Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Mentor Text Talk with Author Marcie Flinchum Atkins

Marcie Flinchum Atkins is not new to our ReFoReMo blog or the kidlit community. Not only has she been a resident educator for the ReFoReMo challenge since its inception, she muses about with mentor texts on her own blog for writers, as a teacher-librarian, and as a permanent part of her own writing process. We consider Marcie to be among the top mentor text experts for picture book writing and are excited about the release of her newest nonfiction picture book, Wait Rest Pause: Dormancy in Nature. We are very lucky to learn from her again today!  

How do you utilize picture books as mentor texts?

I spend a lot of time reading picture books. I read widely. When I find books that have that special something, I study them a little bit deeper.

I type up the text. This helps me see the text without the illustrations and really helps me see it as a manuscript.

I create spreadsheets. If I want to study historical fiction texts, for example, I’ll make a long list of books and order them from the public library. I make a list of things I want to look at in each book. Then I study them one by one and enter the different components on a Google Sheet. I wrote about this process in this blog post

I try techniques out. If I find a particularly effective opening or ending or bit of description, I’ll try it out with my story or my information. Sometimes it helps lead me in a new direction.

Did any particular mentor texts inspire you in the creation of Wait Rest Pause?

Yes! When I look back on the timeline of Wait, Rest, Pause: Dormancy in Nature, I wrote the first draft in the spring of 2015. During that same time, I wrote this post about books that I’d used with my students and that inspired me to try my hand at second person POV.

Recently, I found this note where I first jotted down the idea for my book and sample lines.

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

I’ve always been a reader. I also realized from a very young age that I wanted to be a writer. The thing I love best about reading is that it always pushes me to be a better writer. If I’m experiencing writer’s block, I read. Reading stacks and stacks of picture books (or poetry or longer forms of fiction and nonfiction) fills my well. Then I can find my way to the words again. 

What do you feel is the best way for PB writers to utilize mentor texts?

I think picture book writers should be reading a LOT--hundreds of picture books a year. It’s hard to write picture books if you only read really old books or very few books. It’s important to read a lot. As you read, you’ll start to sift. What books are not for you? Put those aside. What books do you really connect with? Those are the ones that you will want to study using some of the above techniques.

It’s also really worthwhile to just look for one targeted thing. Get a stack of picture books and study only the first lines. Or analyze only the endings. Write out the plots of various books. Focus on word choice. With each stack you bring home from the library, really take notice of one particular thing.

I also recommend keeping notes for potential comp titles. In my stack of 25 books per week, I might find a book or two that could work as a comp title for a manuscript I’m working on. I make a note of it in my files. Not just the title, but the author, the publishing house, the publication year, and the editor (if I can find it). These notes will be useful when putting a list of comp titles together at submission.

As a classroom teacher, I spent a lot of time breaking down mentor texts with young writers. I use them with teen writers at writing camp. But I practice what I preach. Studying the work of other writers means that you have the ultimate teachers right at your local library. Make use of their expertise.

Marcie Flinchum Atkins is a teacher-librarian by day and a children’s book writer in the wee hours of the morning. She holds an M.A. and M.F.A. in Children’s Literature from Hollins University. 

Her newest book, Wait, Rest, Pause: Dormancy in Nature released on September 3 with Millbrook Press. (To order a signed copy, visit Marcie’s local indie bookstore One More Page Books.) 

 Marcie muses about mentor texts and making time to write at www.marcieatkins.com. You can follow her on Twitter @MarcieFAtkins and read about her #writerlife on Instagram @marciefatkins


  1. Marcie - you've inspired me to begin a "first lines" notebook for research. Can't wait to see where that may lead! Congrats on your fabulous book.

  2. Marcie, this is such a helpful post! I typed out the text of several similar picture books for a picture book biography I've written, and it was oh so helpful. I love your idea of note keeping for future use, too. Thanks so much & congratulations on your latest!

    1. Yes! I had to type out texts for a class I took in grad school. I never gave up the practice since it's so helpful!

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful info, Marcie! Sometimes I find that it takes so long to write a story that comp titles "age out" (meaning they're more than 5 years old) before I start querying the book. I guess I need to write faster, LOL.

  4. First lines--love that idea! Congrats on this fantastic book, Marcie!

  5. Thank you. This is just what I needed to read today. I really like the idea about checking out first lines in lots of different books. My problem here in the UK is that there are still far, far fewer narrative nonfiction books here than in the US so I can't just get them out of the library but have to search them out online and then take a gamble and order them from the States.
    Thank you and good luck with your new book, Clare x

    1. Oh yeah, that's tough. I grew up in Asian (pre-Internet) and though I wasn't a writer then, I was a book scavenger--trying to find books wherever I could. :)

  6. Thanks for sharing your tips on studying mentor texts, Marcie. I have WAIT, REST, PAUSE on my library holds list and am looking forward to exploring it.