Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Mentor Text Author Study: Revisiting Kevin Henkes

Kevin Henkes is the winner of the 2020 Children’s Literature Legacy Award that honors an author or illustrator published in the United States, whose books have made a significant and lasting contribution to literature for children. A few years ago, I wrote a mentor text author study featuring his books. Today I’ll look at a few picture books published since then.

His picture book series, When Spring Comes, In the Middle of Fall, Winter Is Here and Summer Song, illustrated by Laura Dronzek, introduces the seasons to a very young audience. In each book children explore and the outdoors and experience what each season brings through text and pictures.

Henkes invites kids to observe their surroundings. The sparse poetic text is filled with imagery, repetition, and alliteration. 

Before the Spring comes,

The trees look like black sticks against the sky.

…the sky is mostly gray

and the air is chilly,

…and the apples are like ornaments…


 Winter is here

  It’s everywhere.

  It’s falling from the sky.

If you slow down and think about it, you can feel the Summer Song.

It’s warm

and then hot

and then hotter.


Picture books by Henkes are stellar examples of how to capture wonder in words for a young audience.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Mentor Text Talk with Carrie Finison

Through the many years that I have known and interacted online with Carrie Finison, she has always had a helpful, knowledgeable spirit. I am excited to learn more from her and feature her debut picture book, Dozens of Doughnuts, which released on July 21. I was lucky to read and critique early versions of this story, once in 2015 and then again in 2017. Notice the two year gap between critiques? There's proof in the pudding for ya! Patience and persistence pay off on the road to publication. We are lucky to catch a few wisdom doughnuts from Carrie today. 

How do you utilize picture books as mentor texts?

I use picture books for both inspiration and guidance. Books by authors like Ame Dykman and Jesse Sima inspire me to push my plots and come up with surprising endings. Books by authors like Diana Murray, Kim Norman, and Karma Wilson challenge me to hone my rhyming skills. Books by authors like Laura Gehl, Beth Ferry, and Marcie Colleen delight me with their wordplay and make me think, “I wish I could write like that.” They give me something to strive for.

Were there any particular mentor texts that inspired you in the creation of DOZENS OF DOUGHNUTS?

I looked at MANY books while writing DOZENS OF DOUGHNUTS. The two that stand out in my mind are BEAR SNORES ON by Karma Wilson and A VISITOR FOR BEAR by Bonny Becker. Both of these books are about bears who have unexpected – and perhaps somewhat unwelcome – visitors, and both solve the problem in a sweet way that reinforces the connections between the characters, as I wanted to do with the ending of my book. As I was writing DOZENS OF DOUGHNUTS, I especially pictured in my mind the illustrations from BEAR SNORES ON, which is also about a bear and a passel of woodland animal friends. I hoped my book would have a similar cozy feel, visually, and tried to channel that feeling into my writing. At the same time, I wanted to make sure my book stood out from that story, so I made sure that all my animals were different! As a bonus, all of my animal characters, except for Topsy the opossum, are hibernators, which makes for a great launching point for teachers to talk about hibernation and how different animals cope with winter.

I also looked for books that included a math element. In DOZENS OF DOUGHNUTS, each batch of 12 doughnuts is divided evenly by the factors of 12 – first 2 then 3, 4, and 6. I had read the book THE DOORBELL RANG by Pat Hutchins many years before but forgotten about it. I was delighted to discover it again during the drafting process as it holds many parallels to my book. It also led me to discover a trove of math-oriented picture books that I don’t think I would have known about otherwise.

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

I feel lucky that when I started writing picture books I had kids who were still in picture book age and I could read aloud to them. (They’re now 11 and 14, which tells you something about how long it can take to get published. But I digress.) It made me realize that what attracts me to a book is the language – rhyme, wordplay, puns, onomatopoeia, made up words, lyricality – to me, these are what make a book stand up and sing, and make me want to read it over and over again. And that’s the kind of book I strive to write, too.

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

In addition to general inspiration as I mentioned above, there are many other practical ways where I’ve found mentor texts helpful. They especially help when I’m struggling to come up with a satisfying ending, or to get to that ending in a satisfying way. When I have these kinds of plot problems, I look for other books with a similar structure and/or theme to see how those authors handled it. The trick is to find them, because books aren’t organized by theme in very many places. That’s why I’m so grateful for a resource like ReFoReMo. It helps with the legwork of seeking out mentor texts and helps me find books I might not have come across in my own searches. I love that we can all support each other and share some of the true picture book treasures that are out there waiting to be discovered.

