by Gale Bates, illustrated by Carole H. McCarthy,

Island Heritage Press, First Edition, Fifteenth Printing, 2004

When looking at voice in a cultural context, folktales come to mind. I enjoy collecting these from different places around the world. For generations stories educated, entertained, and influenced behavior. Modern tales do the same.


“In Hawai’i, a Tūtū is a grandmother who is known for her stories and wise words. The Nēnē is Hawai’i’s state bird and is believed to be the rarest goose in the world. Nele Nēnē loves to listen to her Tūtū’s tales. When she finds a hole in the fence and escapes into the wild, her grandmother’s words have a profound effect upon her survival. (from the introduction)


Sentence Structure & Point of View


A Catfish Tale: A Bayou Story of the Fisherman and His Wife by Whitney Stewart, illustrated by Gerald Guerlais

Albert Whitman & Company, 2014


“Once upon a time” or “A long time ago” or “It is told” are commonly used in folktale beginnings. In this retold tale, the beginning resembles the listener-speaker dynamic used in storytelling and told from the point of view of an alligator who heard the tale from his “Pawpaw”.


“You ever heard the story of the fisherman and his wife? It’s an old tale my pawpaw told me when I was just a hatchling. Some say it’s a lie, but Pawpaw swore he saw it all happen with his own eyes.”

Onomatopoeia, Anthropomorphism & Description

jingle dancer

Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith, Ying-Hwa Hu, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright

HarperCollins, 2000


The onomatopoeia, anthropomorphism & description on the opening page of this book engage the reader at a sensory level. You can hear, see, smell, and taste the author’s words. And the jingles, in a cultural context, are central to this Native American story.


            “Tink tink, tink, tink sang the cone-shaped jingles sewn to Grandma Wolfe’s dress. Every Grandma bounce-step brought clattering tinks as light blurred silver against jingles of tin.

Jenna daydreamed at the kitchen table tasting honey on fry bread, her heart beating to the brum, brum, brum of the powwow drum.


new shoes

New Shoes by Susan Lynn Meyer, illustrated by Eric Velasquez

Holiday House, 2015


Write what you know. Sounds easy enough. But what if you don’t know what you don’t know? What if what you think you know is wrong? Susan Meyer researched the Jim Crow era for a novel work in progress. When she discovered ways African-Americans resisted restrictive laws and oppression, the idea for a picture book emerged. She asked African-American friends to read her manuscript. In a scene where the mother encounters discrimination, Susan’s character responded boldly. Friends however told her the mother would have acted differently back then. Susan changed that scene. That change in dialogue created a more authentic and accurate portrayal of the event. Any disconnect from potential readers avoided.


            “Mama, I say, “Can’t colored folks try on shoes?”

            “Mama sighs. “No.” But then she puts on a smile. “Let’s think about how nice your feet will look for school.”

Diction & Purpose 

last stop

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson

G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 2015


This book is a good example of write from the heart. Not only because it’s a sweet story about family, thankfulness, and volunteerism, but because the author conveys to the reader a story that he wanted to write. Rather than adhere to standard conventions of writing, he remained true to his story’s “voice.” The use of diction used throughout helps readers hear the playful, warm relationship between the child (grandson) and the elder (grandmother). The syntax is not standard but the voice is perfect and authentic. The characters are well developed. The detailed illustrations reflect the diversity along the city street, through the buildings, transportation and the people.

“Nana, how come we don’t got a car?”

“Boy, what do we need a car for? We got a bus that breathes fire and old Mr. Dennis who always has a trick for you.”


If you are looking for ideas about characterization, the books below use both universal themes and specific events tied to a particular cultural group. Follow the journey of the Cuban cockroach looking for love, the quirky Peruvian-Scottish-American girl who likes that she doesn’t match with her red hair and tan skin, and Little Red Hot from Texas and her grandmother who can stomach the hottest chili peppers no wolf can handle. Find out what survival, kindness, and resilience feels like through the characters portrayed in stories while they experience the Holocaust, a Japanese internment camp, and the uncertainty of post Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.


