Friday, March 3, 2017

ReFoReMo Day 5: Susannah Richards Shares What Makes a Good Story


by Susannah Richards

I live a life that is full of stories. 40,000 plus books and an old house (1852 on the Historical Register) make sure that everyday I have stories to share. Frog and Toad author and storyteller Arnold Lobel said, “Books to the ceiling, Books to the sky, My pile of books is a mile high. How I love them! How I need them!" I could not agree more because stories are foundation and essence of life. There are so many different ways to tell a story. Writing a story is not about getting an idea and sitting down to tell it. It may be about having an idea and finding the story (or letting it find you), looking at it from different angles, over it, under it, behind it, in front of it, around it, and even through it. What makes a story is not based on any one formula and even when a formula or format works for a series like the If You Give a… (Mouse, Moose, Pig etc.) is successful, the variables that made those stories work may not easily transfer to other stories with integrity. For fun, check out the pacing, event relationships, and character traits in this Laura Numeroff and Felicia Bond bestselling series and then try your hand at changing the variables to get your storytelling brain in gear.

What makes a good story is dependent on many factors including the time when it is written and the audience who finds it. A story is so many things-a narrative, real or imagined, a series of events, a new perspective on an old story or the mixing of multiple stories. There is no such thing as a good story by itself, there is however a good story for certain people at certain times under certain circumstances. If you want to find a story you have to be willing to let the story be told. And sometimes the story that you thought you would tell is not the story that ends up being told. Let the story unfold. The following picture books use very different story techniques (literary techniques, theme, plot, characters, tone, conflict/tension building, pacing, language, style and tone, text formats, images) in different forms, with different paces, in different amounts, from different perspectives. Wishing you luck in finding stories and letting them find you. Remember that they may be as close as your pocket or they may take a while to hatch.
 Egg by Kevin Henkes. With his 50th book he has definitely mastered how to tell a story that is universal and moves perfectly from frame to frame. In particular check out Henkes' recent "trilogy" that focus on patience, perspective and appreciating-Waiting, When Spring Comes and Egg. They have similar elements with very different storytelling patterns.

One Proud Penny by Randy Siegel illustrated by Serge Bloch.  Who knew the penny had such a pennywise backstory? The balance between real and almost real is worth penny pinching to be able to buy the story.

Oops, Pounce, Quick, Run: An AlphabetCaper by Mike Twohy. HarperCollins, 2016. While the alphabet form has a long history, Twohy proves that when you pick the right word and combine with illustrations that share the storytelling, you can move from A to Z with a pounce and a ball.

 Panda Pants by Jacqueline Davies, illustrated by Sydney Hanson. Knopf, 2016. Davies manages to tell a universal story in a new way with a mother and child panda that seems to reflect the universal parent and child relationship.




Deedy, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin. If you have not heard Carmen Agra Deedy tell a story then you have missed great storytelling. Check        out her TED Talk, Once Upon a Time My Mother….This allegoric story      finds a unique voice to say we need to be free to follow our voice.

This is Not a Picture Book by Sergio Ruzzier. Metafiction storytelling that takes a simple conflict and creates just the right tension to move the story forward.

XO, Ox: A Love Story by Adam Rex, illustrated by Scott Campbell. An Ox and a gazelle have a story to tell but there are really three stories here from the viewpoints. This epistolary story is worth its story in stamps.


Take Me Out to the Yakyu by Aaron Meshon. While many may delight in the comparing and contrasting of two pastimes, this is a story that explores how are two cultures similar and different with a little bit of a celebration of family.

Billions of Bricks: A Counting Book About Building by Kurt Cyrus. With so many construction books, the competition to build a new one with a novel story is monumental. This counting book is built brick by brick with descriptive text worthy of a read aloud.





 The Girl with a Parrot on Her Head
 by Daisy Hirst. A fresh twist on how to find and cultivate friends, with a parrot on your head.

