Tuesday, March 17, 2020

ReFoReMo Day 12: Author Michelle Cusolito Examines White Space



If You Are a Hunter of Fossils by Byrd Baylor and Peter Parnall is an old book, but it’s an important part of my journey. I discovered it in the 90’s, when I was writing poetry and was known in my writing group for my line breaks. I liked to leave lots of white space (negative space) around my words. I wrote “down the page” and used line breaks to help the reader know when to pause or take a breath. When I saw Baylor’s book, I realized the words of a picture book could also go down the page.




Before we used the term “mentor text,” my students and I gathered all of Byrd Baylor’s books and studied her writing style. We made giant charts that documented the choices she made as a writer: her use of white space, voice, POV, etc. (I did not remember this until prepping for this post: the book is written in second person. I wonder if that was in my subconscious when I wrote Flying Deep? I have to believe it was. Everything we read informs our writing).




I’m still drawn to books with lots of white space, both in the words and in the illustrations. I love when the words and pictures have space to breathe. When your eyes have a place to rest. 

Here are some recent examples that have spoken to me:

Giant Squid by Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann

Being Frog by April Pulley Sayre






The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson

Hawk Rising by Maria Gianferrari and Brian Floca




Before She was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James Ransome

The Stuff of Stars by Marion Dane Bauer and Ekua Holmes









Which picture books express white space statements for you?



Michelle is giving away a nonrhyming picture book critique of up to 700 words (fiction) or 1200 (nonfiction) to one lucky winner! As an alternative for educators, Michelle will offer a 20-minute Skype session with students. To be eligible for prizes throughout the challenge, you must be registered by March 2, comment on each post, consistently read mentor texts, and enter the Rafflecopter drawing at the conclusion of ReFoReMo.

MICHELLE CUSOLITO is the award-winning author of the non-fiction picture book, Flying Deep: Climb Inside Deep-Sea Submersible Alvin. Prior to becoming an author, she worked as a naturalist, classroom teacher, and curriculum developer. Visiting schools is still one of her favorite things to do. She enjoys traveling with her family and has lived in the Philippines and Ireland. Flying Deep was recently named a “Must Read” at the Massachusetts Book Awards. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @mcusolito or at http://www.michellecusolito.com/    

235 comments:

  1. White space makes the words stand out, and these are stand-out mentor texts. Thanks, Michelle.

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  2. I never thought much about white space before, but now I'll look for it in all the picture books I read. Thanks for an enlightening post, Michelle.

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  3. Michelle, I really love your description of "the words and pictures hav[ing] space to breathe." I am going to really enjoy reading through your examples looking for this particular feature. Thank you!

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  4. Your examples are fabulous, Michelle. Thanks for sharing them and reminding us to use white space.

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  5. How interesting to look at picture books in terms of white space. The books I have been able to read from your selection are also lyrical in voice and I think the line breaks and white space are certainly a part of that. I was struck by the notion of Giant Squid as having "white" space because when I was rereading it last night I was struck by the literal darkness of it. So...a lot of inky blue and black space!

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    1. Yes! The accurate term is "negative space," which certainly fits that book better.

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  6. White space. This is an interesting perspective that I'd never really thought about in my writing. Have got to "study" these mentor texts. Thanks, Michelle.

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  7. Thank you, I love how you've drawn attention to the 'white space' and also your charts of Byrd Baylor's books. More inspiration to read, read, read!

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    1. For sure! I really loved doing that author study with my students. Every day we found new and interesting things to try in our own work.

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  8. The story only starts with the words then the illustrations to add another layer, then the layout and design. Leaving room for the white space is just another layer to the complex art of a picture book. Thank you for the great job.

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    1. Yes! Many people help make a book shine. It often starts with the author (or author/illustrator) but then the illustrator and art directors/book designers have such important work to do. I try to make my manuscripts suggest a way the book might be designed by putting line breaks where I want them.

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  9. Interesting concept and way to analyze whit space. Thanks

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  10. The consciousness of place on the page! What superb examples you've shared, Michelle. Thank you.

