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.


  1. I put it on my list to read. Congrats! I think kids will love to find out where their crayons came from! BTW, I also took Kristen's class.

    1. Thanks, Tina, nice to connect with you and thanks for adding my book to your reading list. I hope you enjoy it!

  2. Great post! I can't imagine any child (or adult) who wouldn't want to read about the birth of crayons! Congratulations!

  3. Great post! I love reading the non-fiction biographies out today and totally agree that I would have enjoyed history as an elementary school student much more if I had had these books! Keep writing them folks!

    1. Thanks, Kelly. And I hope teachers will keep using them, too! Kids need this to spark their interest in history.

  4. I absolutely love the sound of this book! I've also had an idea for a non-fiction book spinning around for ages, no idea where to start - you've inspired me now. Thank you.

  5. I can't wait to read this. Who wouldnt?! We all love crayons! Great idea. Great interview.