Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Revealing ReFoReMo with Author Chana Stiefel

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 journalistic.
·      The new PBBs are gorgeously crafted with stunning illustrations.
·      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 body text.

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 gray…” 

By inviting the reader into the story using the unusual second person POV, Patricia MacLachlan immediately grabs our attention and draws us into Matisse’s childhood. 

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, Nancy Churnin 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 more.

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. Twitter @chanastiefel @kidlittakeaways.


  1. great post, Chana. Thanks for sharing your observations.

  2. Great information Chana...since I am "Old school" I've found myself having to make a lot of adjustments in how I write...but not what I write! Thanks for all the suggested texts and for your research info. I look forward to reading more of your work!!

    1. Thanks Anita! Looking forward to reading your books as well!

  3. Congrats on your debut, Chana! I LOVE PB biographies--one of my favorite genres, and Me, Jane is one of my favorites too. It's such a gem of a book. I love On a Beam of Light too!

    I've been meaning to read both the Hoy and Miss Mary books, so now they're on my library list--thank you!!

  4. Wonderful round up of PB bio titles Chana!
    Congrats on your own upcoming PB debut!

  5. So many excellent ones on your list! For a book I'm currently working on, I've been looking at famous pairs, and found these excellent books: The Worst of Friends, When Pigasso Met Mootisse, and Martin & Mahalia. The middle one mentioned is obviously fiction, but it's a brilliant introduction to the work of these two artists and their relationship.

    1. Interesting Jilanne. Have you read Mesmerized by Mara Rockliff? Also a great "paired" PB biography.

  6. I can't wait to read/reread the books on your list! I adore A BEAM OF LIGHT! Thanks for a great interview!

  7. Great recommendations, Chana. I'm revising my second PB bio, so I'll pick up those on your list I haven't read. Looking for some inspiration...

  8. So much helpful information! Thank you, Chana! I love your selection of picture books!!