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  11. Thank you Michelle. This was such a good reminder for me as a writer. Because I’m all about the words, I tend to maybe throw too many and crowd the space trying to get my story across. Your suggestion of creating breathing space, makes me more aware of choosing just the right words.

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    1. Wonderful! I hope you find some new and interesting ways to write your manuscripts.

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  12. The Stuff of Stars is one of my favorite books. This post has given me a new way to look at PBS. Thank you.

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    1. Oh, yes. I LOVE that book. Well... all of these really. ;-)

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  13. White space is definitely something I consider to have great power in the sometimes too-busy worlds of picture books. It can be utilized in so many ways too, to make the story better!

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  14. I loved the way it showed you her whole life and what she accomplished step by step in Before She was Harriet. Thank you for your choices in showing us the importance of white space :)

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    1. Oh, that was Lesa Cline-Ransom! She's a master.

      You're welcome!

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  15. Thanks for the great suggestions, Michelle. I love the idea of studying white space and making sure "words and pictures have space to breathe."

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  16. Thank you for sharing suggestions of how other writers have used white space. I look forward to examining these books further.

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  17. Thank you for sharing about white space...so important for the illustrator, too.

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  18. Terrific post, thank you. I pay attention to white space and visually pleasing books in that way though didn't especially realize it until reading your post.

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    1. I'm glad I brought your attention to it. I wonder how that will inform your own work?

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  19. Michelle, thanks for sharing these great examples. Byrd Baylor is a long time favorite of mine: EVERYBODY NEEDS A ROCK, THE WAY TO START A DAY, I'M IN CHARGE OF CELEBRATIONS. Peter Parnell's illustrations are a perfect fit.

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    1. Oh, I love Baylor's writing in ALL of those books! I own them all. I can't honestly remember which book I read first, but they all hit me in the same way.

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  20. I never considered white space a component, but I do prefer uncluttered pages. Thank you for sharing these books. I can't wait to look at them!

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  21. 'I love when the words and pictures have space to breathe.'

    I do as well! And I find that I do that frequently in my writing. :)

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  22. Thanks for reminding us to give our readers a chance to pause and relax in our stories.

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  23. I believe that reading a picture book is a performance and white space helps people who aren't trained in reading them shine on the stage.

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    1. Oh, Yes! I didn't think to write about that. For sure!

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  24. This post speaks to me. I like white spaces in books. It's restful and leaves room for the reader's imagination to soar. Thanks for sharing your favorites to absorb.

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    1. Oh, I like that: "leaves room for the reader's imagination to soar."

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  25. MICHELLE: You post is SO TIMELY for me! Just an hour before reading your INSPIRATIONAL words, a picture book idea came to me in a way I have NEVER had one do before: with TRULY SPARE WORDS! I am a wordy person, which is how I know God has a sense of humor--with me being a picture book writer! So, to have a book idea come with so few words was a whole other experience. In my mind I could see the way the sparse words would play with the illustrations, bringing the story more depth than if I were to use more words to express the ideas. I AM SO EXCITED to start writing this story!!! And I know the WONDERFUL list of books you have provided will be TRULY INSPIRATIONAL for my journey. I ESPECIALLY APPRECIATE your INSPIRATION to remember to give words and pictures "space to breathe." This I will ALWAYS remember and use as a driving-force to be a better writer--a writer who CAN use fewer words to express herself, and allow the words, pages, and pictures to have space to BREATHE! THANK YOU!!!

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    1. Oh, I LOVE THIS. You were meant to read this post today. Good luck with your new idea! I hope it flows out as you imagine it.

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    2. OH, THANK YOU SO MUCH, MICHELLE!!! I TRULY APPRECIATE YOUR KIND WORDS OF ENCOURAGMENT!!!

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  26. What a great idea to give the reader a place to breathe! Especially right now!

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    1. Wow. I wrote this a month ago, but that's an interesting point.

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  27. I never thought of white space in this context before, so thanks! LOVE those mentor texts too.