Thank you so much for being here, Carrie, and congratulations on Dozens of Doughnuts! 

 Carrie Finison writes picture books with humor and heart, including DOZENS OF DOUGHNUTS (2020) and the forthcoming books DON'T HUG DOUG (2021) and HURRY, LITTLE TORTOISE (2022). She lives in the Boston area with her family. 

Connect with her online at www.carriefinison.com or on Twitter @CarrieFinison, Facebook at carrie.finison, or Instagram @carriefinison.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

ReFoReMo Mini-Monthly Writing Challenge: Bee-utiful

By Janie Reinart

“Handle a book as a bee does a flower, extract its sweetness but do not damage it.”
                                                                                                                       ~ John Muir

Our gardens are blooming and buzzing with our pollinators--our bee-utiful honey bees.
Do you know these bee facts? Your challenge is to write about these busy bees.

bee must collect nectar from about 2 million flowers to make one pound of honey? 

It requires 556 worker bees to gather a pound of honey. 

Bees fly as far as five miles for food.

By Kirsten Hall

This is a story poem about the honey bees of one hive from spring to spring. The end pages are bee stripped. The author's note states, "The honeybee is one of our world's most marvelous creatures. And sadly, it's in danger. In writing this book, I was hoping you might grow a new appreciation for the honeybee--and that you'll join me in caring about its future."

A field.
A tree.
Climb it and see...
For miles, all around you,
grow wild and free

But then ...
What's that?
Do you hear it? 
You're near it.

It's closer,
it's coming,
it's buzzing,
it's humming...

By Craig Smith

From the bestselling author and illustrator behind the million-copy The Wonky Donkey book comes Willbee the Bumblebee, a catchy rhyme with sweet illustrations that will leave you buzzing! 

"Willbee the bumblebee is so embarrassed when he realizes that his black-and-yellow jacket has caught on a rose thorn and completely unraveled, showing his bare bum! With help from Monica the butterfly and Steve the spider, Willbee recovers his jacket and is back to buzzing around the garden in no time."
Willbee the bumblebee

lives his life in your garden
             so happily.

Up early in the morning
                   til the evening hour.

Flying around
           from flower to flower.

Now everyone knows, I suppose
without bees in your garden, nothing grows.

By Shabazz Larkin

This is a love poem from a father to his two sons comparing bees to rambunctious children and a tribute to the bees that pollinate the foods we love to eat. "Children are introduced to different kinds of bees, “how not to get stung,” and how the things we fear are often things we don’t fully understand." 

Here's the thing about bees. Sometimes bees can be a bit rude.
They fly in your face and prance on your food. They buzz in the bushes
and buzz in your ear. 
They sneak up behind you and feel you with fear.
And worst of all they do this thing
called sting.  Ouch!

Go out to the garden and enjoy the bees and the flowers. Get buzzing and write a sweet story about our bee-utiful bees. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Mentor Text Talk with Marcie Wessels

Marcie Wessel's book, The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box: The Story of Video Game Inventor Ralph Baeris engaging and informative. My 9 year old was mesmerized by the details Macie chose to include, the bright illustrations, and the metaphor of thinking outside the box. The book teaches not only about Ralph Baer, but also about how things are invented and created. We're thrilled to learn from Marcie about how she uses mentor texts in her writing!

Do you utilize picture books as mentor texts?
Absolutely! If you want to write picture books, you definitely need to read and study the genre!  In my case, they also helped me come up with an idea and sell my manuscript.

Were there any particular mentor texts that inspired you in the creation of The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box: The Story of Video Game Inventor Ralph Baer?
Yes, Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super Soaking Stream of Inventions (Charlesbridge), written by Chris Baron and illustrated by Don Tate and Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code (Sterling), written by Laurie Wallmark and illustrated by Katy Wu.
Initially, I bought Whoosh! for my son, who has always been a bit of a reluctant reader. He absolutely adored it and read it multiple times. The kid-friendly content and his enthusiasm inspired me to look into the history of other toys and games. Like many kids, my son loves video games. “Who invented video games?” I wondered. That question led me down the rabbit hole of research directly to Ralph Baer.
Whoosh! indirectly helped me discover my subject but Laurie Wallmark’s and Katy Wu’s Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code (Sterling) helped me sell my manuscript.
I began working on The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box in the fall of 2016. I wrote numerous drafts and submitted the manuscript for critique at two SCBWI conferences. In the fall of 2017, my agent sent the manuscript out on submission. While we were waiting to hear back from editors, I read Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer (2017) and noticed that the book was a part of Sterling’s People Who Shaped Our World Series. People Who Shaped Our World?  Ralph Baer certainly did that! My manuscript seemed like a great fit for Sterling’s list. With my agent’s blessing, I submitted to Sterling via mail. A few months later, it was picked out of the slush pile. By early 2018, I had an offer.

