Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Mentor Text Talk with Natascha Biebow

I have often said that if the nonfiction picture books of today were available when I was a kid, I would have experienced a deeper interest in history. Instead, I remember the doldrum practices of memorizing history dates and names. Then, test and repeat. Snooze. It didn't mean anything to me. But add in illustration and tell it like a story... voila! History and people come to life in the here-and-now of nonfiction picture books. 

Have you ever wondered how crayons were invented? Kids love crayons, so it's a natural subject to spark research interest. The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons was born this past March. As you can imagine, most of the pages are full of color! But Edwin Binney's inventions did not start with color. Readers will marvel at the contrast from his first idea to successful Crayola crayons, and be inspired to carry on when at first they don't succeed. Making the reader feel like the inventor, Natascha Biebow's words sing with the poetry of repetition and deep point of view. Steven Salerno's illustrations capture the time period beautifully and color our world from soot to sunglow. Back matter contains actual photographs from the Crayola factory that will surely spark research. Capturing the essence of inquiry perfectly, this book will be a staple in my classroom in future years as we explore innovation and teamwork.

With such a well-written, engaging text, I was curious to hear more about Natascha's mentor text influences. She's here with us today!

C: Hi Natascha! Do you utilize picture books as mentor texts?

N: Yes! As well as an author, I am a picture book editor, coach and mentor, so I read lots of picture books all the time and use them to gain inspiration and study craft. In my blogs about picture book craft, I love unpicking exactly how authors and illustrators create fantastic and original stories that really grip young readers. I also used mentor texts to explore the craft of writing in a new genre ­– the non-fiction picture book biography – which was pivotal in creating my new book, THE CRAYON MAN: THE TRUE STORY OF THE INVENTION OF CRAYOLA CRAYONS.

C: The last ten years has produced a plethora of picture book biographies and I love them. How has reading picture books helped you discover who you are as a writer?

N: Picture books are so hard to write because they are concise. The words and pictures need to be perfectly balanced. What to leave out is almost as hard to get right as what to put in. Studying a picture book is the ideal way to become immersed in iconic story structure – motivation, characterization, stakes, beginnings that hook in readers, endings that come full-circle to openings, voice – everything that must be perfectly tailored and child-centered to really work.

When you read a picture book aloud, you hear its unique rhythm. When you examine the words and pictures together, you see synergy. When you type out well-known picture books, you internalize some of their wonder.  Studying how talented creators break the mold gives me impetus for finding my unique picture book voice.  

C: I couldn't agree with you more! Were there any particular mentor texts that inspired you in the creation of The Crayon Man? 

N: When I began writing THE CRAYON MAN, I was taking an online course run by wonderful mentor Kristen Fulton, who inspired us to read books in the genre in which we wanted to create and to find ones that echoed our theme. Here are some mentor texts that I read and studied:

AMELIA AND ELEANOR GO FOR A RIDE by Pam Munoz Rhyan and Brian Selznick

MERMAID QUEEN by Shana Corey and Edwin Fotheringham

SNOWFLAKE BENTLEY by Jacequeline Briggs Martin and Mary Azarian

THE IRIDESCENCE OF BIRDS by Patricia MacLachlan and Hadley Hooper

ON A BEAM OF LIGHT by Jennifer Berne and Vladimir Radunksy

Each of these has something I admired as I sought to find the right voice to tell the story of Edwin Binney, the man who loved color, who had a knack for listening and making what people needed ­­– the Crayola crayons.

 Natascha Biebow’s favorite crayon color is periwinkle blue because it makes her heart sing.  She loves to draw and make stuff, just like the inventor of the Crayola crayons. She lives in London, England, where she writes, edits, coaches and mentors children’s book authors and illustrators at Blue Elephant Storyshaping, and is the long-time Regional Advisor of SCBWI British Isles. In 2018, she was awarded an MBE for her services to children's writers and illustrators. You can connect with her on Facebook and Linked In.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

How Does Your Garden Grow?-Monthly Challenge

By Janie Reinart

Mary, Mary, quite contrary
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockleshells
And pretty maids all in a row.
                                                                     ~Mother Goose

How does your garden grow? Have you ever tried growing other things besides vegetables and flowers? Maybe balloons?