Martina The Beautiful Cockroach: A Cuban Folktale by Carmen Deedy, illustrated by Michael Austin

Peachtree Publishers, 2014


Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match: Marisol McDonald no combina by Monican Brown Ph.D., illustrated by Sara Palacios

CBP; Bilingual edition, 2013

 little red hot

Little Red Hot by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by Laura Huliska Beith

Two Lions, 2013


gifts from the enemy

Gifts from the Enemy (The humanKIND Project) by Trudy Ludwig, illustrated by Craig Orback

White Cloud Press, 2014

 baseball saved us

Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki,  illustrated by Dom Lee

Lee & Low Books,1993


A Penguin Named Patience: A Hurricane Katrina Rescue Story  by Suzanne Lewis, illustrated by Lisa Anchin, Sleeping Bear Press, 2015

I enjoy books where the story creates “the illusion that the writer is speaking directly to the reader from the page.” Finding books with “voice” appeal may help in finding the “voice” you want to bring to the story you want to write.


kcb headshot_book

Keila Dawson was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, lived in the Philippines, Japan, Egypt, and on both coasts in the US. She worked in states and abroad as a teacher, school administrator, and educational consultant before she became an author. Outside of writing, Keila enjoys travel, tennis, and genealogical research. But most of all, she enjoys sharing her love of Louisiana culture. Her debut picture book, THE KING CAKE BABY (Pelican Publishing Co., January 2015), highlights one of many unique cultural traditions celebrated in New Orleans, eating king cake during the Mardi Gras season. For more about Keila and the Baby, visit .


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Mentor Texts in the Classroom: A Second Person Point of View Writing Challenge

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I love it when my day job and my writing life merge together–when research and studying in one feeds the other. I was working on a post for ReFoReMo on second person point of view (which you can read here) in my writing life. In my teaching life, I was preparing for an upcoming mentor text book study meeting using Georgia Heard’s Finding the Heart of Nonfiction.  I wanted to use some nonfiction mentor texts in a short lesson in science class.

NF collage

I utilized some nonfiction picture books that were written in second person point of view. I read snippets of some of these books as mentor texts and my students and I talked about features of second person point of view. Because we were studying some tricky concepts in electricity (insulators, conductors, series circuits, parallel circuits, open circuits, closed circuits, and more), I wanted to see how well students understood those concepts.

I asked students to pick an electricity term and write a short piece that gives facts about that term using second person point of view. Example: If you were an insulator you would slow down electricity.

Right away we applied our newfound writing technique (second person point of view) to our content knowledge (electricity). Students wrote a few sentences, a paragraph, or even a page. But I quickly was able to find out two things: 1) Do they understand the electricity concept and 2) Were they able to apply the point of view lesson.

The results were fascinating. Students eagerly shared. Their examples were full of voice, full of knowledge, and mostly clearly understood how to write in second person.

It was a quick and easy way to utilize nonfiction mentor texts and a quick way to do some cross-curricular nonfiction writing.

This took less than one class period to implement and it could be done in any content area.

More Resources:

Second Person Point of View Primer and Examples for ReFoReMo

Printable PDF Bibliography of Second Person Point of View 

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Mentor Texts for Writers: Writing Picture Book Biographies by Sarah Glenn Fortson




Many of you may have read some of my posts on historical fiction vs. nonfiction and picture book biography structures, so you might know this post is right up my alley. What I also love is that we mention some of the same books, but Sarah thought about them in a totally unique way that I hadn’t thought of. That shows that these are great books. I hope you learn as much as I have from Sarah Glenn Fortson’s post on picture book biographies. 

Mentor Texts for Writers 2015 image for blog



“Mentor Texts…help writers envision the kind of writers they can become.”

Georgia Heard, Finding the Heart of Nonfiction



In a picture book biography for young children, the main character is often an adult, or grows into an adult. For authors who write in this genre this means decisions must be made about handling adult information in crafting the story. This information can range from “dry” to totally inappropriate for young readers.

In my study of exemplary picture book biographies, I’ve discovered a few options for dealing with sensitive information:

miracle mud


Miracle Mud, Lena Blackburne And the Secret Mud That Changed Baseball, by David A. Kelly (Millbrook Press/Minneapolis)

David Kelly hit on a gem of a story.