How has reading picture books helped you discover who you are as a writer?
I’ve always been a reader but I’m still learning who I am as a writer. Now that I write, I try to read like a writer. That is, I try to identify what I love (or hate) about a book then figure out how the author elicited that emotion in me. It’s much easier to do with a picture book than a novel, though I try to do both.

What do you feel is the best way for picture book writers to utilize mentor texts?
That’s a really hard question because we read for many reasons. At the end of the day, I think the more you read, the better you’ll write. Read for enjoyment, yes, but we also need to read actively, critically, and intentionally. Really strive to understand how the words and pictures combine to create story. That’s picture book magic!
Marcie Wessels has always loved books. Some of her childhood favorites were WYNKEN, BLYNKEN AND NOD by Eugene W. Field, LYLE, LYLE, CROCODILE by Bernard Waber, and the NUTSHELL LIBRARY by Maurice Sendak.

Marcie received a B.A. in English and Spanish from John Carroll University, a M.A. in Spanish from Bowling Green State University, and a Ph.D. in Latin American Literature from Tulane University.
In 2002, Marcie moved to San Diego, CA to teach Spanish language and literature at a local university. She left academia after the birth of her children. Now, she writes for kids.
Marcie is the author of THE BOY WHO THOUGHT OUTSIDE THE BOX (Sterling Publishing) and PIRATE’S LULLABY: MUTINY AT BEDTIME (Doubleday BFYR).
Since 2016, Marcie has co-hosted a Mother Daughter Book Club at her local library. She also likes to play games, especially board games like Scrabble. She is currently learning American Sign Language (ASL).

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Mentor Text Author Study: Revisiting Nikki Grimes

It’s time for another Coronavirus Creative Mentor Text Author Study post!

In August 2018, I wrote a mentor text author study featuring poet and author Nikki Grimes. Since then, Grimes has released two new picture books this year. Let's look at those books.

Bedtime for Sweet Creatures, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, January 14, 2020 is a whimsical bedtime story.

Opening Hook

Three words increased in font size and a child in jammies is everything needed for the opening hook. It shows this story is a universal truth about bedtime resistance for any adult with the experience of putting a child to bed and for the children themselves.

“No! No! No!"


From the first double page spread, Grimes tells us this is a family story. It’s time for bed but the child is ready to resist and imagines how creatures would react to bedtime, too.

Your eyes swell, as wide as owls.

“Let’s go,” I say.

“Who? Who?”

      you ask

             as if

                   you didn’t know.


The language Grimes uses, filled with metaphors and imagery, delights. The rhythm and flow make the text easy to read aloud, even act out.

Your bookshelf is noisy with stories.

“Which one?” I ask.

You point, frozen like a fawn

until you hear

“Once upon a time.”

The fun patterns the illustrator used to draw the animals are a perfect fit to the language and imagery painted by the text.


Southwest Sunrise, illustrated by Wendell MinorBloomsbury Children's Books, May 5, 2020, is a celebration of the natural world.

Opening hook

A boy sits on an airplane, baseball cap over his eyes, arms folded and unhappy. This story taps into the emotions of any child who has had the experience of moving. Too old to cry, he hides and pouts about moving from New York to New Mexico, a place of shadows.


But the boy is curious and adventurous and enjoys nature, so he finds the answers to his own question.

What’s so great about New Mexico?


In a tribute to the desert, Grimes writes lyrically about its beauty when we pay attention to what it offers. The first person narrative gives readers a real time reveal as he discovers what’s so great about New Mexico.

Wait! There’s the one
called wine-cup
spilling its burgundy beauty
for me to drink up.

And aren’t those yellow bells?
they wake up the desert
with their silent ring.

The art captures the splendor of the desert and its colorful surprises.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Comp Titles for Nonfiction

I have done a number of posts regarding comp titles, most of which also apply to non-fiction picture books, but have yet to specifically address this niche. I will preface this by saying I do NOT write non-fiction… so… I would love your input in the comments below. If you have not read my previous posts on comp titles, you can find them here:

Why Comp?