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  28. Thanks for sharing! I love Giant Squid - phrasing has greater meaning due to layout.

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    1. Oh, I LOVE that book. It's so in my wheel house: the subject, the language, the format. I LOVE it.

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  29. Hi Michelle, love the way white space can "speak" in a PB. I have been drawn this way of writing since I discovered e e cummings in hs. Never forget when we were at NESCBWI and I got to see edits to FLYING DEEP.

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    1. Yes! So much can happen in the spaces, in the resting place. You imagination has time to soar.

      I remember that day! xo

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  30. Thanks for pointing out the value and significance of white space. It is so effective in these books! Great post.

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  31. A picture book is an exercise in distillation. A negotiation between the concrete and imagination. A play between the words spread and the whiteness of the page. Thank you for all these wonderful books…

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  32. Judging by the cover alone, I wasn't looking forward to "Being Frog." It looked like a school text book & definitely didn't fit in with the covers of the other books. But then...wow...the text combined with the stunning photographs...love it!! See, you can't judge a book by its cover :)

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    1. Oh, that's an interesting POV. I'm a big time frog lover so that never occurred to me, but I see what you mean.

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  33. Thanks for the excellent mentor texts. Several of them are among my favorites. Thanks also for calling our attention to the importance of the negative space in picture books. So many aspects to consider!

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  34. Michelle,
    I love white space. as a poet i know the power of the pause. Thanks for reminding me to use it in my manuscripts as well.

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  35. What a great concept of giving the words space and the eyes a place to rest.

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  36. Really enjoyed this post. I don't tend to write sparse but I do enjoy the texts. Hawk Rising was definitely appropriate for me as I see this every day out my window. I appreciate you sharing these mentor texts.

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  37. Such excellent examples of precise word choice and use of white space. Thank you.

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  38. White space is so important and something that I don't think about nearly enough in my work and in my critiques. Thank you for calling attention to this!

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  39. What a wonderful set of mentor texts. Thanks Michelle.

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  40. Hi Michelle, I also collected Byrd Baylor's books back in the 90's. My students and I loved them. THE WAY TO START A DAY and EVERYBODY NEEDS A ROCK were two of my favorites. Even now, they make wonderful mentor texts.

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  41. Thanks for a great post, Michelle. And of course you know I love FLYING DEEP! So interesting to hear how your vision is informed!

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  42. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

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  43. Thanks for your post, Michelle, on highlighting the importance of white space in both words and illos. Great mentor text examples! [Posted by LouAnn Silva]

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  44. I did not know this book, but instantly assumed it had to be a companion title to EVERYBODY NEEDS A ROCK. Such a powerful visual connection. Thanks Michelle!

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  45. I've read (and own) a number of these books and have been particularly impressed with how words are placed on the pages. Great list!

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  46. Thanks for calling our attention to white space, Michelle! It was such an interesting way to review these books. The effect was especially noticeable when I listened to the audiobook version of The Stuff of Stars. I also love the use of words and pictures in Being Frog!

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    1. Ooh. I haven't listened to the audio. Could you say more about how the effect is noticeable?

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  47. I've always loved Baylor's books. Thank you for the reminder, Michelle! Thanks also for singing the praises of white space.

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  48. Thanks for sharing this subtle but effective concept.

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  49. I like white space on book pages, but I never thought of studying and comparing it in different books. Thanks, Michelle!

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  50. I also like white space on the pages of picture books. Though quiet, it can have a dramatic effect. Thanks for the recommended reading. I look forward to it.

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  51. Great topic for your post! I love the examples.

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  52. Thank you, Michelle, this is a great list! My critique group talks quite a bit about white space, so I especially appreciated, "I love when the words and pictures have space to breathe. When your eyes have a place to rest." Yes!!!

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  53. Love these books, all of them, as their all-so-carefully selected words speaks to the poet in me and challenge me to use her voice when writing stories. Flying Deep was a new treat! So much to dive into that I read it twice right in a row. White space. Different tenses. Second person. Different voices. It was like a movie! Thanks, Michelle.