      The Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Karla Kuskin, illustrated by Marc Simont. While this book has been around for over 30 years, there is something about the story. One night, many musicians. The richness of the details and the melody of the combination of the text and the illustrations deserves applause.


Leave Me Alone by Vera Brosgol, RoaringBrook, 2016. OK, I am cheating and including a perfect dozen but there is no stopping this knitting grandmother on her epic journey to find a home to finish her knitting. The language, images and her expressions are so central to the storytelling.



Susannah Richards is an associate professor of education at Eastern Connecticut State University where she teaches courses in English Language Arts  methods and Children's and Young Adult Literature. She was a member of the 2013 John Newbery Award Committee and 2017 Geisel Award Committee. 

She is an active advocate for books for youth and those who create them. She is a frequent speaker at state, national and international conferences where she has moderated panels and conversations with Norton Juster, Sophie Blackall, Sean Qualls, Brian Floca, Laura Amy Schlitz, Sharon Creech, Chris Van Allsburg, Hervé Tullet, Angela Dominguez, Melissa Sweet, Andrea Davis Pinkney, Jane Yolen, Katherine Applegate, Jason Chin, Ed Emberley and others. She has coordinated many literature related events including the Rhode Island Festival of Children's Books and Authors, the Silent Art Auction at BEA, and bookety, bookety related projects. 

For bookish and other items of interest follow Susannah @SussingOutBooks on Twitter and Instagram.


147 comments:

  1. "There is a good story for certain people at a certain time under certain circumstances" is a great point! Stories find us when we need them, I truly believe that. Thanks, Susannah!

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  2. Oh Susannah, now what a real nice post
    It's great to have you as a ReFoReMo host!

    I am so jealous of your 40,000 book home!
    Thank you for sharing all this wonderful insight.

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  3. Your words ring so true for anyone who has ever escaped into stories, not only to write them, but to read them. Thanks for a great post, Susannah.

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  4. Such an awesome list! I don't have ANY of these in my stack! (Saturday=library time!) Thanks for sharing your suggestions with us!

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  5. Ack! I'm getting behind. I'll catch up, these look awesome. I know Panda Pants is anyway!

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  6. I love when you said "If you want to find a story you have to be willing to let the story be told. And sometimes the story that you thought you would tell is not the story that ends up being told." So true. Thanks for the great post!

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  7. "It may be about having an idea and finding the story (or letting it find you)." I love this thought that there are stories out there looking for us to write them down. The possibilities are infinite!

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  8. 40,000 books in an old house sounds pretty heavenly! Thank you for these recommendations, Susannah. I need to catch up on this list.

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  9. Such wonderfully diverse choices for our reign pleasure today! Ty, Susannah! This comment from you resonates w/me: "And sometimes the story that you thought you would tell is not the story that ends up being told."

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  10. The house of dreams! Until the plumbing acts up, I guess! Anyway, the books. . .what a great diverse group of old and new.

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  11. "What makes a good story is dependent on many factors including the time when it is written and the audience who finds it." Great advice!

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  12. Fascinating collection. I look forward to reading every one of them. Thanks!

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  13. I'm happiest when I'm around a room full of family and books! Thank you Susannah for the recommendations and thoughts!

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  15. the best part of ReFoReMo is waking up to a list of new PBs every morning. Thank you Susannah for sharing your list for me to investigate, read and learn from.

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  16. Finding a way for the story to be told... and sometimes that takes time. And I agree, sometimes the story you end up with isn't the one you thought you had. Thanks!

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  17. Finding the right approach to a story--now that is a challenge. 40K books and an old house--that sounds like a winning recipe for a story too! Thanks, Susannah!

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  18. Great post, Susannah! 40,000 books and an old house! *sigh* How many bookcases do you have?

    I totally agree with you when you said: "If you want to find a story you have to be willing to let the story be told. And sometimes the story that you thought you would tell is not the story that ends up being told."

    I don’t think I have ever written a story that did not hang a left somewhere down the road and take me to a new place... that’s the fun part of writing. You never know where you’ll end up!

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  19. Thanks for this post Susannah. Not only have you included a great list of picture books, but you also made me feel better about the number of books in my house! They're spilling off the shelves...but I love every one of them. :)

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  20. Wow and I thought we had a lot of books at my house, 40,000 now that is something to aspire to.

    Thank you for your suggestions on letting the story be told. I've been trying to midwife one right now that's not quite ready. Maybe I need to let it sit a bit more and figure out how it wants to be told tend to another in the meantime

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  21. Great post. Thanks for sharing...back to the library I go:)

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  22. Let the story unfold! Thanks for sharing such great advice, Susannah.

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  23. "And sometimes the story that you thought you would tell is not the story that ends up being told." Great insight!

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  24. Susannah, thanks for sharing your knowledge. There are several PBs listed that are new to me. But I love "The Philharmonic Gets Dressed."

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  25. Hmm, I wonder how many books I have... I've never counted! It's like the licks to the center of a tootiepop for me. I start to count, and then end up with my nose in a book. :)

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  26. I love this, "Writing a story is not about getting an idea and sitting down to tell it. It may be about having an idea and finding the story (or letting it find you)..."
    Thanks for your post, Susannah!

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  27. Thank you for your spot-on insights into what makes a good story. Great list of books, too!

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  28. I agree with the idea that a good story has to come at a certain time, for certain people, and under certain circumstances. Some of my all-time favorite books were ones I passed on a few times before I got into them. Thanks for this list. Some I had not heard of, so I'm happy.

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  29. A friend of mine once said "I have too many books. And I need some more!" I agree with that friend, Arnold Lobel, and you, Susannah, that "stories are foundation and essence of life". Stories are to us like water is to a fish. They are so much a part of our existence that we don't even notice that they surround us all the time. Thanks for the reminder that we are swimming in stories. And thanks for the book list! I'm very happy to see "Leave Me Alone" by Vera Brosgol on there. It is my latest favorite.

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  30. I like how you highlighted the different ways a story can be told. Thanks for your list, Susannah! Let the story unfold - indeed.

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  31. Thanks for this great advice and wonderful list of mentor texts. Your insight, "sometimes the story that you thought you would tell is not the story that ends up being told," resonates with me.

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  33. Great list! And I'm going to try the writing exercise and check out the Ted Talk. Thanks!

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  34. Thanks to my son and events like this, my library of picture books keeps growing.

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  35. Thank you so much, Susannah! You give such great suggestions for books. "This is not a picture book" is a book that I appreciated more each time I read it! So much richness there in every aspect of the book: from the jacket to the endpapers and all the way through. I can't wait to read the others you recommended.

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  36. Great selection of books. I can't believe you have 40,000 books. Just the cost is staggering. I am impressed. I've got one room practically filled with books, but it is nowhere near your number. Do you own stock in a shelving company? There is a story right there, about all those books. What do they do while they wait to be read again?

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  37. I can't wait to explore your wonderful list! I love it when a story idea unfolds and stays "as close as my pocket." But "sometimes the story that you thought you would tell is not the story that ends up being told." Oh the places your writing will take you!

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  38. "They may take a while to hatch" has made my day. Getting that idea to come to life is trying. Thank you, Susannah, for the tips and examples from your 40,000 collection-WOW!

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  39. Susannah, knowing a story can be told in many different ways by using a variety of techniques is something every writer should remember. I enjoyed your post!

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  40. Wow! These are all new titles for me. Thanks for your recommendations.

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  41. Thanks for the great suggestions! - Alice Fulgione

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  42. I want to come over! Now if you told me there were ghost sightings I would pay. ;) Thanks for this great article. More lovely books to check out.

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  43. Thank you very much for that wonderful, varied book list and your mind and spirit freeing thoughts.

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  44. This is speaking to me right now: "And sometimes the story that you thought you would tell is not the story that ends up being told. Let the story unfold." I think I have to be brave enough to allow my WIP to unfold differently than I had imagined. Thank you.

