Tuesday, December 8, 2020

ReFoReMo's Best Mentor Texts of the Year 2020

Our Reading for Research team is dedicated to learning craft from the best writing and illustrating in the current picture book market. The texts we choose as honorees every year are mentor models in many ways. Picture books published between December 11, 2019- December 7, 2020 were eligible for the awards this year.

Congratulations to the authors, illustrators and publishers chosen for the Reading for Research Best Mentor Texts of 2020!  

Carrie Charley Brown's Honoree


Author: Rita Lorraine Hubbard

Illustrator: Oge Mora

Publisher: Schwartz & Wade, January 7, 2020

The Oldest Student paints the perfect picture book mentor text right from the opening. We are invested in young Mary Walker’s life and well-being as she envisions freedom floating free on the breeze like a swallow. She works hard as a slave from the time she is a child and sets a goal to learn to read once she is free. When a character and goal are built with such strength, page-turns become a natural desire for the reader. Empathy transfers to the reader’s heart making them reflect on their own real-world life experience compared to Mary’s.  

As Mary grows older, we are continually reminded of her desire to read, while also learning the conditions she faces which make it impossible for her to achieve it. The perfect recipe for building tension and heart! Through all of the illustrations, we see continued symbolism of Mary’s unachieved goal: cut-off sentences and partial words hidden in the scenery. Mary refuses to give up her goal and begins learning to read at age 114. The once cut-off words and sentences found in the illustrations change to squiggles at the point of her commitment, and are finally shown as part of Mary’s clothing once she learns to read. She is clothed in her goal! The symbolism is masterful. 

A growth mind-set theme of “You’re never too old to learn” brews successfully under the story. Never once does it overpower the character, heart, or plot. As we trudge through this pandemic, it may feel like we may never return to life as we once knew it. Children going to school, businesses open, personal goals taking flight. Just like Mary, conditions may not be right for us to achieve personal goals. Let’s keep our goals in our hearts as we embrace Mary’s spirit and commitment.

Kirsti Call's Honoree


Author: DJ Corchin

Illustrator: Dan Dougherty

Publisher: Sourcebooks, August 2020

“She had a great idea.  At least she thought she did.  That’s when she got her first “no.” It was heavy. It was hard to carry.  And it kinda hurt.”

This story is about persistence and not letting the word NO keep you from following your dreams.  It’s a great reminder to think outside the box, get constructive criticism, allow others to help, and collect all of your No’s in order to create a YES!

I love how the illustrations in this story provide a visual portrayal of how heavy NOs can feel.  They start out colorless and end up colorful for the very last spread when each and every one of the thousand NO’s creates an enormous YES.

“There were just so many NO’s.  She needed more and more people to help.

But soon, something interesting happened.

She began to get curious about what her idea might end up looking like. In fact, it became fun for  everyone to add more NO’s and see how the idea might change and grow.”

The combination of text and illustrations is a powerful reminder for how we can take negativity and turn it into something positive.

Janie Reinart's Honoree


Author: Julie Fogliano

Illustrator: Jillian Tamaki

Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers March 3, 2020


My Best Friend is all silliness and sweetness. In 362 words, Julie Fogliano reminds us of the pure joy of making a friend. The heart of this book is uplifting and playful. This story captures the giddy “big feelings” of innocent preschoolers who instantly know and love one another, even before they know each other’s name. Just like a preschooler’s writing, the text has little punctuation or capitalization.


“i have a new friend

 and her hair is black

and it shines

and it shines

 and she always laughs at everything”

“she is so smart

and when

i say la la la

she says

la la la”


The preschool voice is whimsical and switches from first to second person seamlessly.


“did you know that when you have

a best friend it is really fun

when you are hiding?”

Before the title page is a close up of the narrator staring at you, the reader. Turn the page  and the narrator is looking at her new best friend. The last illustration is of our narrator looking back to see if you are still watching her. The art and text of this story celebrates best friends.