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  54. I loved your Flying Deep book and these books with lots of white space are interesting and a new idea for me. I can't wait to get them all from the library as many of them are there but it is closed.

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    1. Thank you.

      I hope you get book access, soon. Our library allows pick up from the door if they have the book on the shelf. Maybe yours would do that?

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  55. I always tidy my space before working. I think the need for white space on a page is the same thing--it enables the imagination to take flight! Thanks for your post. What a wonderful assortment of books!

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  56. Great examples. Thanks, Michelle. I layout my pb text, using white space, line breaks, etc. to match how I envision it will be read aloud. White space for pauses or rests.

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  57. Thank you for sharing these books. I look forward to reading them and studying their use of white space.

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  58. Hawk rising is an amazing book and this author does an excellent job of white space. Thanks for more books to explore.

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  59. The white space in The Undefeated was very powerful in conveying it's message. Thanks you for pointing out you may overlook.
    -Ashley Congdon

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  60. Thanks for the shout out, Michelle!!

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  61. Thank you, Michelle, for these examples showing the benefits of white space.

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  62. Thanks for including Byrd Baylor. I had the opportunity to meet her in the early 90s when I lived in the SW. Her words are powerful. When illustrated with white state and muted colors, it all comes together in an extraordinary way.

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  63. I loved Bryd Baylor's books and used them with my fourth graders before I retired. I'M IN CHARGE OF CELEBRATIONS was one of my favorites. I never thought of them in terms of white space. I'll have to go back and look! Thanks for this post, Michelle!

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  64. Thank you! This is a great list!

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  65. This is interesting. Thanks for the post and list of books.

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  66. White space..my eyes can rest! Perhaps this is why I enjoy watching old movies. Undefeated was one of my favorites as I reflected on five powerful words alone on two pages. Thank you, Michelle

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  67. Great post, Michelle! Thank you for these great mentor texts that show us how to use white space to make the words and illustrations breathe. I never really thought that much about white space before now.

    I also love Bryd Baylor’s books… my favorite is, "The Other Way to Listen."



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  68. Love these mentor texts although...I have not been able to read all of them. I use a lot of white space too. Thank you for your book Flying Deep.

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  69. Thanks, Michelle, for this inspiring post about white space. I'm also a huge fan of white space and words that don't follow the usual straight left to right format, but flow in the direction needed to enhance the story. I've added Bryd Baylor to my list books to check out after our library opens again. Of course, I'd already read your book and THE STUFF OF STARS (hurrah for NESCBWI door prizes!), but it was nice to study them again. I hadn't read BEFORE SHE WAS HARRIET, but I'm still haunted by the book. Beautiful white space, perfect repetition, and a unique format--it felt like a biography singing her life backwards.

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    1. What a wonderful way to describe Before She Was Harriet.

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  70. I do love white space and love the benefits of having that space to breathe and rest. Thanks so much for sharing this list with us!

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  71. Another way to view children’s books. I think evaluating white balance will also help to sharpen and define word selection. A good tool to determine if certain words are necessary to move the story along. Thank you!!

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    1. Yes! When I dummy up my books I always end up cutting words.

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  72. It is my desire to do tight, concise writing and still tell a story full of lyrical language. This is such a wonderful post. Just wonderful. This would have been an amazing in-person discussion.

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    1. Thank you! I agree: an in-person discussion would have been lovely!

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  73. I have started to play a lot more with line breaks. It does feel more spacious, and because it also gives greater importance to each word, the ones that remain carry more weight. Great post!

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  74. Thanks for an inspiring post! I love this way of looking at texts and it will help in re-visioning some drafts.

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  75. This is a great collection of books showing white space & lyrical language. Thank you, Michelle!

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  76. Very interesting post about how to present the words on the page and how to use white space to capture the reader’s attention.