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  45. Oh, to have your collection of books! Well, if I did, I might spend all my time reading. Thank you for highlighting some books I've never come across and the key elements that make them stand out.

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  46. "looking at it from different angles, over it, under it, behind it, in front of it, around it, and even through it." Wow- no truer words about writing! I've been through this-as I'm sure we all have-with my own work. I think it's "done", and then I go on to do about 20+ more revisions. It's been an amazing process - writing through our stories while learning just how to tell them.
    Also, just want to add, this was the first time I read Panda Pants, and it was just too cute! The voice of our little panda was so strong. I fell in love with that little guy :)

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  47. I so appreciate the comment about letting the story "unfold" naturally. It can often be a challenge for me to allow the unfolding, yet the growing trust I have within me helps support the work as it arises. Helpful insights, so thanks!

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  48. Wonderful post. Great list of mentor books to read and learn from. Thank you!

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  49. "Let the story unfold." That is what struck a chord with me. The more I write the more I wonder where the story will go, what it will reveal, what it has to say. Great book suggestions...all so different. Oh, and I'm super jealous you live in a "library"! Happy dusting... but oh, so worth it! Thank you for your post, Susannah.

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  50. What a wonderful list and great insight! Thank you!

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  51. Such impressive numbers--40,000+ books, in an 1852 home, Susannah! You certainly know what it takes to make a good story. I recognize many outstanding titles.

    ~Suzy Leopold

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  52. I love all these examples! Thank you!!

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  53. Great post! Thanks for theverything great list of books!

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  54. I love your challenge to look at a manuscript from different angles, over it, under it, behind it, in front of it, around it, and even through it and to let the story be told. Thank you for this great list of recommendations.

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  55. Thank you for your insights. Heading out to the library right now to pick up these books I have on hold.

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  56. Thanks, Susannah, for these great picks. I can't wait to start reading.

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  57. Looks like another great selection of books. I have a whole stack waiting on reserve for me at the library. Now I can reserve some more. Yeah!!

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  58. Thank you so much for this terrific post! With all the "how-to" guides out there, & their checklists & "one true path" to writing a "best-seller," it's easy to forget to play with a story, and then let it lead you to telling it the best way. There's a saying in the storytelling world, "Stories get mean if they don't get told" — after reading your thoughts I'd add: "And they get unhappy & might go away & hide if you don't play with them."

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  59. Thank you for sharing this informative post. Much appreciated.

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  60. Thank you for sharing these wonderful books with us. I love your advice about looking at a story from different angles – or letting it find you!

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  61. Terrific advice here and a wonderful variety of books! Looking forward to reading them all! Thanks so much for this post!

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  62. I've definitely got books to the ceiling, books to the sky! Thanks for all the new suggestions!

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  63. Adding these to my list of books to check out! Thank you!

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  65. Thank you for reviewing what makes a great story! Looking forward to reading these.

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  66. "Let the story unfold." Sage advice indeed! I look forward to savoring the books on your list.
    Carmela Simmons

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  67. Great list Susannah! My kids and I just read XO, OX a love story! It was Fabulous and Funny:>

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  68. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any of today's recommended books at my library. But, that just means I can add them to the list of books I'm recommending to my librarian :) Thanks for the reminder that storytelling is subjective and readership is about perspective!

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  69. Wonderful post and my list gets longer and longer!

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  70. I actually have most of these books and each has a special place on my shelf.Thank you for pointing out what is special about each.

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  71. "There is no such thing as a good story by itself" - WISDOM!!! I have TRULY been inspired today. THANK YOU!!!

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  72. Let your story find you. Ok I"m trying to be patient. Thank you for more picture books to study. I love This is not a Picturebook-so much to say with so few words.

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  73. Thanks for the great advice and list of mentor texts, they all look wonderful!

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  74. What a great list! I am so excited to explore these treasures after your brief descriptions peaked my interest. Thank you.

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  75. Thank you for your list of mentor text. A lot of the books are new to me. I am now going back and looking at some of my ms from different angles.

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  76. Looking forward to reading many of these books! Thanks!

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  77. Looking forward to reading your book suggestions Sussanah!

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  78. Thanks Susana h for your great suggestions!

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  79. I love the analogy about letting the story find you. It's hard waiting and searching, but worth it. I look forward to reading the suggested books listed.

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    1. It seems this topic resonated with many of us!

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  80. I love the comments that you made about a story writing itself. That has happened to me recently. I started with my ever-changing list of concepts, picked one that jumped out at me, I started to write, and found that the story took on a life of its own. The manuscript is now one of my favorites! I love the idea that a story can come organically. Thank you so much for your insights and for sharing this list of mentor texts with our group!

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  81. An insightful look at storytelling & wonderful mentor texts. Thank you!

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  82. Great post. Time to curl up with some books, wine, and the fireplace. :-)

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  83. Great insight into what makes a good story. Love all the mentor texts you've suggested. There are a couple that I'm not familiar with but can't wait to read!

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  84. Great list of books and what makes them work. My grandson LOVES Egg! It is perfectly written! Thanks for sharing with us!

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  85. Thank you for this thoughtful and energetic post on what makes a good story. Carole Calladine

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  86. Thank you Susannah for showing us the many elements that make a great picture book.

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  87. Thank you for these insights on writing a story. I love your comments about "having an idea and then finding the story (or letting the story find you)...".

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  88. Thanks Susannah for so many great ideas...I like your comment, "Let the story unfold...." That's how it should be!

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  89. Susannah, thank you so much for your insights on writing. I'm going to accept your challenge and try my hand at changing the variables in some of my manuscripts to get my storytelling brain in gear!

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  90. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on story telling and story finding. I love finding the right story at the right time--for children and myself, too. And I enjoyed discovering some new books, too, thanks to you.

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  91. Hi Susannah - thanks for sharing the Arnold Lobel quote about books, "How I love them. How I need them." So wonderful. And thanks for a great list of texts to study. I love One Proud Penny!

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  92. Thank you Susannah. I look forward to reading these fascinating collection.

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  93. Thanks for this wonderful list and important advice about the different ways to tell a story! I need to get to the library, quick!

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  94. I can't wait to read these and compare their styles. Thanks, Susannah!

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  95. This is something I've been thinking about a lot: "What makes a good story is dependent on many factors including the time when it is written and the audience who finds it." We read a much older PB the other day, and I was struck by the difference in the pacing and language found in it compared to books being published today. It's important to be aware of the styles that are currently successful as we figure out how to tell our stories - this month is really helpful in introducing us to many recent publications. Liz Tipping

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  96. I've already read and loved six of the books you recommend today, Susannah. I'm heading out to track down the others if I can. It used to be the case that when I had an idea for a story I had to write it right away. Now I'm learning to do what you mention--let the story come to me. Look around and behind it for a different perspective and the story behind the story. Thanks for putting it in words for me.

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  97. "If you want to find a story you have to be willing to let the story be told. And sometimes the story that you thought you would tell is not the story that ends up being told."

    So true! I've had this happen so many times, but often it works out better than the original idea.

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  98. I'm with you about THE PHILHARMONIC GETS DRESSED -- good details, and who can argue with a book that includes underwear? But I've read THIS IS NOT A PICTURE BOOK three times today and must be missing something -- I'm hoping when I read it with a child I will find out WHAT!
    Thanks Susannah!

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  99. Call the library - I have more reserves coming! Egg and XO, Ox look fascinating!

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  100. Great list of titles. I am indeed hoping a story will come my way - feeling like I've been in a little dry spell.

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  101. Thanks for your insight and for your varied list of mentor texts. There are a few that I might not have picked up on my own. It's great to explore new story telling techniques!

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  102. What a deep, thought-provoking post on storytelling. Thank you for inspiring us to "let the story unfold."

