Were there any particular mentor texts that inspired you in the creation of Hedgehog Needs a Hug (or any other upcoming books)?
Yes! I’d gotten to a point in my manuscript where the basic text on each page was there, but it needed a lot of polishing. My agent told me to work on showing emotion, without telling it. For example, an early draft of the story said “Hedgehog woke up feeling blue.” It later became “When Hedgehog awoke in his cozy nest, he felt down in the snout and droopy in the prickles.” As an author-illustrator I had to find the right balance between showing the emotion in the images and showing it in the text, and I tend to rely too heavily on the images, when sometimes a few additional words can make a big difference.
I looked closely at three books to learn more about emotive writing: Bear Has a Story to Tell, City Dog, Country Frog, and A Visitor for Bear. Each book taught me something different:
Bear Has A Story to Tell written by Phillip Stead and illustrated by Erin SteadHe sat up straight and cleared his throat. He puffed out his chest, and with all of his friends listening… Bear could not remember his story. "It was such a good story," he said, hanging his head. – Bear Has a Story to Tell
Bear Has a Story To Tell uses descriptions of physical posture to signal how the character feels. While some of this can be shown in the illustrations, these descriptions add a layer that might not otherwise come across.
City Dog Country Frog: written by Mo Willems and Illustrated by Jon J. Muth
Country Frog took a deep breath. "I am a tired frog," replied Country Frog. "Maybe we can play remember-ing games." City dog and Country Frog sat together on the rock. – City Dog, Country Frog
The emotive language in this book is so subtle – and it’s a story about death. There were just a few descriptions like, “taking a deep breath,” or “he sighed”. Otherwise it involved word choice of using words like remember, tired, or together to imply the impending separation.
A Visitor for Bear written by Bonny Becker and illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton
Verbs used in this story: Wailed, Roared, Ventured, Commanded, Rumbled, Murmured, Blubbered, Sniffled, Exclaimed, Cried, Agreed. All these words have so much more emotion than simply using “said.”
It is often much easier for me to see a problem in my text than it is for me to know how to fix it. But these mentor texts gave me a handle on techniques I could use to add emotional depth to the manuscript. There is a scene where Hedgehog approaches Turtle to ask for a hug, and Turtle is asleep. In my original manuscript there was no real text, just “Zzzzzzzz”. That became:
“Hedgehog trudged over to Turtle’s sun soaked resting spot. “Turtle?”
“Nevermind,” Hedgehog sighed, and he shuffled away.
What do you feel is the BEST way for picture book writers to utilize mentor texts?
I think there are two ways I approach mentor texts: general and specific, and I think both are beneficial. General: I often pick up picture books I’ve seen online or at random and just read – this helps me 1) be aware of the current market, 2) have a subconscious feel for the type and structure of story that works, and 3) is just fun. Specific: often I have a problem that I’m actively working on – like using emotional language. And so I’ll go hunting for books that showcase that skill, and I’ll study the words in more depth. These books I’ll type out – copy the entire manuscript – because it’s easier for me to concentrate on the words that way. You can’t go wrong immersing yourself in picture books!
Jen Betton loves to draw and write stories for kids! In Kindergarten she got into trouble for drawing presents on a picture of Santa, and has been illustrating ever since. Her picture books include, HEDGEHOG NEEDS A HUG, her debut as an author-illustrator, published with Penguin-Putnam, and TWILIGHT CHANT, written by Holly Thompson, published with Clarion. She lives in Dallas with her family, and you can see more of her work at www.jenbetton.com