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  77. I love FLYING DEEP because the white space left room for me to want to know more. You left room for the reader to wonder and want to read on. It is lovely!
    Byrd Baylor also wrote, "I AM IN CHARGE OF CELEBRATIONS," a favorite of mine.
    Recently, I noticed the effective use of line breaks, white space, and page turns in Mac Barnett's THE IMPORTANT BOOK ABOUT MARGARET WISE BROWN." At 40 pages and over 1700 words, it is a longish PB, but the pauses Mac creates for the reader really add magic to the unique events of Brown's life.

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    1. Oh, thank you so much.

      And yes! I love that one, too.

      I considered using Mac's book, but alas, I had to limit my choices. I was lucky enough to see an F and G about a year before it came out and loved it right away.

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  78. Great list Michelle. I like the white spaces that can be found figuratively when the text allows a reader to contemplate - Frog & Toad does this well as does Philip Stead in VERNON IS ON HIS WAY and ZEN SHORTS by Jon Muth. That moment to breath in a story - its so powerful.

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  79. Tested up reading Before She Was Harriet

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    1. I think you meant to post, TEARED up. Yes. I agree.

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  80. I hadn't considered the value of space. Thanks for the insight. Barb

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  81. Thank you. I am learning so much about the way books are constructed. White space...I'll be looking always now to see how it is used.

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  82. Thanks, Michelle! I can't get all of these books because my library is closed but I did go back and read my copy of THE STUFF OF STARS again. I was lucky enough to get it signed by Marion last year! It's a gorgeous book.

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  83. Great mentor texts! Thanks, Michelle.

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  84. Funny- I, too, in my crit. group am known for my line breaks and my spacing style, and writing "down the page" just as you say. It is the same for me- I have many different types of stories but I do tend to write them/space them all in a similar way. That being said, I am curious to get my hands on IF YOU ARE A HUNTER OF FOSSILS to check out what you mean exactly by how that is written and spaced. I was not able to locate it at my library but will keep digging out of curiosity! Also, FROG was a great example for this post! Interesting to think about for page turns and pauses for sure!

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    1. If you can't get FOSSILS, seek out others by Byrd Baylor. Her style and voice are unmistakable.

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  85. Thank you, Michelle. I hadn’t thought of white space in the way you’ve presented, as giving the reader space to breathe. Love this.

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  86. So many amazing titles that use white space to keep the reader engaged.

    Thank you, Michelle.

    Suzy Leopold

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  87. Thanks, Michelle, for this post. As a poet first, I have always valued the power of white space, space for the text to breathe,
    space for the reader to breathe.

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  88. Thanks Michelle, great titles. As a reader, I love seeing texts that use white space and specific line breaks. It always makes me want to read the text aloud.

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  89. Fabulous titles! It made me wonder whether the authors formatted their manuscripts with the space on the page, or submitted in paragraph form. The words are so much more powerful in this format which leaves space.

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  90. Love the idea of breathing space. Thanks for the great post!

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  91. Thank you for highlighting white space. It certainly does assist the reader. I think we often take it for granted. I will be paying more attention to it as I continue my reading journey!

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  92. Using white(negative) space, also important in photography, gives the reader/observer space to 'take it all in' on a higher level of understanding.
    Looking forward to reading the rest of these mentor texts (on hold and sadly inaccessible right now). Thanks for your insightful post, Michelle.

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  93. Yes! I shoot lots of photos, too. I'm always thinking about how the viewers' eyes will move across the image and where they might have space to rest.

    My my library allows pick-ups at the door for books that are on the shelves. Maybe yours will do that?

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  94. Thank you for highlighting this important element! Lots to think about~

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  95. Gorgeous mentor texts! Thank you--these are some of my favorites so far!!

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  96. I hadn't really thought before now about how I should be considering using white space in my writing. I guess I figured that's the job of the copy editor. Thank you for enlightening me, and for these wonderful examples to study!

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  97. White space does make the text stand out. I re-read some of these titles after I read this post and I could absolutely recognize how that white space helped me absorb the text through the content in the illustration.

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  98. Thank you for the reminder to use more white space in my writing.

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  99. These are great titles and now I have an excuse to reread them consciously resting my eyes on the photo and words. We do it automatically without thinking.

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