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  103. "And sometimes the story that you thought you would tell is not the story that ends up being told." THIS! I have found this to be true so often! Thank you for a great post and wonderful mentor texts, Susannah!

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  104. Thank you for a wonderful image of your book-filled house and some inspiring mentor texts. I'm going straight out to look for The Philharmonic Gets Dressed.

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  105. Off to the library... thank you!

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  106. The Sergio Ruzzier title was new to me and I loved the meta-ness of it. Thanks for a great post!

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  107. Thanks - looking forward to reading these books.

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  108. Thank you, for these terrific examples.

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  109. Staring at a blank white page can be so daunting. Love your words about letting the story find you. Thanks for the post and great list of books, Susannah!

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  110. I love the quote by Arnold Lobel! Lots of new books for me to check out! Thank you!

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  111. I just read Egg and it was fantastic. Thank you for your post!

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  112. So many new ones - and all at my library, yay! Cracking up over XO, OX.

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  113. Wow! So many great mentor texts to read. Thanks for the suggestions and for your insight on each.

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  114. I agree, what a list! Lots here I get to discover for the first time!

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  115. A great list, with a few new to me. "Stories are foundation and essence of life. There are so many different ways to tell a story." Thank you for sharing this post.

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  116. I thoroughly enjoyed each of the titles for today. Thanks for your post.

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  117. What a great list of books to think about!

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  118. Thank you for sharing this list of books!

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  119. Lovely list and lovely reminders about the many ways to tell the story. Sometimes, writers can get attached on one way, and it may not be the best way. Thank you.

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  120. The Philharmonic is such a classic, isn't it? Fun to reread it and read some new titles.

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  121. Thank you for your post! My favorite point: "And sometimes the story that you thought you would tell is not the story that ends up being told. Let the story unfold."

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  122. Thank you for this wonderful list of mentor texts! Looking forward to a cuppa, these books and a sunny location

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  123. Thank you for giving me an excuse to reread my childhood favorite The Philharmonic Gets Dressed!

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  124. 40,000 books?! Wowza! Loved the post and recommendations and nice to see The Philharmonic Gets Dressed included.

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  125. Wonderful, diverse list of books that focus on universal themes told in a new way. Thank you

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  126. Thanks so much! I love- having an idea and finding the story.

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  127. Thank you for providing such a fun and interesting list of mentor texts. I particularly enjoyed XO,OX: the storyline and illustrations are spot-on and quite humorous.

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  128. "Let the story be told." That's great advice to remember, thank you for sharing!

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  129. Unique stories - each worth pondering again. Thanks.

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  130. Loved your quote by Arnold Lobel. From your book list, I especially enjoyed reading Oops, Pounce, Quick, Run!. Such a simple book can be used on many levels. I'm thinking of using it as a mentor text with my advanced second grade writers.

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  131. Loved your quote by Arnold Lobel. From your book list, I especially enjoyed reading Oops, Pounce, Quick, Run!. Such a simple book can be used on many levels. I'm thinking of using it as a mentor text with my advanced second grade writers.

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  132. Took me a little while to assemble all the books, but glad I was able to read them all.

    Fabulous variety. Thanks for picking great books to bring your point home.

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  133. What a great list of books. A lot of these were new to me. Thanks!

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  134. What a wonderful list of suggestions. Thank you.

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  135. I have a story waiting to be shared, but I know the timing isn't right. Thanks for your insights and list.

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  136. Great reminder to be on the lookout and allow stories to come to us. Love this list of books and can't wait to read a few that I haven't heard of before. Thank you!

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  137. Susannah, good analogies and selection of mentor texts for your assignment. A few of these on your list I have not read so I will enjoy reading how they unfold.

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  139. It always makes a difference to hear from great minds. Thank you Susannah.

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  140. Thank you for this post. I've been enjoying your mentor texts.

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  141. Thank you, Susannah, for an enjoyable post, and I even listened to the TED talk you mentioned. My library has been able to get in only two of these books for me so far, but I'm patiently waiting.

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