I mean, come on, mud and baseball? He gets to say things like, “Players even rubbed balls with spit and tobacco juice. That made the balls stink.” But even in this super-kid-friendly tale, Kelly found sensitive details.

Pitchers use to nick and scuff new balls so that they would be unpredictable and hard to hit, but the league outlawed roughing up the balls after a stray one struck a player and killed him. That’s why teams began looking for alternative ways to make slick new balls rough. David Kelly made the decision to leave death out of his story, but added it to the back matter. The tone of Miracle Mud, is light-hearted. A death would be jarring, plus Kelly didn’t need the information for the purpose of “sense-making.”

But here’s a tale that absolutely needed the sensitive for “sense-making.”


a boy called dickens

A Boy Called Dickens, by Deborah Hopkinson (Schwartz & Wade Books, New York)

 Poverty, debtors prison, child labor in a rat-invested warehouse, neglect, runaways…Hopkinson includes it all, because as she says, “For years Dickens kept the story of his own childhood secret. Yet it is a story worth telling. For it helps us remember how much we all might lose when a child’s dreams don’t come true.”



farmer george

Can you imagine writing yet another book about George Washington without it being redundant or dry. Peggy Thomas imagined it. While visiting George Washington’s home, Peggy was struck by the idea that Washington’s goal to make Mount Vernon self-sufficient paralleled his goal for our nation’s independence. She used this nugget and the new angle in Farmer George Plants a Nation (Calkins Creek).

The final three picture book titles I’m including are examples of pacing techniques…great ways to combat “biographical-dryness.” Jodell Sadler teaches a wonderful class, Pacing Picture Books to WOW!

  • Use questions to pull your reader forward.


elizabeth leads the way

Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote by Tonya Lee Stone


  • Use objects to reveal character and enhance setting simultaneously.


cart that carried martin

The Cart That Carried Martin by Eve Bunting


  • Use repetition…and
  • Do less to do more.

on a beam of light

On a Beam of Light by Jennifer Berne



A heart-felt “thank-you” to Marcie for allowing me to be a guest on her blog. I enjoyed the process of putting this post together.




Sarah Glenn Fortson, former educator, now children’s author is represented by Jodell Sadler of Sadler Children’s Literary. Visit her at

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Mentor Texts for Writers: Building a Picture Book Biography

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Recently, I have been writing a picture book biography. I love the topic, I love the research, but I do not love how it’s structured at this point. I haven’t yet captured the essence of the story through the way I’m telling it. So, I began investigating unique ways to structure a picture book biography. I sifted through biographies I really, really loved and narrowed my focus to the ones that truly embodied what I was trying to learn.

There are so many different structures, and I have just scratched the surface with these examples.

NF Text Structures Collage

One Person, Many Books

One of the things I love about picture book biographies that are being published is that many new angles are being presented about “old” subjects. For example, Thomas Jefferson is a person that nearly every child studies in school, but I am always fascinated by the ways that authors present him in new ways.

TJ builds a library

Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by John O’Brien

TJ life liberty

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

those rebels

Those Rebels, John and Tom by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham

worst of friends

Worst of Friends: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and the True Story of an American Feud by Suzanne Tripp Jurmain, illustrated by Larry Day

Biography in Verse

These books are biographies, but they are told in free verse. Both of them reflect the music of their subjects. By using free verse poetry the poets were able to distill things down to their very essence.


