Tuesday, January 15, 2019


*This originally ran on Writer's Rumpus, here.

The free online education offered during Reading for Research Month (ReFoReMo) challenges writers to read picture books for writing research. Each weekday of March features an educational online guest presenter who discusses mentor texts from a new perspective. Participants read mentor texts and blog posts to learn more about great writing.  As the Reading for Research Month (ReFoReMo) challenge inches closer, we thought it would be fun to do a blog mash up with a THINK QUICK interview right here on Writers’ Rumpus! We challenge you to THINK QUICK with us! Ready? Set? GO!
Illustration by Lori Nawyn

On Mentor Texts: Fiction or Nonfiction?

Carrie Charley Brown: Both! When it comes to ReFoReMo, it’s all about the story and/or the approach. Reading what’s already out there shows us what’s already been done. One may not think that fiction stories provide good fodder for research, but au contraire! For example, if word choice alone is studied intently in a fiction picture book, imagine the focused model that is exemplified when problem-solving the dull language in one of our own personal manuscripts? And how one author tackles a focused element may be completely different than another. Whether reading a stellar model (or not), we can learn how-to, or not-to, approach certain elements by reading both fiction or nonfiction picture books.

On Guest Presenters: Author or Illustrator? Agent or Editor? Book Expert?

Kirsti Call:  All of them! Authors, illustrators, agents, editors and book experts each have perspectives that are helpful for our ReFoReMo mission of reading and learning from stellar mentor texts. I love how individuals with different perspectives and professions help us see books in a whole new way. Speaking of perspectives…

On More Perspectives: Complicated or Mind-Expanding?

Carrie: Mind-Expanding! If two guest presenters coincidentally cover the same element or picture book, we welcome both. Just as everything in this business is subjective, it’s better to have wider exposure to expand our perspectives, too! Looking at the same picture book from two different points of view will allow us to have a greater understanding of writing styles, structures, and the layers needed to create something special.

On Reading: A lot or a little?

Kirsti:  A lot. I believe in reading while walking, waiting, lounging, bathing and “sleeping.” What could be better?

On Note-taking: Any Old Way or One Right Way?

Carrie: Any old way, but why not share your approach to help others? For example, I may read a picture book and write down the title, publisher, year, creators, as well as the structure type, the plot, and the theme. I may add a few sentences about what makes the book stand out as fresh or I may paginate with illustration notes so that I understand the interplay. Each picture book may stand out in different ways, or I may be trying to learn about one element that I lack in my own work and only take notes on that. Another person may use a standard template and never veer from it. By sharing what works in our ReFoReMo Facebook group, we can once again add to the note-taking process. Reviewing books is another great way to highlight stellar elements.

On Reading for Research: Necessity or Privilege?

Kirsti: Both! If we want to write well and read well, we need to read with attention to what makes the book great or mediocre.  And honestly, having the time to really research and ponder on the great books I read is a privilege.

On Visiting the Library: Wagon or Plastic Grocery Sack?

Kirsti: During ReFoReMo month, I’ve actually brought a rolling suitcase to the library… (I have a pic of this somewhere)…
Carrie: A wagon’s not a bad idea! I normally bring several canvas bags with strong handles, but honestly, I have hurt my back doing that!  They get heavy fast! Good thinking with the wheels, Kirsti!

On Sharing: Keep Research to Yourself or Share?

Carrie: While there is no one right way to research, we encourage others to share the discoveries they make. Our Facebook group is the perfect place to do so!

On Getting the Most out of the Month: Reserve Books in Advance or Wait Until the Last Minute?

Kirsti: I love reserving my books in advance and having them ready to read on each day our guest educators recommend them. We will release the reading list on February 12, allowing others to reserve books early.

On ReFoReMo: Do it or DO IT?

Carrie and Kirsti: DO IT! The reason ReFoReMo started was because we read many pictures in a short period of time as CYBILS judges and saw the good, the bad, and the ugly. The more we read, the more we learned about what works and what doesn’t. We wanted others to experience this also. The thing we have heard most from agents and editors in workshops, conferences and seminars is read, read, read! What have you got to lose? We’ll reveal the ReFoReMo presenters on January 29 and registration opens February 19. ReFoReMo begins March 1 and we’d love to learn with you!
Carrie Charley Brown eats, sleeps, and breathes children’s literature as a PK-8 school library media specialist, writer, and critique mentor. Kirsti Call reads, critiques and revises every day as a member of various critique groups, and blogs for several kidlit focused communities. Together, they coordinate ReFoReMo, which will celebrate its 5th annual challenge this year!

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Mentor Text Author Study: Tim McCanna

Before Tim McCanna became an author, he worked as a graphic designer, wrote songs and musicals, played in several bands, and earned an MFA in Dramatic Writing for Musical Theatre.

McCanna compares writing picture books to a musical theater song, “A musical theater song has to start somewhere and end somewhere different and it needs to be a journey and the character needs to come out on the other end different. That’s how I like to think about crafting a picture book as well.”

That's exactly how Tim McCanna writes his stories. His books are written to be read aloud and performed.

Rhythm, Rhyme, and Meter

Given McCanna’s musical background, choosing to write in verse makes sense. In his stories the words flow, the rhyme is flawless, and he doesn’t miss a beat. In addition to the perfect rhyme, McCanna’s BITTY BOT books, Tad Carpenter (Illustrator) have a well-developed character and story arc.

We get to know the character in the first BITTY BOT book right away and learn what he’s up to.

In a busy robot town
bots begin to power down-

all except for Bitty Bot!
Feeling sleepy? Maybe not! 

All the bots in Botsburg beep: 
“Day is over. Time for sleep!” 

“Kiss your papa. Hug your mamas. 
Activate your bot pajamas.” 

Every bot is tucked and tight?
Peace and quiet?
Well… not quite. 

What's that noise in power three? 
Who in Botsburg could it be? 

Bitty Bot with power tools! 
Breaking all the bedtime rules.

Engaging Your Audience
McCanna invites kids to make some noise in BARNYARD BOOGIE, Alison Black (Illustrator). This story features farm animals that play music in a band together. The problem in this story is finding something for Cow to do. Fun musical sounds and a refrain, “But what can Cow do? Moo?” keeps kids engaged and entertained. This story so much fun to read aloud!

The Barnyard Band is performing today.
All the musicians are coming to play!

Horse brings the tuba.

Goat swings the sax.

But what can Cow do?

In SO MANY SOUNDS, Andy J. Miller (Illustrator), kids experience everyday sounds the main character hears as he starts his day. Each scene ends using the refrain, Oh, so many sounds to hear! 

Listen! Do you hear a sound? 
Noises come from all around. 
Soft and gentle, loud and clear, Oh 
so many sounds to hear!

The story circles back when the main character returns home and his day's end hearing different sounds.

Covers ruffle.

Click! The switch
turns off the light.

No more noises.
Not a peep.
Everyone is sound asleep.


In JACK B. NINJA, Stephen Savage (Illustrator), McCanna takes a fresh approach to retelling an old nursery rhyme classic. In the first two spreads, McCanna hooks the audience. His audience learns Jack is a ninja who's going on a secret mission and they get to go along!

Jack B. Ninja! Jack, be quick!
Jack, jump over the bamboo stick!

Secret mission starts tonight.
Hide in shadow, out of sight.


McCanna is a ninja master of onomatopoeia demonstrated in BOING! A Very Noisy ABC, Jorge Martin (Illustrator). He not only uses onomatopoeia to tell the story using a cumulative structure supported by the illustrations, but he also alphabetized the words. Brilliant! The story starts with a sneeze that sends a boy’s ball bouncing away and sends him on a journey until he finds it. But when he returns home and falls asleep, “ZZZZZ”, the final spread starts the story all over again.





WATERSONG, Richard Smythe (Illustrator), uses the perfect combinations of water sounds and illustrations to tell a story about a fox seeking shelter during a rainstorm.  This book is an excellent example of how words and illustrations work together in harmony.

In the opening, Drip drop plip plop pitter patter pat tells us the storm is just starting. McCanna uses POP! Gush Rush! Crash! Whish Wash! Wham! to show tension when the storm intensifies. And Ripple shimmer tumble glimmer to show the calm near the end.

Non-fiction backmatter adds another informational layer to this fictional account.

Why do books by Tim McCanna make good mentor texts? They show us how he develops a character and story arc. He chooses a limited amount of the right words to tell his story. His rhyme is perfect. And he has mastered the literary device of onomatopoeia that is fun and engages his audience.

Each and every one of McCanna's books deserves applause. Encore! Encore!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

ReFoReMo's Best Mentor Texts of 2018

Blink! Zip! Snap! 2018 is almost gone and what a wonderful year for mentor texts it was! In our standing annual tradition, our team shares our picks for the best mentor texts of the year. 

Without delay, we present...


Diamond and the Boy: The Creation of Diamonds & the Life of H. Tracy Hall
By Hannah Holt, Illustrated by Jay Fleck
Published October 2, 2018

The right format is key to finding your way into a story. Inventiveness is woven into the fabric of two main character's parallel stories: A diamond in the earth and Tracey as he discovers how to make diamonds. Each main character is featured on their own page in a spread and described using the same words. She moves the story on with phrases like: Then one day… not yet…and then…This rock is… The page turns are brilliant. Lyrical, poetic, and scientific words are enhanced by bold illustrations, making this a moving, informative story. A piece of the author’s life is invested in this story as Tracy Hall (the boy) is actually Hannah’s grandfather. The story is one of resilience and creativity, and a must read for people of all ages.  It's a gem!


Carrie's Best

We Don't Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins
Published June 19, 2018

From the first cover illustration and the title, we are clued into Penelope Rex's problem....we haven't even opened the book yet, but we must see what happens. Yes, I mean to say that the page turns happen right from the cover! As excellent as that is, we get it from the title page, as well, with a promise from Penelope that you will never be eaten by a T. rex. You can bet that I want to turn the page again. Higgins captures the T. rex in an unexpected adorableness, worrying about her problem right from the beginning. Amped up with tension and relatable heart with capitals T-H, this story has the 1-2 punch. (She even hugs her character-laden backpack as we all do prior to the first day of school.) I want to be her friend, I am interested in her problem, and I already want her to be okay (even with the impending doom of kid-eating in her future.) And humor unites it all. This is the stuff that ultimate picture books are made of. Read and learn, friends, read and learn.

Kirsti's Best

Stegothesaurus by Bridget Heos and T.L. Macbeth
Published June 12, 2018
STEGOTHESAURUS is a great mentor text for humor, repetition, and unexpected twists.

"Hi," said a stegosaurus. "Hi," said another stegosaurus. "Hello! Greetings! Salutations!" said the stegothesaurus. He was a little different.

STEGOTHESAURUS's repetitive structure creates a great opportunity for humor and thwarted expectations.  This is the kind of read aloud, that you don't mind re-reading--plus who doesn't love to learn new words?

Janie's Best

The Remember Balloons by Jessie Oliveros and Dana Wulfekotte
Published August 28, 2018

This poignant picture book uses balloons as an extended metaphor for memories slipping away from James’ aging grandfather. The text is written in simple prose. The illustrations show text and art working hand in hand making the metaphor more concrete for young readers.  Most of the art is in black and white, while the “stories” in the memory balloons are in living color. The memories live on with James.

Keila's Best

Flying Deep: Climb Inside Deep-Sea Submersible Alvin by Michelle Cusolito and Nicole Wong
Published May 22, 2018

The title alone invites readers to actively engage with the story. Written from the second person point of view makes the reader feel like they are piloting the deep-sea submersible, Alvin. From the very first sentence, Cusolito asks readers to imagine being the Alvin pilot in a space “barely big enough for three”. Tension rises by inviting kids to “investigate the site of deadly explosions” detailed overtime in one day’s dive. The illustrations depict the wonder and mystery of underwater life and exploration. Backmatter adds important details not included in the story, a glossary of scientific terms, and where to find more information for budding oceanographers.

Cindy's Best

Play This Book by Jessica Young and Daniel Wiseman
Published May 22, 2018

While I usually gravitate towards mentor texts that compliment my own work, I am aware that I need to stretch myself, as well. I have, therefore, chosen Play This Book by Jessica Young for it's brevity and interactive qualities. It is refreshing to see children (like my own grandsons) engrossed in simple, sweet text without quirky characters, hooks, or a complicated storyline.

This is the type of book I started out striving to write. Maybe it's time to dig back in to my roots.

And now, we prepare for a long winter's nap as we take our yearly blog break. We've prepared an incredible line up for the 5th-Annual ReFoReMo Picture Book Challenge. Stay tuned for announcements in the new year. With New Year's Day falling on our regular Tuesday posting day, our blog posts will resume on January 8. Enjoy your families and find time to relax and take a well-deserved break along with us!

Carrie, Kirsti, Janie, Keila, and Cindy
The ReFoReMo Team