Keila Dawson's Honoree


Author: Leslea Newman

Illustrator: Susan Gal

Publisher: Charlesbridge, January 28, 2020

In thinking about how terribly divided our country is at the moment makes me think of how the parallel structure works in a book. Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with a Tail focuses on Newman’s religious identity, family, and friendship. Self-identity is important to understanding how we see ourselves fit in a society and how society sees us. The themes of family and friendship are universal to all identities.


A parallel structure tells two different stories, side by side, from different points of view. But the stories intersect at some point. This story uses a parallel sentence structure to compare a boy’s experiences at a Seder and a cat that is outdoors. Parallel illustrations also show contrasting story lines that connect to one another.


Inside, candles glowed.

Outside, stars twinkled.

Inside, the boy drank grape juice.

Outside, the kitten lapped at a puddle.

In the end, it is finding where our stories intersect that resonate with the events of today. Although our experiences are different, it’s important that we focus on our connection as we are all a part of the same country and share the same Earth.

Cindy Shrauben's Honoree


Author: Shannon Anderson

Illustrator: Jake Souva

Publisher: Free Spirit Publishing, August 24, 2020


Now, more than ever, I feel the need to inspire children (and adults for that matter) to believe in themselves. Y IS FOR YET empowers the reader by example. The alphabet structure provides a straightforward framework that is valuable in a number of ways:

      It is very clear-cut -- C is for CHALLENGES -- how is this boy challenging himself?

      It lends itself to prediction strategies -- what growth mindset strategy might come next?

      It helps the reader remember the important points -- A is for Ability, B is for Brain, etc.

“Dd: When you are DETERMINED you are committed to accomplishing something, even if it’s difficult.”


Because this structure does not follow a storyline, the illustrator is able to include a diverse group of characters. It features 26 different children, in 26 different scenarios, succeeding in 26 different ways. This allows more children to envision themselves exhibiting a growth mindset. 

Congratulations again to all of the honorees! As our blog settles into our winter break, consider taking time to reserve these at your local library. It may renew your spirit and fill you with hope, as well as mentor text motivation for the new year. We will return in January, with more mentor text inspiration and the 7th-annual ReFoReMo on the horizon. From our families to yours, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Three Types of Picture Books Editors Really Love

What do editors want? As writers we find this question perplexing. We puzzle over our manuscripts and study mentor texts.  

I read hundreds of fiction picture books every year as a Cybils judge.This reading helps me better understand what editors really want. 

Here are three types of fiction picture books books that are trending in 2020...

1. Diverse
Reading these diverse picture books is an evocative way to learn about different cultures and beliefs. 

2. Social Emotional Books
These social emotional books are especially useful for kindling discussions and process pandemic-induced challenges.  

3. Educational and Issue Driven
These engaging and informative books make curious children want to learn more, and we can all use that now that remote learning is the norm. 

What diverse, social emotional, educational/issue driven books do you love?


Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Mentor Text Talk with Author Beth Anderson

Today's nonfiction picture books are the real deal. The combination of words with vivid illustrations make history relatable and understandable for child readers. The result is engagement with history and people. As an educator, this excites me! Beth Anderson is on a roll with appealing nonfiction picture books. She continues to be selected as a Junior Library Guild author, first with Lizzie Demands a Seat: Lizzie Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights, and now with her newly released Smelly Kelly and His Super Senses: How James Kelly's nose saved the New York City Subway. Congratulations, Beth! 

How do you utilize picture books as mentor texts?  

I log all the PBs I read into a spreadsheet with notes on plot points, key ideas, topics, structure features, and such. That way, I can search the document for mentor texts later for whatever topic or craft element I need. For example: complex topic, breaks 4th wall, 1st person, child narrator, 2 main characters, animal rescue, questions, quotations, sidebars, etc. I also type up the text of PBs I find significant in some way. I mark page turns and note any unique use of illustrations. Then I can print out a copy and highlight different aspects such as transitions, conflict, “heart” threads, turning points, voice, imagery. I can trace how certain elements weave through the story. This is how I learn the most—by analyzing the best. Then, as I write and revise, I examine my own manuscripts similarly. I highlight to see how different parts of the story carry through, connect, build plot, characterization, emotion, and more, looking for gaps, flow, and arcs. When I’ve seen how the craft elements work in a stellar story, I can better identify problems in my own.