Dizzy by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Sean Qualls

johnny cash

Hello, I’m Johnny Cash by G. Neri, illustrated by A.G. Ford

Utilizing a Frame that was Important to the Subject

In When Marian Sang, Marian Anderson was a famous singer. Pam Munoz Ryan has sprinkled hymns throughout the book that are reflective of the songs she sang and the story of her life. In Noah Webster’s Words, Ferris has utilized words and their dictionary-esque definitions to mirror the major accomplishment in Webster’s life.

noah webster

Noah Webster and His Words by Jeri Chase Ferris, illustrated Vincent X. Kirsch

when marian sang

When Marian Sang by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick

Narrow Focus or Short Time Frame

Instead of focusing on the person’s whole life, these books focus on a particular time or event in someone’s life.

gingerbread for liberty

Gingerbread for Liberty! How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch

a home for mr emerson

A Home for Mr. Emerson by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham

the streak

The Streak: How Joe DiMaggio Became America’s Hero by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Terry Widener

Comparing and Contrasting

These books are set up  with a comparing/contrasting structure. Coco Chanel is compared to other people in Different Like Coco. Ben Franklin’s and Thomas Edison’s inventions are compared to modern inventions in Now and Ben and Timeless Thomas.

different like coco

Different Like Coco by Elizabeth Matthews

now and ben

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

timeless thomas

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

Main Text and Sidebar Information

When drafting a nonfiction book, there is so much information that you want to impart to readers, but you also don’t want to overwhelm them. I love books that utilize sidebars that supplement the main text. The lovely thing about sidebars is that the book can then appeal to different levels of readers. For some readers the main story line will be just enough. For older readers, all the information is helpful.

mr ferris and his wheel

Mr. Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis, illustrated by Gilbert Ford

snowflake bentley

Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Mary Azarian

TJ builds a library

Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by John O’Brien

Incorporating Quotes

Of course, incorporating primary resources is a bonus when it comes to biographies. It also helps serve as a mentor text to young writers how primary resources can be incorporated. But as a writer, it’s hard to get those quotes incorporated just right without being too clunky. These books handle quotes from the biography’s subject well right within the text of the story.

helen's big world

Helen’s Big World: The Life of Helen Keller by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Matt Tavares

a home for mr emerson

A Home for Mr. Emerson by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham

martin's big words

Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Brian Collier

Present Tense

When writing about the past, it seems counterintuitive to write in present tense. But these books do just that, and it works well. I never thought about a tense change as a possibility for my historical book, but these examples make the reader feel like they are right there in the moment. They bring history alive, and that’s what many authors of historical books would love to do.

ballet for martha

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Greenberg, illustrated by Sandra Jordan

brave girl

Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

fantastic jungles

The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Amanda Hall

Using a Refrain

I’ve been fascinated by refrains in picture books. I love to see how an author takes a thread of a story and crafts a refrain. While it’s fun to see these in fiction picture books, I’ve really enjoyed seeing them in nonfiction as well.

george did it

George Did It by Suzanne Tripp Jurmain, illustrated by Larry Day

i could do that

I Could Do That! Esther Morris Gets Women the Vote by Linda Arms White, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

tree lady

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

Nonfiction Second Person Point of View

I’ve read several nonfiction science books written in second person point of view, but this is the first second person biography I’ve read. While I’ve seen some biographies that talk to the reader directly for a paragraph or so, this is the only recent one I’ve found that carries that thread all the way through.

iridescence of birds

The Iridescence of Birds by Patricia McLachlan, illustrated by Hadley Hooper

Try it Out

Do you need to breathe new life into a nonfiction book, especially a picture book biography? Try reworking it using one of these structures.

A special thanks goes out to Jackie Wellington, who sent me an enormous list of books for me to check out for unique structures. That list got me out of my funk and back to work.

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Mentor Texts for Writers E-Book is Here!

Last year, I put together an e-book for teachers on tips for using mentor texts in the classroom. I’m pleased to announce the my newest e-book is for writers. I hope it is one of several to come.

Mentor Texts for Writers, Book 1 is a compilation of many of the posts I’ve written on using mentor text to improve your writing.

Mentor Texts for Writers Book 1 Cover

Mentor Texts for Writers: Book 1

by Marcie Flinchum Atkins

Click here for a preview

This 90+ page downloadable e-book features:

* Tips for using mentor texts to improve your writing.

* Mentor Texts Lists for:

* Character-Driven Picture Books

* Word Choice

* Word Play

* Second Person Point of View

* Poetic Picture Books

* Nonfiction Picture Books

* Nonfiction vs. Historical Fiction

* Picture Book Biography: Unique Structures

Buy Now


This book and other products are archived at the book page.

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NF 10 for 10: Nonfiction Poetic Picture Books

Nonfiction PB 10 for 10


I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction picture books lately because we are doing a nonfiction mentor text book study at my school using FINDING THE HEART OF NONFICTION by Georgia Heard.


One of the things I admire about nonfiction is an author’s ability to convey facts in a very spare text. I especially enjoy it if the text is spare and beautiful. Today, all of my books have two things in common: 1) They are nonfiction picture books. 2) They have poetic texts. Not all of them are rhyming texts, but some of them are.

NF 10 for 10 with words

They can be used to cover content in the classroom, but they can also be used to teach writing techniques like vivid verbs, imagery, word choice, point of view, and much, much more.

eat like a bear

Eat Like a Bear

By April Pulley Sayre

Illustrated by Steve Jenkins

This book is told in second person point of view and also shares information about how bears eat after a long hibernation.

raindrops roll

Raindrops Roll

By April Pulley Sayre

 With extremely spare text, this book of photographs using lovely language to describe raindrops. A must-read if you are talking about word choice or the water cycle.

iridescence of birds

The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri Matisse

By Patricia MacLachlan

Illustrated by Hadley Hooper

One of my favorite books of 2014. This is a picture book biography that’s a poem told in second person point of view.


water can be

Water Can Be… (and also A Leaf Can Be…)

By Laura Purdie Salas

Illustrated by Violeta Dabija

Much like her poetic book about imagine what leaves can be, Salas’ book about water is also an excellent book to use with the water cycle and word choice.

some bugs

Some Bugs

By Angela DiTerlizzi

Illustrated by Brenden Wenzel

 Some bugs introduces all different types of bugs with fun, playful language.


swamp chomp

Swamp Chomp

By Lola Schaefer

Illustrated by Paul Meisel

Another very spare text with excellent vivid verbs. It also introduces the concept of a food chain.




by Jonah Winter

Illustrated by Sean Qualls

This picture book biography utilizes language that mirrors jazz music. An excellent biography, but it could also be used talk about pacing, rhythm, and word choice.

mama built a little nest

Mama Built a Little Nest

By Jennifer Ward

Illustrated by Steve Jenkins

This rhyming text told in first person point of view shows different birds and their nests. Small bits of expository text on each spread also provide additional information.

hello I'm johnny cash

Hello, I’m Johnny Cash

By G. Neri

Illustrated by A.G. Ford

Another picture book biography told in verse. The collection of free verse poems tell about Cash’s life. It would be good for teaching biography and word choice.


all the water

All the Water in the World

By George Ella Lyon

Illustrated by Katherine Tillotson

This is a poem spread out over a picture book format. All the water in the world can touch on water cycle standards and also be a great example for word choice.


Other 10 for 10 Posts

 10 for 10 Picture Books for Mentor Texts for Word Choice

10 for 10 Nonfiction Picture Books about Virginia History as Writing Mentor Texts


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Mentor Texts for Writers: First Chapter Makeover by Marcie Flinchum Atkins

Mentor Texts for Writers 2015 image for blog



By day, I am a teacher who uses mentor texts with students. I also help other teachers utilize mentor texts in their classrooms. By night, I utilize mentor texts myself in an attempt to improve my writing by studying from the best.

One of my favorite books on writing process is CHAPTER AFTER CHAPTER by Heather Sellers. I’ve recommended it many times, but there’s so many useful tips in there. She recommends reading 100 books like the one you want to write before you begin the actual writing.

I’ve read hundreds of middle grade novels as a whole. But as I revised my own middle grade novel, I realized I needed to hyper focus.

With the middle grade novel in revision, I knew the pacing in the first half of the book was off. I needed to cut a lot and readjust some things—including the first chapter. So I gathered some new middle grade titles that are either in the genre I’m writing or in an adjacent genre. I made a list of books I wanted to study.

MG Book list

I selected books that had been recommended by friends or in reviews. Most of these I’d either already read or they were on my to-be-read list.

