By Carrie Charley Brown
ReFoReMo was founded under the flexible principle that it should become what each participant needs it to be. Since this is a subjective industry, not every book on our March list suits every style or goal. We recommend veering from the list and doing your own thing. Today's featured ReFoReMo guest is one that has done just that! As a participant of both the 2015 and 2016 challenges, mentor texts have had a huge impact on Chana Stiefel's writing. Her debut picture book, Daddy Depot, comes out next year! YAY! Great research does not stop at publication. Go Chana!
Piles of Picture Book Biographies
By Chana Stiefel
Recently, I began writing my first
picture book biography. As a big fan of ReFoReMo and an ardent believer in studying
mentor texts, I began by searching for other picture books about my subject (None
existed! Woohoo!). Then I started collecting other picture book biographies
(PBBs) to study the craft.
I immediately noticed a few trends.
Today’s PBBs are much less wordy than those
published in the past. Word counts ranged from 225 (Me…Jane) to just over 1,000 (On
a Beam of Light).
The text is more lyrical and poetic, less
The new PBBs are gorgeously crafted with
They generally capture snapshots of an individual’s
life. Think “slice of life,” rather than sweeping biopic.
Many of the most popular PBBs demonstrate the
powerful influences of childhood on character. In Me…Jane, little Jane Goodall displays a wondrous curiosity for the
outdoors. She reads books about Africa to her stuffed chimpanzee, Jubilee, and
dreams about living in the jungle. In The
Iridescence of Birds, we meet little Henri Matisse who grew up in a dull
grey French town, but his mother filled their home with color, light, and yes,
iridescent birds. What could be more inspiring to a child than to see what
famous people were like as children?
Most new PBBs use backmatter to complete the
story. These may include an author’s note, timeline, photos, bibliography,
glossary, and sometimes a letter from the famous person. Backmatter is
wonderful for readers who want to delve deeper, but it’s also helpful for
writers who want to find ways to tell the whole story without over-packing the
Here are a few of my favorite PBBs that
fit these trends, with extra takeaways about what I gleaned from each one.
“If you were a boy named Henri
Matisse who lived in a dreary town in northern France where the skies were
By inviting the reader into the story using the unusual second person
POV, Patricia MacLachlan immediately grabs our attention and draws us into
Deceptively simple, Me. . .Jane
celebrates how the freedom
and joys of childhood exploration can lead to greatness. The reader experiences
little Jane’s sense of wonder on every page. Remarkably, Jane kept a journal of
her observations of nature even as a young girl. These details, captured
beautifully by Patrick McDonnell’s text and award-winning illustrations, make
the story real and accessible.
Layers in a PBB? Homerun! In The William Hoy Story,
shares the true story of a deaf baseball player who changed the game of
baseball forever. The layers include: finding your passion, overcoming
adversity, love & support of family, inclusion, resilience, and so much
OK, you caught me. This is not a
PBB, it’s a PBA (a PB autobiography). But who could resist this first-person
story about a trombone player who grew up in a music-loving neighborhood and
family in New Orleans? The jazzy language in this book is magical and the
rhythm of the refrain—“Where y’at? Where y’at?”—keeps us tapping to the beat.
What are some of your favorite PBBs
(or PBAs) and what have you learned from them?
Chana Stiefel has written more than
20 non-fiction books for kids. Feiwel & Friends will publish her debut
picture book, DADDY DEPOT, in 2017. Chana is represented by agent John M.
Cusick at Folio Literary. Check out her work at www.chanastiefel.com
. Chana is also
co-writer of a new kidlit writers’ blog with her critique partner, Donna
Cangelosi. They welcome your feedback at http://kidlittakeaways.com