Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Grateful for Master Mentors

Although any month is a great month to be grateful, November gives us an extra excuse to pause and reflect. The ReFoReMo mission revolves around learning from picture books as mentor texts. One meager story can model a long list of writing elements and literary devices. Of course, we can learn from great examples, and if we have studied our craft enough, we can learn from the not-so-good, too. Reading mentor texts can definitely help us know the difference. I am eternally grateful for the learning opportunity that each picture book offers.  

Let’s not forget that we aren’t learning from the story alone. Every story has an author and illustrator behind it and some creatives consistently present stellar models. Through these Master Mentors, a thorough examination of their entire body of work is warranted.  

For that very reason, we began writing dedicated author studies after the first annual ReFoReMo challenge in 2015. That tradition continues here on our new blog. If you have not yet had the chance to thoroughly study these masters, consider a dedicated study of one or more of the following:

Each link above will lead you to at least 101 reasons why you should study mentor texts. 
There’s a lot to learn! Enjoy, and thank YOU for being part of our dedicated study community!

Which of your master mentors is not on our list?

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Turnip, a Pumpkin, and a Squash Monthly Challenge

By Janie Reinart

Embed from Getty Images

It's the time for harvest and what better way to celebrate than use that abundance as a writing challenge. Have you every written a veggie tale? Now's your chance.

Jan Brett brings an original twist to a favorite folktale.

"Badger Girl was weeding the vegetable patch when she saw something strange growing in the garden. It was the biggest turnip she had ever seen. "

     "Turnip soup, turnip pie,"Badger Girl said, "How delicious."

"One autumn morning, the air turned chilly. It was time to pick the vegetables and pull the giant turnip. But when Badger Girl got to the giant turnip, she could not pull it up."

This sweet story by Pat Zietlow Miller even has a sequel, Sophie's Squash Go to School.
On a trip to the farmers' market with her parents, Sophie chooses a squash, but instead of letting her mom cook it, she names it.

"One bright fall day, Sophie chose a squash at the farmers' market. Her parents planned to serve it for supper, but Sophie had other ideas."

"It was just the right size to hold in her arms. Just the right size to bounce on her knee. Just the right size to love."
     " I'm glad we met," Sophie whispered.
     "Good friends are hard to find."

My triplet grandchildren loved the story.

Pumpkin Circle: The Story of a Garden by George Levenson is told with photographs. The National Science Teachers Association and the Children's Book Council selected the publication as an Outstanding Science Trade Book for Children in 2000.

Take a trip to the farmers' market or the grocery store. See if you meet a vegetable that inspires a story.

Let us know your favorite stories about vegetables. What veggie are you going to write about?

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

THINK QUICK with Author Caron Levis

Hi Caron!  I love how your book, Ida Always,  infuses hope while gently touching on loss of a loved one. Thanks for visiting ReFoReMo! 

Let's see which way you lean. Remember, THINK QUICK!

This is already a challenge. I am tortoise paced at heart.

On Animals:
Sea Lions or Bears?  

BEARS! (though, um, I maaaay have chosen the Sea Lion to study and perform for the traditional animal exercise at The Moscow Art Theatre during college. SO grateful back then we didn’t video everything.)

On Bears:
Teddy bears or Polar bears? 


On Zoos:
Love them or leave them?

The short answer: I have loved them and believe now it’s time we leave them.

While I have loved the opportunities, zoos have given me to observe animals, even as a child the experience was accompanied by a sadness, concern, and shame for participating in the captivity of another being. Providing people the opportunity to meet wildlife is important and there are amazing zookeepers who absolutely enhance the lives of animals in their care. However, I think that our humanity, technology, and knowledge of animals has advanced enough that zoos can give way to something that fosters a different relationship between all species of life. Perhaps zoos can be replaced with more sanctuaries that protect, heal, release, reintroduce wildlife with appropriate public access to allow humans to learn and bear witness to the wonder of animals and our impact on their world. Perhaps we could have more transparency and regular access to farms and slaughter houses so that we can make informed and mindful choices in how we use animals to enhance our own lives. I struggled with the role of zoos as I wrote Ida, Always and my hope is that the book honors the lives they were able to create within their circumstances, what they gave us, the keepers who cared for, and all who were touched and inspired by them.

On Cities:
Chicago or New York?

NYC born, raised, still here and the inspiration for my next book Stop That Yawn! with LeUyen Pham.

On City sounds:
Taxi's honking or children's laughs?  
Laugh, kiddos laugh!

On Friends:
A few good ones or The more the merrier?
Shortest answer: Friendships are wonderfully complex, always.
Add-on: I have often marveled at how the universe has gifted me the right friend at the right time. Sometimes this person is an oldie-goody while other times it’s someone who I’d never have met if I wasn’t more-merrying. I just read Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham and while it’s written for kiddos, it was the most wonderful right book at the right time for me now, too.

On Balls:
Yellow or Red? 

Yellow, always.

On Playing:
Splashing in water or chasing and racing? 


On bibliotherapeutic books?
Important or Essential?  

Essential and oh, I have so many thoughts on the word and the concept…(steps away from the computer.)  

On Books?
Ida Always or Ida Always?  

You and so many other readers have been so kind to embrace Gus and Ida. Charles Santoso and I are grateful, always.

Thank you, Caron!  

Review by Kirsti Call

Wow!  Ida, Always, by Caron Levis, is lyrical and lovely. It touches on death in a peaceful and hopeful way. This would be a great book for evoking discussion of death and friendship. The illustrations add depth and power to the well chosen words. The bond between Ida and Gus is unmistakable and there's an emotional resonance to this story that stays with you long after you've read it. I highly recommend this book!