Then I read chapter one ONLY in each book. I made actual notes about each book. Here is an example of some of my notes:

First chapter analysis

For each book, I tried to pay attention to:

* Genre

* Point of View

* Style of writing

* Characters introduced

* Actions or plot introduced

* My reactions

* Notes of how I could try this in my own writing

* Did I want to keep reading?

* How much information was revealed in the first chapter?

Taking it to the Next Level

I always encourage teachers and students to not only study  and read mentor texts but actually try some of the techniques out on their own. It help to absorb those skills or styles by trying them out.

Once I made notes, I reflected on my own story and I wrote. I wrote several different opening paragraphs. I tried different techniques, and I rewrote the first chapter once again.

Have I nailed that first chapter? I don’t know. But I do know that it’s better now that it was. And I’m one step closer.

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Mentor Texts in the Classroom: Learning to Write from Writers by Karen Drexler

I always learn from other teachers. When I hear about what they are doing in their classrooms, especially when it comes to mentor texts, I start writing down the books they use and how they use them. Today I’m excited because Karen Drexler introduced me to a new book that I’d never read before, The Sleeping Porch. I can’t wait to get my hands on this mentor text. 


Image for posts--mentor texts in the classroom

I first heard about mentor texts when I read the book About the Authors: Writing Workshop with Our Youngest Writers by Katie Wood Ray. I read the book cover to cover. I wanted to do the same kind of the work that she was doing using picture books as the framework for Writing Workshop but I was a Reading Recovery teacher at the time, and didn’t have my own classroom. So I shared the book with my friend and colleague who taught first grade and got her as excited as I was about doing some real writing with our first graders. I then persuaded my principal to let me carve out some time to co-teach Writer’s Workshop with her in her first grade classroom and we gave it a go. It became the most favorite part of our day! The difference it made in the level of excitement and the quality of the writing was tremendous. I can’t imagine teaching writing without using mentor texts.

A mentor text used in writing workshop becomes a text that students have heard many times. We might revisit a text at different times for different purposes but as the students listen to me read, they are listening as writers and thinking about what craft or idea they can emulate in their own writing.

I begin the year with writing personal narratives and most of the pictures books I use for that unit are new to my students. The purpose for reading these books initially is to help them understand that writers get ideas from their own lives. I’ll read Thank You, Mr. Falker early in the unit and explain how that story was inspired by Patricia Polacco’s own struggle with learning to read. Later on, they will recognize the little girl in the story My Red-Headed Rotten Older Brother and come to understand how that story might have begun as a memory from Patricia’s life. I don’t tell them who the author is and I wait to see when the light goes on and they recognize the illustration as the same little girl from Thank You, Mr. Falker. It’s always a fun moment to wait for and I am never disappointed. My young writers realize they might have a story of sibling rivalry from their own lives.

I know that in my building, third grade is the first time my students will be asked to think of small moments as the seeds for their personal narrative writing. I need to provide them with as many examples as I can so they can begin to envision the small moments in their own lives. It’s a difficult concept for them because they want to tell about event, after event, after event. I’ll read Fireflies by Janet Brinckloe, The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant and All the Places To Love by Patricia MacLachlan. The students use these examples as springboards to their own ideas about moments in their own lives. They bring their Writer’s Notebooks with them to the carpet and as I close the book they start a list of ideas that come to them.

sleeping porch

I try to use picture books that touch me, books I love to read aloud over and over and that I know I can go back to for examples of writing craft when the time comes. This year, my group was having difficulty finding that “just right” seed moment so I went hunting for more titles to help them generate ideas based on family memories. I found a little gem called The Sleeping Porch by Karen Ackerman. It’s about a family that moves from a small apartment to a fixer-upper and find they have to sleep on the porch to avoid a leaky roof during a rainstorm. It is written in the first person and accompanied with soft, gentle illustrations. I think it helped my writers to recognize the value in their own family stories and as I looked away from the book, I could see the sparkle of ideas happening right there in front of me.   That’s when I know it’s time for me to be quiet and let them go write.