Were there any particular mentor texts that inspired you when writing or revising Smelly Kelly?


It was really tough to find mentor texts when writing “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses. I pored over two PBs. Marvelous Cornelius, Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans by Bildner is a book I LOVE about a community worker bringing joy and resilience. Strong Man, the Story of Charles Atlas by McCarthy helped guide structure. I also looked at the plot line of the movie Superman. For Smelly Kelly my largest challenge was how to link together the anecdotes I had and shape them into a meaningful story.

For the story that would become Lizzie Demands a Seat, my January 2020 release, I explored different ways to tell the story. I looked at a lot of civil rights stories, including Boycott Blues, How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation by Pinkney; Lillian’s Right to Vote, a Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by Winter; Leontyne Price, Voice of a Century by Weatherford; Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp Stride by Pinkney; Back of the Bus by Reynolds; Moses, When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Weatherford; and even The Tree in the Courtyard, Looking Through Anne Frank’s Window 
by Gottesfeld. I played with some different narrators for the story and also different structures. Having this rich pile of books to turn to really helped set me free to experiment. You can see from that list, that I was trying to learn from the masters of children’s lit!

Has reading picture books helped you discover anything about yourself as a writer?


Reading a range of PBs has helped me hone in on my own passion and how I might be able to tell the stories I want to tell, as well as allowing me to see where I “fit.” I’ve discovered several mentor authors who set a high bar and push me to reach for it in my own tellings. Sometimes picture books encourage me to trust myself by letting me see that something I tend to do naturally as part of my process is legit! PBs continually reinforce my love for language and word play, as well as my passion for learning in the midst of a great story.

How would you advise other writers hoping to learn from picture books as mentor texts?


I think logging every book you read and recording notes on it (Thank you, Julie Rowan-Zoch, for that tip!) is extremely valuable. Not only do you create a great searchable database, but it also teaches you to analyze and examine PBs as a writer. Also, typing up the entire text creates another great tool. Even as I type it out, I’m noticing things the author is doing—it’s like opening up a treasure box and seeing what’s inside! It’s most definitely worth the time! There are some mentor texts I’ve used at different times for different purposes. And there’s always more to learn from them.

Boyds Mills Kane is giving away of copy of Smelly Kelly! Enter the drawing below. (US only) 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Beth Anderson, a former English as a Second Language teacher, has always marveled at the power of books. Armed with linguistics and reading degrees, a fascination with language, and penchant for untold tales, she strives for accidental learning in the midst of a great story. Beth lives in Loveland, Colorado where she laughs, wonders, thinks, and questions; and hopes to inspire kids to do the same. Author of AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET (S&S 2018), LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT! (Calkins Creek, 2020), and “SMELLY” KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES (Calkins Creek, Oct. 2020), Beth has more historical gems on the way.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

ReFoReMo Mini-Monthly Writing Challenge: Beauty to Feed Your Soul

By Janie Reinart

 “If I had but two loaves of bread, 

                                                         I would sell one and buy hyacinths, 

                            for they would feed my soul.”     ~Mohammad

We need beauty in our lives. I am attracted to the beauty of words and images in a picture book. You’ve 

been there. You read a phrase, stop, and read the words again. Or stare at a picture on the page that makes 

you smile. When that happens, I use these books as mentor texts. I end up purchasing “ books that 

feed my soul".   This post is from several years ago with some new favorites added. Your challenge is to 

write something that feeds your soul.


                   Fred’s Big Feelings: The Life and Legacy of Mister Rogers Read-Aloud by Laura Renauld


                                         MADELINE FINN AND THE THERAPY DOG by Lisa Papp

By Adam Rex

The moon follows a little boy home and stays in his back yard. The pictures glow.

“From Dad’s shoulders, I brushed the moon with my fingertips.”
“Morning had missed us. In darkness, the town awoke...” 
“Hushed they shuffled through slush and dozed off at stoplights.”
“ Then I started a yawn that swayed up the block…and followed me home.”
“The tide came in, smooth and thin, and settled underneath our moon.”