Finding comp titles for your Non-fiction manuscript is very similar to the process for fiction picture books, but I think you may be faced with some extra challenges including fewer options. Additionally, many new PBs which have a great deal of factual information, are not strictly non-fiction, but a hybrid of some type. Does that mean you can only use comps that are exactly the same in structure, subject matter, point of view, etc? Not necessarily. If you can justify your comparison -- go for it.

I am not going to go into all of the different types of non-fiction picture books -- that would be a blog post of it’s own (and one I am not qualified to write). However, I would suggest that you ask yourself the following questions before embarking on a search for comps:

What is the STRUCTURE or FORMAT of my picture book? 
(Ex: Biography, Creative or Narrative Non-Fiction, Poetry, Diary, etc.)

These two picture books are both biographical, but take liberties with the storyline.

What is the point of view of your manuscript?

Both of these picture books are told by a non-human main character who shares his own facts along the way (in a humorous manner).

Does your picture book address STEM topics?

These two picture books approach STEM topics in different ways, particularly structure. Although they are fiction, they inform STEM topics in developmentally appropriate (kid-friendly) ways.

What is the subject matter of your picture book? 

These two picture books include information about actual space missions.

So, when looking for comp titles for your picture books, dig deep - your answer could be buried. And remember, never comp unless you’ve read it. Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Mentor Text Talk with Kristen Schroeder

I had the pleasure of critiquing Kristen Schroeder's work five years ago. Even then, it was quite apparent that she knew how to tickle the funny bone and was eager to learn more about the craft of writing. I am thrilled to celebrate her debut picture book Alien Tomato, and excited to help you learn from her perspective. Thank you, Kristen, for sharing your experience with us!

How do you utilize picture books as mentor texts?

I think it’s incredibly important to keep up-to-date on what is being published in the picture book market currently. I browse bookstores and checkout books from my library on a regular basis. Reading in the genre feeds my creativity. When I start a new draft, I search to see if anything similar has already been published. This can be based on the topic or the format.

Were there any particular mentor texts that inspired you in the creation of Alien Tomato?
When I first had the idea for ALIEN TOMATO, I shared it with my critique partner, author Jamie LB Deenihan. She suggested a book called THE GREAT FUZZ FRENZY by Janet Stevens about a tennis ball falling into a prairie dog town. The premise of this book was somewhat similar but the themes were different, so reading this book helped me solidify my idea. I also researched picture books that relied heavily on dialogue because that was my vision for ALIEN TOMATO. I used ReFoReMo as a resource, and found a post dated March 4th, 2016 titled Linda Ashman Talks Dialogue

She provided some excellent examples of mentor texts in that post, such as I DON'T WANT TO BE A FROG, by Dev Petty, CHEETAH CAN'T LOSE by Bob Shea and THAT IS NOT A GOOD IDEA by Mo Willems. Reading these books helped me push forward with my idea for the manuscript. And just a side note, I did get some rejections from editors saying ALIEN TOMATO relied too heavily on dialogue in their opinion.

How has reading picture books helped you discover who you are as a writer?
Participating in ReFoReMo has been a great way to broaden my picture book knowledge. Humorous picture books were always my favorites to write and read. Over the years, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for non-fiction, wordless and lyrical picture books. In 2019, I started writing a book that was outside of my wheelhouse. It included some rhyme, alliteration, days of the week and it looked like nothing I had ever written before. I shared it with my critique group, revised a few times, and then sent it to my agent, Christa Heschke. I remember emailing her, “I wrote this thing…it’s a departure for me…is it a concept book? What is this?” Christa and her assistant, Daniele Hunter, helped me polish it up further until it was ready for submission. To my great surprise, I was offered a contract with Random House Studio. SO MUCH SNOW comes out in Fall 2022. Reading widely helped me have the courage to try something new, and I’m so glad I did!

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

As I mentioned above, when you have a new idea or a first draft, start looking for mentor texts. They can help you define what you want your story to be and what you don’t want it to be. And, if you feel like trying something new, definitely reach for mentor texts to give you a shot of courage.

Kristen Schroeder's debut picture book ALIEN TOMATO, will be released on July 14th from Page Street Kids. In addition to writing, Kristen runs her own business based in Australia, where she lived for eleven years. She and her family now reside in her home state of Minnesota. Her second picture book, FREDDY THE NOT-TEDDY, is coming out in early 2022 with EK Books and SO MUCH SNOW will be published with Random House Studio in fall 2022.