Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Reading-Writing Connnection

We spend a lot of time on our blog with one common topic at the heart of our mission: Reading and researching picture books.  But why? Every year, during the challenge month of March, we receive a common question from at least one of our new participants:

"How (or when) will all this reading help my writing?"
While I have my own response, I'm also calling in my partner, Kirsti Call, and our ReFoReMo blog contributors on this one. Let's see if you pick up on a common theme or mention in our quotes:

"For one who writes, a picture book takes you on a journey that goes beyond what the 4-8 year old reader experiences. The child reader is on a journey, experiencing something for the first time or reliving something they already know through the characters. While we bring our own set of experiences to the story, too, our brains are also wired for the inner workings of the book. The craft in each book unfolds before us and we analyze: How did the author build tension? What made me want to turn the page? How did they infuse humor, heart, or themselves into the book? What made me connect? What delighted my tongue? Inquiry takes over and we return to our stories knowing how others masterfully manage words and ideas. We take notes. We learn what works and what doesn't. Then, we write, letting our own passion and ideas lead the way."
-Carrie Charley Brown

"For me, reading informs everything that I do and think and feel. Reading infuses my mind with ideas and images and thoughts. Reading helps me understand what makes a good book. If I think about what I like most about my favorite books, I incorporate those qualities into my manuscripts. The more good books I read, the easier it is to write a good book!"
-Kirsti Call

"When you fill yourself up with reading, the pace, rhythm, humor, voice and heart of the picture book stories seep into your bones. The more you read, the better you write."
-Janie Reinart

"Reading what's new in the market helps writers stay abreast of what's getting published. Keep in mind when subbing to agents and editors, they often ask for comparable titles. Although the books out today were acquired two or three or more years ago, writers pay attention to word count, story structure, and what topics, characters and themes are popular in published work. Is your story strong enough or different enough to compete with all the others?"
-Keila Dawson

What common threads did you notice? We would love to hear your response to the same question! 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Challenge- Write the Ninja Way

By Janie Reinart

A ninja writer is highly skilled. They are silent and strong in mind. A true ninja writer can overcome all obstacles. Have courage ninja writer.

Against all odds and form rejections, a ninja writer must believe in their ability and rebound fast on the keyboard. A ninja writer must master the element of surprise on the mission to be published. I was enlightened and selected my words for this intro by sneaking into this master storyteller's book--NINJA by Arree Chung

By Arree Chung

 A ninja writer is one who endures many years of practicing their art. They exaggerate setting and characters in their story like NINJA BABY by David Zeltser. 

“When Nina was born, the doctor gently thumped her bottom to make sure she was breathing. Nina karate chopped her right back.”

My favorite line is when the parents bring home a baby brother aka Kung Fu Master.
"What's your secret?" she asked him.
He just looked at her. 
It was like listening to the wind in the bamboo. 

By David Zeltser

 Kiya! Get ready for a chance to get empowered not devoured by reading HENSEL AND GRETEL NINJA CHICKS by Corey Rosen Schwartz and Rebecca J. Gomez.
This punny story is a fractured fairy tale. My favorite line:

The fox said, " Surrender?
No way, chicken tender!
Your cheep little threats are absurd!"

From then on the chicks made it their mission to rescue, protect, and defend.

By Corey Rosen Schwartz and Rebecca J. Gomez

Now you are ready ninja writer. Use your mystical powers, follow a strict diet (of chocolate and perhaps wine) and go to work in your dojo.

1. Select a character type or combine two: eg. ninja, ballerina, pirate, baby.
2. Read picture books about your character type.
3. Make a word bank of terms from the picture books you read.
4. Brainstorm story ideas. Don't forget to karate kick in a surprise ending.
5. Play and practice your ninja writing skills.

What obstacles are you overcoming in your writing?  


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Author Lori Alexander Talks Mentor Texts

Lori Alexander writes lovely read-alouds filled with humor. I'm excited to talk with her on ReFoReMo about how she uses mentor texts! 

Do you utilize picture books as mentor texts?  