Notice all the soft sounds matching the mood of the story.

                                                                      by Susan VanHecke

In 1861, three escaped slaves made their way to a Union held fort and were granted protection.

“May moon gleams bright as Colonel’s buttons. Three slip out unseen.”
”Weathered skiff bobs in rustling rushes.”
“Oars dip, no sound, silver ripples.  Steal away now, away.”
“Glinting waves slap rotting wood. Whispers, low and shivery.”
“And still they come, in patches and tatters.”
“ Tears rain down and shouts rise up…”

The free verse story uses many poetic devices.

by Emily Jenkins

Three toy friends suit up for the first snowfall.  The most practical toy, Plastic (red rubber ball) changes her outlook to a more poetic viewpoint. The story and pictures are charming and humorous.

“A snowflake is a tiny ballerina, says StingRay.
“No, it’s just really tiny frozen water,” says Plastic. “I read that too.”
A sunset: “It’s strawberry syrup pouring over the world to make it sweet before nightfall,” explains StringRay.
“I’m a strawberry –syrup sun in the snow!” cries Plastic.

The ending is perfect. “And yes, the world is sweet.”

by Doreen Rappaport

This book starts with beauty in the end papers and is filled with quotes from Helen Keller throughout the book. The watercolor pictures match the vibrancy of the words.

When Annie Sullivan pumped water into Helen’s hand and spelled W-A-T-E-R, the quote from Helen is “That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, and set it free.”

“Annie took Helen walking in the forest, jumping in the salty ocean…sailing  in a boat.” Helen’s quote for the page, ”Our little boat swirled in the billows, only to be driven down with angry howl and hiss. Our hearts beat fast.”

The story focuses on what Helen could do.

Here is your challenge.

Start a special notebook to collect beautiful words and phrases.

Add sketches, magazine/catalogue pictures, and photos. 

Identify the type of lyrical language that is used. 

Share with us the beauty of your favorite picture books--books that feed your soul. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

THINK QUICK with Jenna Grodzicki

Hi Jenna!

Your book, WILD STYLE is clever, engaging and informative! I learned so much from reading it! All of the THINK QUICK themes below appear in your book.  Let’s see which way you lean.  Remember, THINK QUICK!

On Wild Style:
The. Best. or a little much? 

The Best!

On Style:
Quirky or classic? 


On accessories:
Hats or jewelry? 


On Fashion:
Important or superfluous? 

Superfluous - except in regards to animals. Their "fashion" is super important! 🙂

On makeup:
Mud or Oil? 

Mud. Who doesn't love a good mud bath?

On animals:
Love them or leave them? 

LOVE them!!!! (obviously!)

On non-fiction:
Engaging and informative or dull? 

Engaging and informative

On animal adaptations:
Intriguing or normal? 


On camouflage:
Helpful or distracting? 


On books:

Wild Style

Thank you Jenna! We're so thrilled you visited us here on ReFoReMo!

Review by Kirsti Call



People wear accessories every day.

But humans aren’t the only ones

with a flair for fashion."

This book is both engaging and informative.  The well written text is paired with colorful photos.  Every single fact is fascinating, as are the accompanying photos!!!  This is such a clever premise is so well executed that kids will want to read and re-read!

Jenna Grodzicki is the author of both fiction and nonfiction picture books. Her titles include FINN FINDS A FRIEND (Clear Fork Publishing), I SEE SEA FOOD: SEA CREATURES THAT LOOK LIKE FOOD (Millbrook Press), WILD STYLE: AMAZING ANIMAL ADORNMENTS (Millbrook Press), and HARMONY HUMBOLT: PERFECT PETS QUEEN (Clear Fork Publishing). She lives on beautiful Cape Cod with her husband and two children. Jenna is represented by Vicki Selvaggio of Storm Literary Agency. Visit her online at www.jennagrodzicki.com.

