Mentor Texts for Writers: Carrie Charley Brown Breaks the 4th Wall

Carrie Charley Brown is our first guest for Mentor Texts for Writers 2015. She challenged herself to write a picture book about breaking the 4th wall, but FIRST, she studied mentor texts that had done it well. Stay tuned. At the end of her post, she offers you a challenge as well. 

Mentor Texts for Writers 2015 image for blog

 

A picture book is like a happy shiny gift just waiting to be opened and explored. Lots of things go into that 400 word or less package… a stand-out concept, dynamic relatable characters, a unique voice… among countless other traits. With such a need to cry out “I’m different!” in order sell the masterpiece, one might question why in the world picture book writers turn to reading other picture books to learn.

Let’s examine just one of the fore-mentioned traits to see how valuable this practice can actually be. In general, today’s agents and editors gravitate toward shorter picture books. Our job then becomes to say it all without really saying it all. Therefore, studying great picture book models, of 400 words or less, might teach us a little about how to wrap everything into that tight little story arc. It examines the process and not the idea.

Last May, I challenged myself to write a picture book that would attempt to break the 4th wall and involve the reader as a character. I was inspired to do so by reading other picture book greats that featured unconventional interaction between the characters. As I studied these models, I focused in on the language.

Carrie--bubble

Big Bad Bubble by Adam Rubin, illustrated by Daniel Salmieri

Carrie--Monster at the end

The Monster at the End of this Book by Jon Stone, illustrated by Michael Smollin

Carrie--Yawn

I Dare You Not to Yawn by Helene Boudreau, Illustrated by Serge Bloch

 

Many of these models use a second person point of view to directly address the characters. However, when the word “you” is used, the reader can’t help but feel they are also being questioned… and sometimes they are. “You” are invited right into the story and even if you are not a character, you feel like you are. Other times, “you” feel like the narrator, addressing the character directly.

Carrie-Easter Cat

Here Comes the Easter Cat by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Claudia Rueda

Carrie--Secret pizza

Secret Pizza Party by Adam Rubin, illustrated by Daniel Salmieri

Carrie--It's a tiger

It’s a Tiger! by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Jeremy Tankard

 

A mentor text is a stellar model used to understand how picture book elements work for great authors.

I consult different resources before considering if a book is worth studying. I pay attention to the book reviews of knowledgeable picture book writers, career reviewers, librarians, and award committees. If a book shows up in multiple places, that is an indication to me that I need to get my hands on it right away. But, sometimes just one particular opinion is usually right on the money.

Personally, I’ve been reading and studying a wide variety of picture books for over twenty years, first as a primary teacher, and now a picture book writer. After participating as a 2014 CYBILS Awards Fiction Picture Book Panelist, and reading hundreds of nominees in a very short period of time, I realized how many picture book authors would benefit from reading current mentor texts. While books from long ago have a lesson of their own, current picture books (those written within the last three years) can tell us more about the market today. It is exciting to know that the learning will never end and there will always be more new picture books to study.

Carrie--ReFoReMo2

So what do you say? Should we study together? I’ve been inspired to inspire! I recently founded the 2015 ReFoReMo Challenge, or Reading for Research Month. This online challenge aims to encourage picture book writers to reform their writing by reading mentor texts. Participants will learn how to use mentor texts, read, research, and interact in a private KidLit community. The ultimate goal will be to read 105 titles in three weeks and the major prize is deeper understanding of what makes picture books tick. But, there will be prize drawings, too!  Registration will open on February 15, and remain open until 11 pm CST on March 1, 2015. For more information visit the ReFoReMo Blog here.

Carrie--headshot

Carrie Charley Brown juggles ideas every day as a children’s writer, teacher, blogger, and mom. She is the founder of the 2015 ReFoReMo Challenge, or Reading for Research Month. You can learn more about Carrie’s writing journey, her KidLit Services, ReFoReMo, and many other amazing authors & resources, at her blogsite Carrie On… Together!

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Comments

  1. Thanks for having me, Marcie! I love an opportunity to promote the value of mentor texts!

  2. This is great. I love these types of books.

  3. Patricia Toht says:

    Thank you, Carrie and Marcie! We all must have metafiction on our minds these days!
    Great examples you’ve given us. My favorite in your list is Deborah Underwood’s Here Comes Easter Cat (and the follow-up Here Comes Santa Cat). One thing that I found remarkable about those books was the publisher’s willingness to go the length (literally — the number of pages is twice as long as the average picture book) in order to make the device work its magic.

    • In that regard, Patricia, I think it helps that Deborah is both the author and illustrator. She can show them her vision so clearly and how it really works and is necessary. After writing my own metafiction, and not being an illustrator, it is hard for others to see the pictures in my mind that are 100% necessary for it to work. And we know that when you are solely an author that a dummy isn’t going to follow the submission. Illustration notes just aren’t enough sometimes. The humor is present in the writing, but really hits a home run and draws the reader in with illustrations. Back to revision and dissecting mentor texts. 🙂

    • Yes, Patty! Absolutely! It is amazing to see how things are being done differently.

  4. Texts that encourage readers to reflect and think (cognitive) and to think about their thinking (metacognitive) are truly books that kids like to hear and read again and again. Thank you Carrie and Marcie. ~Suzy

  5. Thanks Marcie and Carrie! What a wonderful reminder of what reading a picture book can do for our writing! And I can’t wait for ReFoReMo!

    • Theme song coming to mind…James Taylor this time: “When you’re down and troubled, and you need a helping hand. And nothin’, oh nothin’ is goin’ right. Head down to the library, and hug a mentor text. It’ll brighten up even your darkest stories. You just call on mentor texts….” What do ya think? ReFoReMo theme song? 🙂

    • I’m excited for ReFoReMo too! I always love a good mentor text list.

  6. Love these kinds of books– thanks for sharing Marcie! The Monster at the End of This Book is a favorite. Another favorite not listed here is Chloe and the Lion from Mac Barnett and Adam Rex.

  7. Rene Diane Aube says:

    This sounds like a great challenge, Carrie. I’m looking forward to enriching my writing through ReFoReMo 2015 and learning how to study mentor texts in-depth. Thanks, Marcie, for having Carrie post on your blog!

  8. Thanks, Rene! Looking forward to it, as well!

  9. Kathy Halsey says:

    Marcie and Carrie, mentor metacognition texts are fab for writers, readers and for Common Core! Talk about text complexity AND…fun.

  10. I’m hoping to participate in your challenge, Carrie…what an awesome way to say goodbye to winter and welcome spring. 😉 And thank you, Marcie, your website is an incredible resource for all of us. 😉