Thanks for hosting me on the ReFoReMo blog, Kirsti! I have learned about so many wonderful children’s books here. 
I do utilize picture books as mentor texts! I read new PBs for enjoyment first and then I read them many more times to learn how they’re structured. Sometimes I’ll type out the text to get a feel for the words per spread, the pacing, and how the page turns are used to build suspense.

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

I gravitate toward short, funny picture books. Years ago, my daughter’s preschool held a Love of Reading week where parents volunteered as “guest readers.” I chose to share JAKE GOES PEANUTS by Michael Wright. Making a room full of kids laugh is addicting. I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since!

Were there any particular mentor texts that inspired you in the creation of Famously Phoebe (or any other upcoming books)?

In Famously Phoebe, my main character sees herself as a bit of a starlet, what with her family constantly snapping her picture! The text has lots of Hollywood-type language. Phoebe likes to travel “first class” (on daddy’s shoulders) and she feels like a “personal assistant” once her “new co-star” arrives (baby sister). Phoebe swiftly “complains to the producers” (mom and dad, of course!). I wasn’t sure how far I could take the fame concept, so I checked in with other texts that follow a similar pattern of comparing everyday kid experiences to another concept.

THE BOSS BABY by Marla Frazee

Marla Frazee does an amazing job of incorporating workplace themes into her story of a demanding new baby taking over his parents’ lives. “He conducted meetings. Lots and lots and lots of meetings. Many in the middle of the night.” I love the spread with the corporate perks, especially the “executive gym” (bouncer toy) and the “drinks made to order” (bottles of milk). Although some of the jokes might land better with older readers and exhausted parents, there’s still a lot for young ones to get in the adorable illustrations.

KEL GILLIGAN’S DAREDEVIL STUNTSHOW by Michael Buckley; illustrated by Dan Santat

Here, the main character, Kel Gilligan, is compared to a stuntman, making his way through one daring feat after another (using the potty, bathing, getting dressed without help). The artwork is over-the-top fantastic and the reactions of Kel’s captive audience (his family) will make you laugh out loud. I especially love the crowd’s responses to Kel trying broccoli. “This kid has a death wish!” “Is he out of his mind?” After hearing a scary thump in the night and calling out to his mom and dad, Kel learns “some stunts are best left to the professionals.”


One of my all-time favorites—I find this book perfect in many ways! It tells the story of Brian, a hardworking boy who is juggling school, violin lessons, soccer practice, dog walking, babysitting, and more. After eight years of being a kid, he decides to retire. He flies to Florida, to the Happy Sunset Retirement Community. At first, the new setting can’t be beat. He meets interesting people, plays golf, and takes naps. But being retired means listening to hip replacement stories, prune juice smoothies, and accidentally sitting on Ethel’s false teeth. Soon, Brian is remembering “the good old days” and how much he loved his old job—being a kid.

What do you feel is the BEST way for picture book writers to utilize mentor texts?

There are so many ways to use mentor texts, I’m not sure if one is best. Some writers may read them before drafting a new story. Others may wait until they’re stuck on something in particular, and then grab a stack of PBs to examine voice, or opening lines, or point of view, or endings. A few tips: If you are a writer only, it’s helpful to use mentor texts from authors who are not the illustrator. That way, you can see which details the author included and what was left out for the illustrator to capture. Also, if you are seeking an agent/editor, it’s good to know which mentor texts are similar to your story and have those comparison titles ready for your query letter or pitch.

Thank you, Lori!  To read my review of Famously Phoebe, go here

Lori Alexander is the author of BACKHOE JOE (Harper Children’s), FAMOUSLY PHOEBE (Sterling Children's) and the upcoming ALL IN A DROP, a biography of scientist Antony van Leeuwenhoek (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). She lives with her husband and two children under the star-filled skies of Tucson, AZ. You can find out more about Lori on her website at lorialexanderbooks.com or follow her on Twitter at @LoriJAlexander

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Mentor Text Study: Kevin Henkes

As children head back to school, their parents, teachers, and librarians reach for books that will help bring them comfort, explore ways to deal with conflict, and build skills to promote self-esteem. When studying books by author-illustrator Kevin Henkes, you will find wonderful stories that addressed these topics and more through the compelling characters he created.