Caron Levis is the author of the picture books, May I Have A Word?, Stuck with the Blooz, and Ida, Alwayswhich the New York Times Book Review calls, "an example of children's books at their best." Forthcoming titles include Stop That Yawn! (Atheneum, 2018) and  (Abrams 2019)  Caron is an adjunct professor and the coordinator for The New School's Writing for Children/YA MFA program, where she earned her degree. She has an LMSW from Hunter College; after many years as an arts educator, Caron now loves using acting and writing to teach social, emotional, and literacy skills to students of all ages through her author workshops. Having trained in acting and dabbled in playwriting, Caron enjoys turning theatre techniques into writing tools through her workshop Act-Like-A-Writer. Visit her at www.caronlevis.com.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Mentor Text Study: Barbara Rosenstock

Why do you write children’s books? It’s pretty clear Barbara Rosenstock does because she loves history and people. Two perfect interests for someone who writes picture book biographies. Whether writing about historical figures from the past or modern figures from more recent times, Rosenstock brings the stories of her characters to life for her young audience through her writing. She’s a multiple award winning author. Her book, The Noisy Paint Box, with illustrator Mary GrandPr√©, is a 2015 Caldecott Honor book.

Narrative Nonfiction vs. Historical Fiction

Narrative nonfiction uses a classic plot structure and storytelling techniques - a beginning, middle and end; a story arc, scenes, dialogue - all based on accurate, verifiable evidence. It is possible to use creative storytelling to tell a true story.

Historical fiction uses the author’s imagination to invent or reinvent characters, scenes and dialogue to tell a fictional story based on real people, a true event or time period.

In Fearless: The Story of Racing Legend Louise Smith, Rosenstock brings to readers a little known part of American race car history, the story of the first competitive female race car driver. Rev up your engines! This story is action packed and inspirational for free spirited, daring girls who follow their dreams.

The Noisy Paint Box is the story of the Russian abstract artist Vasya Kandinsky. The events are true, but the dialogue is imagined by the author. It paints a story with words that speak to our senses.

The Heartbeat of a Story

In addition to the bones of a story – a beginning, middle, and end – a picture book biography must also have a heartbeat. The story is, after all, about a person. And it’s important for the biographer to know how a young audience will connect to their subject’s life, experiences and or achievements to the larger human condition. The answer to this question is vital: Why does this person’s contribution to the world matter? Rosenstock's books are great examples to show how she focused her writing to do just that. For example:

In 1814 the British burned the Washington D.C. capitol and Thomas Jefferson’s books from his personal library rebuilt the Library of Congress.

“Thomas Jefferson learned to read. And then, he never stopped.” - Thomas Jefferson Builds A Library 

President Teddy Roosevelt left Washington D. C. to go camping in Yosemite with California naturalist John Muir. That trip inspired the campaign to protect and preserve the nation’s wilderness through the establishment of our National Parks.  

“Teedie and Johnnie didn’t have much in common – but they shared a love of the outdoors. They both loved a good story, too. And that was enough to change America.”- The Camping Trip That Changed America 

In one interview, Rosenstock talks about the struggle to find the focus of her story about Dorothea Lange. Although she felt Dorothea was an interesting character, she couldn’t find the hook for kids. Then she listened to an interview where Lange talked about ‘seeing’ and it clicked.

Rosenstock realized the focus should be about  "...an unseen little girl who observes the world and using a camera, creates art with her eyes and heart. Will there ever be another Dorothea Lange? No. But are there children on the planet today whose unique way of seeing could someday create art that helps others? Yes. Yes. Yes.” - Barbara Rosenstock

“Dorothea opens her grey-green eyes. They are special eyes. They see what others miss…” - Dorothea’s Eyes 

See Barbara Rosenstock’ s YouTube Channel book trailers for more about how she hooks readers so they long to learn more about the people she writes about.


Picture book biographies are typically written as birth to death stories or are focused on a key event in the subject’s life.

In Vincent Can’t Sleep, Rosenstock used lyrical language and imagery, to tell the life story of Vincent Van Gogh and his insomnia to show how he created his art.

Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention is the fictionalized story of a young Benjamin Franklin. His curiosity about why fish swim better than humans led to Ben's first invention, fins. That experience inspired a lifelong passion in Franklin. 

Back Matter

Back matter differs from book to book and adds in-depth historically and or culturally relevant context to a story. It allows writers to include interesting information important to a person’s life that doesn’t fit in the narrative arc of a 32 or 40 page book.

The extensive back matter in Streak: How Joe DiMaggioBecame America’s Hero, takes up all 4 pages on 2 spreads. It includes an author’s note, statistics, source notes for quotations, newspaper headlines, a bibliography, articles, websites, and additional sources and acknowledgments. The amount of information provided is a testament to the exhaustive research Rosenstock conducted to write this story.

Rosenstock found the inspiration for her books when reading an obituary in the dentist office, on a research trip for another book idea, and from one line in a book about the Bible. In her SCBWI artist statement she wrote, By writing and presenting on true events, historical people and reverberations through history, I hope to give children and their parents or teachers a sense of their importance to the world’s story as well as to inspire the future. History is important. Our individual stories make up history.

Barbara Rosenstock's books are a must read for anyone interested in writing a picture book biography.

Author's note: More about Barb

! She was born on April Fools’ Day.
! As a child she felt 2 was a soft, baby number, 4 was insanely organized   
     and 6 was just plain mean and nasty.
! She’s published with Mary GrandPr√©, illustrator of the Harry Potter books.
! She likes animals, has two poodles and hundreds of poodle figurines.
! Her favorite dessert is vanilla bean ice cream with fresh strawberries
! She worked in advertising and education before becoming a writer. 

Happy reading research!