By Jerdine Nolen
What if you planted other things besides seeds? What would happen if you planted jelly beans? If you haven't guessed by now, your challenge is to write a story about planting a garden.

Or perhaps you can grow happy. Or sad. 

By Jon Lasser
Using positive psychology and choice theory, this book shows children that they have the tools to nurture their own happiness and live resiliently.

"My name is Kiko.
I'm a gardener.
I grow happy.
Let me show you how."

By Kate Messner
Up in the garden, the world is full of green. But down in the dirt exists a busy world—earthworms dig, snakes hunt, skunks burrow—populated by all the animals that make a garden their home.

"Up in the garden I stand and plan--my hands full of seeds and my head full of dreams."

Maybe you can plant a rainbow.

By Lois Ehlert

Lois Ehlert's bold collage illustrations include six pages of staggered width, presenting all the flowers of each color of the rainbow.

"Every year mom and I plant a rainbow. In the fall we buy some bulbs and plant them in the ground."

By Kathryn O. Galbraith
Go a little wild! This book explores the many ways seeds are distributed.

"The farmer and her boy plant their garden... In the wild meadow garden, many seeds are planted too, but not by farmers hands. Oooooo--whishhh! The wind scatters seeds. It spills them and spins them. And sweeps them up, up into sunlight and out across the field."

Share your favorite garden books with us in the comments. What will you be planting in your story garden?

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

THINK QUICK with Author Kim Chaffee

Hi Kim!  Congrats on your new picture book, HER FEARLESS RUN and your Kirkus starred review!   You've done such an incredible job of portraying Katherine Switzer's persistence and passion for running in a powerful, moving and inspiring way.  All of the THINK QUICK themes below appear in your book.  Let’s see which way you lean.  Remember, THINK QUICK!

On running:
Magical or therapeutic? Im going to cheat on the first question! Ha! I am going to say running is magically therapeutic :) It heals hearts and minds and builds warriors that will conquer the world!

On the Boston Marathon:
Daunting or Exciting? Exciting! The crowds, the other runners, the history of that race! Its 26.2 miles of thrill!

On Kathrine Switzer:
Fearless or Persistent? Fearless! Fearless! Fearless!

On women's abilities:
Limitless or limited? Limitless! We are all capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for. We can do hard things!

On dreams:
Impossible or necessary? Definitely necessary! But they cant stay dreams. You need to turn your dreams into goals so you can create an action plan to achieve them!

On following the rules:
Always or rarely? I always been a rule follower. Kinda boring, I know. But clearly there are rules that are meant to be broken!

On mentors:
Runner or Writer? Yes! Wait, did I just cheat again?

On bravery:
Fearless or Fearful? I think in order to be brave one needs to feel fear first so Im going to go with fearful”for this one.

On books:
Her Fearless Run or Her Fearless Run? :) I hope I dont get this one wrong! Her Fearless Run!

Kim Chaffee once held the Guinness World Record for the largest game of pick-up sticks ever played. (It’s true! Check out pg. 111 of the 2005 edition) She is a former second-grade teacher who loves coffee, chocolate, and writing picture books that kids will want to read again and again.  Her debut picture book, Her Fearless Run: Kathrine Switzer’s Historic Boston Marathon, was inspired by her own journey with running.  Kim is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire and now lives not too far from there with her husband, two kids, and two cats. Find her online at www.KimChaffee.com or on Twitter at @kim_chaffee.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Mentor Text Author Study: Lesléa Newman

Author Lesléa Newman is a poet, an author, a mentor, and an activist. The byline on her website, CHANGING THE WORLD, ONE BOOK AT A TIME sums up her goal of creating books that explore the themes of respect, celebration, and acceptance. A goal Newman is achieving given she's authored over 70 books for children and adults. Many of her books include themes that explore her gay and Jewish identities. She’s won multiple literary awards and received the 2018 Matthew Shepard Foundation Making a Difference Award for her writing and work in the LGBTQ community.