Karen Drexler is a teacher in the Trinity Area School District, Washington, PA


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Mentor Texts for Writers: How to Unstick Your Opening Line by Marcie Colleen

Marcie Colleen and I not only share a first name (spelled the same way and everything), but we also share a love of picture books and mentor texts. When I do presentations about mentor texts for teachers or writers, I always tell them, you must not just study the mentors, you have to use the techniques you learn. Marcie talks about that very thing in this very post! Now go forth and rewrite your first line. 

Mentor Texts for Writers 2015 image for blog

So you have a bang-up idea for a picture book.

Your concept is gold.

Your characters are charming—yet flawed in a loveable sort of way.

Your plot beautifully flows, building page-turning tension along the way to a resolution that just sings.

You fire up the ol’ computer, open a crisp new document and…



at the taunting



You have no idea how to start.

Marcie Colleen 1

Does this sound familiar?

Well, let me say, you are not alone. It happens to the best of us.

Today’s picture books are perfectly crafted, with no more than 300-500 concise words, expertly strung together across 12-14 page spreads.

With as few as words possible—and minimal real estate—picture book writers need to hook their reader with a mood, an adventure or scene, and a character beginning with the first page. No wonder starting a story seems monumental!

Your first sentence is extremely important.

Your first sentence has a big responsibility.

So what do you do if that first line is giving you trouble?

First off, get your story out. You can always go back and rewrite the first page once you start to revise. And yes, you will be revising. A LOT. That is what writing is. So go on. We’ll wait.

(twiddles thumbs, hums a few bars of “Stormy Weather”)

Oh, hi! You’re back! You have that first draft down?

OK. Let’s decide how to revise that very important opening line, shall we? And for this, we are going to use…

Mentor texts!

That’s right! Whenever I don’t know how what to write, I turn to those who have battled the beast before me.

But first, let’s gather some information from your own manuscript. And to help, you can use this little table below.

screenshot of table


Once you have filled in the chart with the essential elements of your story, it’s time to look at some mentor texts to help you with that opening line.

For this, I can just grab random books from my own personal library. But this can be done at the library or bookstore, as well. Anywhere from 6-12 books is a good number to start with.

It’s also helpful to choose books that have a similar mood, structure or theme as yours—although not necessary. But if you are not writing in rhyme, then choosing a rhyming mentor text will probably not help you. It is also helpful to choose books written in the last 5-10 years, as much as changed in picture books and mentor texts from this new era will be most beneficial.

Once you have your pile of mentor texts, open them up one at a time and read the opening line.

For example:

“It all began when Floyd’s kite became stuck in a tree.” Stuck by Oliver Jeffers (Philomel 2011).

stuck #2

This opening line is perfect. It hooks the reader right away. We learn who this story is about and are immediately informed of the adventure/conflict to take place.

Now, using your manuscript’s character and adventure/conflict, write an opening line in the same style.

“It all began when __________________.”

Grab another mentor text from the pile.

boy + bot 2

“A boy was collecting pinecones in his wagon when he met a robot.” Boy + Bot by Ame Dyckman, illustrated by Dan Yaccarino (Knopf 2012).

Now write your opening line using this format.

“A ___________ was ____________ when ____________.”

children make terrible pets

This is similar to the opening line of Children Make Terrible Pets by Peter Brown (Little, Brown 2010):

“One morning, Lucy was practicing her twirls when she noticed she was being watched.”

Easy, right?

And keep on keeping on.

Whenever I write a manuscript, I usually have a stack of books by my side that serve as mentor texts for structure, theme, characters, etc. You will probably not settle on one of these opening lines, but you never know when something is going to spark or jog a new idea or two and set you on your way. And that, my friends is what it’s all about.


Marcie Colleen Bio Pic

Marcie Colleen had a busy 2014 with the sale of her debut picture book, The Adventure of the Penguinaut to Scholastic to tentatively be published in 2016. Additionally, her next book Love, Triangle sold in a five house auction to Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins as part of a two book deal. Marcie is proud to be represented by Susan Hawk/The Bent Agency. She lives in Brooklyn, NYC with her husband—Lego artist Jonathan Lopes—and their mischievous sock monkey. To learn more, visit her at or follow her at @MarcieColleen1.

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