Children learn from books when they relate to the main characters in them. Henkes' characters wrestle with internal conflict and learn valuable lessons at the end of each story. Teachable moments found in his story resolutions contribute to the emotional development children need. For writers, his stories are great examples of how to develop a character arc.

Character, Arc, & Conflict

Kitten’s First Full Moon, a 2005 Caldecott Medal book, is about a curious and persistent kitten who tries to get what she thinks is a bowl of milk but it’s really a full moon. "Poor Kitten!" is repeated on spreads that show each failed attempt but Kitten persists! Children will cheer for Kitten’s success even though Kitten's goal is impossible. When Kitten climbs to the top of a tree and is frightened, she's motivated to race down the tree to an even larger bowl, but it's the moon’s reflection in a pond. Although things didn’t work out as Kitten had hoped, the warmth of home gave Kitten comfort and a bowl of milk. And at the end of the story the character is transformed into a "Lucky Kitten!"

In Chrysanthemum, Henkes gave his main character an unusual name. Chrysanthemum, her parents say, is a perfect name. And Chrysanthemum loved to hear it, say it, and see it. What she loved most became part of the story conflict. In the beginning, Chrysanthemum was confident and excited. But when she started school, classmates teased, "You're named after a flower!", “Let’s smell her.” And the Chrysanthemum began to doubt her name is perfect. Her heartbreak is evident when She wilted.” How did Henkes help Chrysanthemum blossom again? He introduced a music teacher named Delphinium. In the end, Chrysanthemum learned others have unusual names too. And despite what others say, it’s okay to be different and accept who you are, and "She blushed. She beamed. She bloomed." 

In Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, Lilly loved school, but most of all she loved her teacher Mr. Slinger.At home, Lilly pretended to be Mr. Slinger.” “She drew pictures of Mr. Slinger.” Again, Henkes used what the character loved most as the focus of the story conflict. In the beginning, Lilly was obedient and admiring of her teacher. As the story progressed, Lilly became angry, revengeful, regretful, and finally, remorseful. 

One day Lilly brought her new purple plastic purse to school and didn’t follow Mr. Slinger’s instructions so he took it away from her. “Lilly’s stomach lurched.” As “She thought and she thought and she thought,” Lilly became angrier and angrier about what he did, so she decided to draw an awful picture of Mr. Slinger and slipped it into his book bag. When she found a sweet note and treat from Mr. Slinger after he returned her purse, she immediately regretted what she did and wanted to find a way to make things right again. The illustrations before and after her realization showed the wide range of Lilly’s emotions and character change. In the end she learned a valuable lesson in taking responsibility for her actions and how to make amends.

In Lilly’s Big Day, Henkes showed how Lilly dealt with disappointment when her teacher chose someone else to be the flower girl at his wedding. In the end Lilly does something considerate for the flower girl and saves the day at her teacher’s wedding. 

In Wemberly Worried, Henkes introduced us to a mouse with a long list of worries. In fact, "Wemberly worried about everything. Big things. Little things. And things in between." When it was time for school to start, Wemberly worried even more. 

Through things Wemberly worried about and her reactions, the author captured the personality of the anxious child. “When she was especially worried, Wemberly rubbed Petal’s ears. Wemberly worried if she didn’t stop worrying, Petal would have no ears left at all.” Through humor, Henkes helped Wemberly face her fears,and introduced other supporting characters to show a child in a similar situation that they are not alone. In the end, Wemberly still worried but less so, a character change that is realistic and relatable to children with anxiety.

In character driven books by Kevin Henkes, writers will find excellent examples of how to focus a story around characters using an emotional plotline. Children relate to these stories and memorable characters because they too are learning how to navigate new situations, relationships, and similar internal conflict. 

Find more outstanding books by Kevin Henkes on his website

Happy reading!