Newman is well known for writing Heather Has Two Mommies, Laura Cornell (Illustrator). Originally written in 1988, the story features a family with two female parents. The book was updated in 2015. Like many other stories about families, this one is about a child, Heather, who enjoys doing fun things with the parents she loves. When a classmate inquires about Heather's daddy, her teacher asks the class to draw pictures of their individual families. Newman’s message is one all children should hear to show pride in their families whether they have two mommies, two daddies, only one parent, or raised by other family members.

“Each family is special. The most important thing about a family is that all the people in it love each other.”

In Sparkle Boy, Maria Mola (Illustrator), multiple layers appear in this one story. Newman addresses sibling dynamics, bullying, societal gender stereotypes, self-expression, and acceptance. In each spread are realistic examples of both positive and negative ways in which children interact with one another. However, the takeaway of the story inspires children to treat one another with respect. In the scene below, Casey’s big sister Jessie is finally able to come to his defense.

“Because boys don’t wear skirts and bracelets and nail polish. “Everybody knows that,” said the boy. “Right?” he asked, turning to Jessie.
“Why can’t boys wear skirts and bracelets and nail polish? Jessie asked the boys.


Newman celebrates her Jewish heritage in many of her books. In A Sweet Passover, David Slonim (Illustrator), children learn about the Jewish holiday of Passover. A young girl, Miriam, participates in her family tradition and learns exactly how much matzah, matzah, matzah they eat during Passover. Although this is a funny fictional story, the text also adds a layer of educational information.

“She joyfully sang the Four Questions in Hebrew, and then listened as Grandpa read the answers from the Haggadah and told the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt in his deep, booming voice.”

Children will laugh out loud and certainly remember the Two Maccabees in The Eight Nights of Chanukah Elivia Savadier (Illustrator). Written in rhyme, this story is fun to read aloud or sing!


Perennially popular topics make great board books for very young children; however authors need a good hook to make them competitive in the market. Newman’s rhyme in A Kiss on the Keppie, Kris Wiltse (Illustrator), is a fun read aloud and invites the reader to interact with their very young audience. Jewish families will appreciate Yiddish terms such as "keppie" (head) "bubbe" (grandmother) and "zayde" (grandfather).
Where Is Bear? Valeri Gorbachev (Illustrator), is a rhyming hide-and-seek story. Along with other animal characters, young children engage in the quest to find the missing bear. It’s funny to think the largest character in the story is the hardest to find. And don’t miss the frog on the cover!

“Now all are found except for Bear,
No one sees him anywhere.

Beetle asks, “Where can he be?”
We’ve got to find Bear instantly!”


Newman weaved two events from her family history to write Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story, Amy June Bates (Illustrator). The story is an emotional account of an immigrant child who must travel to the United States alone when her mother is denied entrance to the ship due to an eye infection. Newman handles Jews’ immigration to America truthfully and in each scene, readers can feel Gittel’s hope or loneliness or fear.  Information about Jewish immigration, the real Gittel and Newman's own family stories are included in the backmatter.  

“Home is not safe for us,” Mama tells her tearful daughter. “You are going to America to have a better life.” 

Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed, Amy June Bates (Illustrator), about the Jewish composer Morrie Moshe Cotel, is also fiction but based on a true story. What makes this story appealing to kids is Newman’s focus on how Cotel enters a contest using a composition written by his kitten!

     “Little ketzel!” Moshe cried. He often used Yiddish words when he was nervous or excited. “Come, little Ketzel,” he said, scooping up the bland-and-white kittle. “I will take you home, and we will make beautiful music together.”
     “The next morning, Moshe moved a stack of music books off the top of the piano and set Ketzel down. “You must listen outside yourself and inside yourself,” he instructed as he began to play.

Don’t miss other picture books for young children written by Lesléa Newman:

Writers should study books by Lesléa Newman because they are filled with great examples of rhyme, humor, and heart. But as important are the themes she explores and the positive messages she delivers to her young audience. Through her work, Newman is indeed changing the world, one book at a time. 


Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with a Tail Susan Gal, (Illustrator)