Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Author Denise Vega Talks Mentor Texts

Author Denise Vega has been inspiring children's writers for many years through her blog and as a previous regional advisor for her SCBWI chapter in Colorado. I was blown away by her knowledge and experience prior to and when she spoke at my SCBWI chapter last spring. I knew that ReFoReMoers would want to learn from Denise's mentor text perspective, too. She writes everything from picture books to young adult and is on faculty at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Her newest picture book, If Your Monster Won't Go to Bed, is absolutely adorable and Zacharia O'hora's illustrations are vibrant and fun, as always.

Welcome, Denise! Do you utilize picture books as mentor texts?  If so, how? 

Yes! All the time. I actually have a very specific process for using picture book mentor texts. First I look at the type of book I am writing—narrative (character with a goal/problem) or what I term “non-narrative” (any story that does not have a protagonist with a goal to achieve or problem to solve like Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd.) Once I have that, I look for books that are similar not only in type, but in tone—humorous, warm, silly, etc. Also, in a narrative, if my character has a growth arc, I look for books that have the same.

Once I’ve gotten 3-5 that feel right, I go through them in at least four different passes. In each pass, I’m looking at only one aspect. These are things I teach in my classes which helps keep me sharp too!

For narrative picture books, my main passes include (1) story structure and pacing, (2) character development, (3) the integration of text and pictures, and (4) language. With each pass, I’m asking questions such as:  When is the story problem/goal introduced (pass #1)? How does the character grow or change and where? (pass #2), How are the pictures telling part of story? And what is the text doing that the pictures aren’t? (pass #3) Is the language vibrant or plain and how is that serving the story? (pass #4)

For non-narrative picture books, I have similar passes except for during pass #1, I’m looking at any thematic structure in the words and/or pictures—what is the skeleton holding the piece together? Morning to night? Seasons? Small to big? Anything I see that shows me the integration between the parts and the whole and ties scenes or elements together.

How has reading picture books helped you discover who you are as a writer?

I love this question! We are constantly evolving as writers and one of the things I’ve discovered reading picture books is that we never stop learning. Just the other day, in a picture book class I was teaching, one of the writers pointed out something in a mentor text I had read a dozen times. I was delighted to see the page in a new light, to learn something new. I am a writer who never stops learning. I teach, I take classes, I ask questions. And with picture books there are so many fabulous questions to explore! The example questions I provided above are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the questions I ask during each of those passes. 

Reading picture books has also shown me that there are endless ways to tell a story and challenges me to think outside the box, push for the unique or twist ending, the unexpected in my character.

Finally, reading picture books reminds me that there’s an active listener involved, that I need to always remember the read-aloud factor. I participated in a story time recently and my dad attended. He commented later that he’d read If Your Monster Won’t Go to Bed to himself and enjoyed it, but that it really “came alive” when I read it aloud to the kids, who were engaged and responding. That’s what we want to create as picture book writers—an enjoyable, shared experience!

Were there any particular mentor texts that inspired you in the creation of

Yes! Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin, illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. I fell in love with this book when I first read it and loved how it had the “instructional/informational” angle I was going for in my book.

If you have not yet had a chance to read and research this gem, be sure to check it out as a summer read!  Then, tell us: Which mentor texts are helping you most with your current work in progress?

Denise Vega is the award-winning author of seven books from toddler to teen, including her newest picture book, If YourMonster Won't Go to Bed.  She is on faculty at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop as well as a Young Adult Faculty Mentor for the Regis University Mile High MFA in Creative Writing. She lives in Denver with her family, where she watches out for monsters and eats a lot of French fries and chocolate, but usually not together. Find out more about Denise, her books, and her idiosyncrasies at www.denisevega.com.


  1. Denise, congrats on your newest book. I will be using the questions you shared as I go through my mentor texts now. Thank you for sharing part of your process!

  2. Thank you for this great post, Denise! I love the concept of your mentor text process and can't wait to give it a try. Very concrete and applicable. Congratulations on your new PB--I look forward to reading it!

  3. Great & helpful post,Denise!! Thanks & congrats on the new PB!!

  4. Thanks for sharing! I like the way you break down the writing of a picture book. I enjoy discovering the threads running through a story as well. And the cover of "If Your Monster Won't Go to Bed" is inviting.

    1. Thanks so much. And glad you look for those threads too!

  5. Thanks for the helpful tips on how to use mentor texts. Sometimes I wonder if I'm exploring all that a mentor text has to offer. I'll be using your method from now on.

  6. Thank you, Denise, for this useful post. I'll be trying your method as I look at some books today.

  7. More good reasons to study mentor texts! Thank you! Congratulations on your book!

  8. Thanks for the interview! I love how Denise makes multiple passes through a mentor text so she can concentrate on specific attributes. Gotta check out her "Monster" now.

  9. Thanks so much! It's been such a fun read-aloud.