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!
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.
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.
Fellow GROGger, Patricia Toht, always delights me with her posts. I always learn new things from her and how she analyzes texts. I hope you enjoy this analysis of how to dig into picture books.
It’s suggested that, as writers, we should read 100 books in the genre we’d like to write. Having hosted story times at both a bookstore and a preschool program, I’ve happily read more than ten times that many picture books. What a joy!
Now that I’m writing picture books myself, I’ve discovered that my brain has a pretty good feel for the general rhythm found in most picture books – the rise and fall of action, three-part movements, melodious sentences, etc. This is invaluable when I’m working on pacing and page turns.
But using mentor texts doesn’t stop with that overarching rhythm. With each new book I write, I find challenges that would benefit from a narrower study. My current WIP has rhyming text, as well as a suggestion for a wordless spread, so I have two specifics to look into:
Challenge #1 – Rhyming Text
Sources for texts: My own library, industry reviews (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Horn Book), blog reviews, and a list developed during last year’s RhyPiBoMo (Rhyming Picture Book Month).
- How many stanzas in the book?
- What is the type of stanza (e.g. couplet, quatrain, free verse, etc.)?
- What is the rhyme scheme?
- Are there any variations in the rhyme?
Findings: Julia Donaldson’s books proved to be terrific mentor texts for me. Often written in quatrains with an ABCB rhyme scheme, they often had smaller embedded refrains. I typed up several of them to get a feel for the rhythm, nuances and page breaks.
For more specific findings about rhyming picture books, see my blog post about it here.
Challenge #2 – the Wordless Spread
Sources for texts: It turns out that there’s no easy way to search for picture books that contain wordless spreads! Luck for me, a blog post at PictureBookBuilders gave me a few titles to begin my search with. A question posed to Facebook friends from PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) added more.
- Where in the book does the spread occur?
- What is the use of the spread? (Is it a visual punch line? Does it slow or quicken the pace? Does it compress time? )
- What emotion is conveyed?
Findings: I gathered all of my findings in a spreadsheet.
As before, the perfect mentor text for me floated to the top – QUEEEN VICTORIA’S BATHING MACHINE. Again, I typed it up, noting page breaks, location of the wordless spread and its function, which gave me insights for my own book.
From my experience of looking at mentor texts, I can offer a few suggestions for picture book writers:
- Read picture books for the sum (the whole book) as well as its parts (individual elements).
- Reviews in trade magazines and blog sites (including this very one!) are helpful sources for mentor texts.
- Join writing groups. Fellow authors will amaze you with their knowledge!
- Develop a systematic way of comparing titles. I often use an Excel spread sheet, adding columns as I notice more helpful comparisons.
- Remember that it’s good to learn the “rules,” but it’s also okay to break them sometimes.
Patricia Toht is a Chicagoland native who was also lucky enough to live in England for several years. She owned a children’s bookshop, Never Never Land, before turning her hand to writing. She is the author of two upcoming picture books by Walker Books, PICK A PUMPKIN and PICK A PINE TREE (Autumn, 2017). Her poetry appears in AND THE CROWD GOES WILD!: A GLOBAL GATHERING OF SPORTS POEMS (Friesen Press) and THE POETRY FRIDAY ANTHOLOGY FOR CELEBRATIONS (Pomelo Books).
Check out some of the new resources for writing teachers.
This new book on using mentor texts in the classroom is full of great ideas for using mentor texts in the classroom. In the fall, Ruth, Kate Messner, Lisa Yee, and Varian Johnson did a free webinar about mentor texts, which you can watch for free here:
I highly recommend it for teachers because it gives a glimpse into writers and their processes.
If you haven’t read REAL REVISION by Kate Messner, you need to get that book. Her new book, which has a free preview on the Stenhouse website, stemmed from Kate’s work with the free Teachers Write program she does in the summer. If you are a teacher of writing, Kate encourages you to try writing for yourself. She believes (and I agree) that it makes you a better writing teacher. This one just came out, and it would be perfect for a summer study with a group of other teachers.
If you need some help teaching grammar with mentor texts, then this can be your go-to book. Dorfman has already put out two great mentor texts books (here and here). This one focuses on grammar. I have plans to use some of the lesson idea in this book in the coming weeks.
Mentor Texts for Word Play
Yesterday, I wrote a blog post at the Grog about using mentor texts to learn about Word Play. While I wrote the blog post for writers to use in their own writing, you can use the mentor texts and the ideas with students. Hop on over there to find out how to play with words.
Highlights for Children Magazine runs a yearly fiction contest. This year the theme is a mystery and the deadline is January 31, 2015. If you are interested in some links on how to write a mystery AND a printable for planning your mystery, head on over to the GROG blog. I have posted my mystery contest post there.
I’m over at the GROG today talking about ways you can make time to write in 2015. Click here for the full article.
Last week, I posted about where to find mentor texts to use to improve your writing. Today I’m over at the GROG BLOG again talking about what you do with mentor texts. Stop over there and tell us how you use mentor texts to improve your writing.
Our new GROG BLOG also got a mention by Tara Lazar. Check out her blog post about us here.
I’m going to be a monthly blogger at GROG, a new group blog that supports writers. What does GROG stand for?
G: Guidance and support
R: Resources for the craft of writing
O: Opportunities to grow our skills
G: Great folks who care about readers and writers of all ages
Today is our official launch day. I’m the first blogger on deck with a post answering some pertinent questions about mentor texts. Head over there and check it out.