To order autographed copies of any of Jenna's books, please visit http://www.booksonthecape.com/event-books-for-purchase

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Mentor Text Author Study: Revisiting Deborah Underwood

 by Keila V. Dawson

Since the last mentor text author study of Deborah Underwood’s work in 2017, she’s released many new picture books. It’s always a pleasure to read Underwood’s stories and take a closer look at what makes them work so well. And kids, and adults, find the humor and heart equally engaging.



THE PANDA PROBLEM, illustrated by Hannah Marks (Dial Books, April 2019) is written from the point of view of the unnamed characters Panda and Narrator. The conflict starts early, right on the cover. Under the title, THE PANDA PROBLEM, Panda is hanging out on a bamboo tree and asks through a speech balloon, “What problem?”

On the first spread, Narrator starts the story about a panda who lived in a beautiful bamboo grove but had a BIG problem. But Panda insists he does not. And Narrator insists the main character in a story must have a problem! And chaos ensues.


“I don’t know. Looks like you’re the one with a problem, buddy.”

Panda speaks through speech bubbles, and Narrator’s words are on the page in typical text which lends to read aloud fun using two distinct voices. Besides the fun dialogue, Underwood uses onomatopoeia. 

  “BRAAAAP!” (Panda’s burp)

Although Narrator offers different problems a main character could have, Panda remains resistant to those ideas. Underwood introduces other characters and settings and problems and strays far away, (literally) from the original storyline.  And the story continues on the back cover where the cantankerous Panda sits in his bamboo tree, crayon in hand, and draws a line through NO PROBLEM, NO STORY presumably written by Narrator.  Then writes NO STORY, NO PROBLEM!

What a fun story to teach a young audience about how to create a story. Or how not to?




In OGILVY, illustrated by T. L. McBeth (Henry Holt and Co., May 2019), a gender bending bunny moves to a new neighborhood and challenges rules that dictate who can do what based on the clothes they wear. Bunnies wearing sweaters make art and climb rocks. Bunnies wearing dresses, play ball and knit socks. But it’s hard to tell who is wearing a sweater and who is wearing a dress! So, the clothing is identified by Ogilvy depending on what the bunny wants to do.

Written in rhyming text, this engaging story will spark a lot of discussion around topics of gender stereotypes, acceptance, and inclusiveness.

A bunny bounced over, “What is that you’re wearing?”

Ogilvy paused and looked down at the clothes.

But is it a sweater or is it a dress?

“It matters?” asked Oglivy.

“Goodness! Oh, yes!”


EVERY LITTLE LETTER illustrated by Joy Hwang Ruiz (Dial Books, August 2020) is another story with a powerful message. In this allegory tale, Underwood uses letters as characters to tell the story. Big letters build walls to keep their community separated from other letters. A curious little letter h finds an opening and together with a small letter i from the other side build the word, “hi”. When the hole is discovered, Big letter H patches it up and the other big letters foil other ways the little letters try to connect with other letters. But little h finds a way to make friends and words. And the messages the little letters create tear down the figurative and physical wall that divides all.

The H’s felt safe behind their walls.

They knew other letters lurked outside.

Different letters.

This story helps children understand walls are divisive and limiting. But when combining communities and different groups, there’s a lot that can be accomplished, together.




OUTSIDE IN illustrated by Cindy Derby (HMH Books for Young Readers, April 2020) is filled with heart. Although this book was written long before the COVID-19 pandemic, and its heartfelt message is universal, current events make it more relevant. The lyrical writing is the perfect structure for a story that reminds us how connected we are to the outside, even when inside. And now that children and adults have all had outside time limited, Underwood's words resonate even more today.

I’m here,

Outside says.

I miss you.

Outside waits…

The illustrations beautifully complement the sparse text. Throughout the book, Underwood taps into our senses, reminding us of the smells, sights, sounds, taste and feel of outside.

Outside sings to us

with chirps

and rustles

and tap-taps on the roof.


Outside cuddles us

in clothes,

once puffs of cotton.


There are many reasons to study books by Deborah Underwood. Her ability to find the right voice, or theme, or heart are only a few. 

Other recent releases from Underwood include: