One of the reasons it took me so many years to craft my debut picture book, THE WILLIAM HOY STORY, HOW A DEAF BASEBALL PLAYER CHANGED THE GAME (Albert Whitman, March 2016) is that I didn’t know how much I didn’t know about the art of picture book writing. And here’s a little secret. I have three more books coming out and I am still learning. We are all always learning. And that’s why I love ReForReMo, because it’s a way for us to learn from each other.
All my books so far have been non-fiction biographies. Two are about athletes, one is about a man who moved a mountain and one is about a princess. My fifth book is about a musician, but it’s still a few revisions away from where it needs to be. I’m currently working with an editor on it. One of her notes was to give a sense of the music that my subject hears as he moves through and makes sense of the world. I also want to convey why the music was so important to him and to those who heard it.
So I checked out:
THE MUSIC IN GEORGE’S HEAD by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Stacy Innerst (Calkins Creek). I love the way this book starts: “George heard music all the time. At home. At school. Even when he was roller-skating down New York’s busy streets.” I also like the way she describes the noises that George hears, such as the “Rattle-ty-Bang! of the train and it got me thinking about fresh ways to convey the kind of sounds my subject might have heard.
DIZZY by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Sean Qualls (Arthur A. Levine Books). What I felt here was the emotional connection between a child’s difficult childhood and the way music provided an outlet. This book helped me understand the urgency and passion of Dizzy’s music. Jonah Winter sets it up in the beginning: “This is the story of one real cool cat who must have been born with a horn in his hands…But, to tell you the truth, he wasn’t born with a horn in his hands. He was born very poor and very tough.” My subject had a rough start in life, too.
RADIANT CHILD by Javaka Steptoe (Little, Brown and Company). This book about artist Jean-Michel Basquiat combined the lesson I learned about the power of musical language from THE MUSIC IN GEORGE’S HEAD and the emotional urgency that throbs through DIZZY. This opening has both: “Somewhere in Brooklyn, between hearts that thump, double Dutch, and hopscotch and salty mouths that slurp sweet ice, a little boy dreams of being a famous ARTIST.” The book intertwines Jean-Michel’s creations with the challenge of growing up with a mother he loved who suffered from mental illness. This made me think about how my subject lost a parent at a young age.
I DISSENT, RUTH BADER GINSBURG MAKES HER MARK by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley (Simon & Schuster). This book shows how Ruth Bader Ginsburg dealt with prejudice. Ginsburg used the law to battle injustice. My subject faces prejudice, too, but uses music to create a more inclusive world. This book also showed me the power of having two words that repeat and build through the book. In this case, the words are “I dissent,” which do double duty as words of the law and words of a person who is determined to make the world a better place. That led me to wonder what my subject’s signature words might be.
Which led me to my final ReForReMo book:
THE RIGHT WORD, ROGET AND HIS THESAURUS by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Eerdmans Books). The writing here is so deceptively simple, you almost forget that you’re reading as a little boy emerges who interprets the world through the lists he creates, the lists that one day, when he’s older, will become Roget’s Thesaurus. I realized I need to do for my subject what Jen Bryant did for Roget. I need to show how he understands the world through music the way Roget does through lists. I need to blend in what I’ve learned from my other mentor texts as well: made-up words that suggest sounds, the urgency of an artist who must create, the persistence that pushes someone to persevere through heartache and the conviction and conscience to stand up for inclusion.
You don’t want to copy what someone else has done. But the beauty of ReFoReMo is that an idea you pick up from here or there may lead you to the magic ingredient that will bring your manuscript to life.
Thank you, Carrie Charley Brown for this wonderful assignment. I am excited about using what I’ve learned from my mentor texts as I dig back into my revision!
Nancy is happily donating one signed copy of The William Hoy Story along with a Teachers Guide at the conclusion of ReFoReMo. She hopes it may prove helpful as a mentor text! To be eligible, please comment on this post and make efforts to read mentor text regularly.
Nancy Churnin is the theater critic for The Dallas Morning News and the author of The William Hoy Story, How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game (Albert Whitman & Company, March 2016), selected for the 2017 Texas Library Association 2X2 List and the New York Public Library’s Best Children’s Books of 2016 list. Her upcoming books are Manjhi Moves a Mountain (Creston Books, September 2017); Charlie Takes His Shot: How Charlie Sifford Broke the Color Barrier in Golf (Albert Whitman, January 2018) and The Princess and the Tree (Albert Whitman, November 2018). Nancy is raising four boys and two cats with her husband, Dallas Morning News arts writer Michael Granberry.