It's always wonderful to see one of our fellow kid-litters succeed! Today we not only celebrate Gabi Snyder's debut picture book, Two Dogs on a Trike, but we learn exactly how mentor texts helped strengthen Gabi's craft. Her first book received a starred review! By following her model, your mentor text explorations will truly help you, too!
Thank you, Gabi, for sharing your experience with us today!
How do you utilize picture books as mentor texts?
One of my favorite ways to use mentor texts is to identify the emotion or tone I want a story to convey and then analyze how other picture books have managed to convey that emotion or tone. For instance, my second picture book, LISTEN (S&S/Wiseman, 2021), begins with the overwhelming noise of a busy morning. It then draws the reader in by encouraging listening to quieter and quieter sounds. It’s about tuning in to nature, to others, to yourself.
When I was drafting and then revising this story in which sound is so integral, I knew I’d want to use onomatopoeia. So I took a look at picture books that make excellent use of onomatopoeia, like Tim McCanna and Richard Smythe’s WATERSONG, in which the text consists entirely of onomatopoeia. Much of the action is conveyed through the illustrations. The words Tim chooses masterfully evoke the rising sounds of an approaching rainstorm. For example, the first spread reads, “Drip. Drop. Plip. Plop.” The text is simple, but musical and evocative.
In LISTEN, I also wanted to convey a sense of wonder. So I looked for picture books that evoke or model the wonder that comes from paying close attention. WINDOWS (written by Julia Denos and illustrated by E.B. Goodale), an ode to an evening walk and what you might see and feel on that walk, does this beautifully. In that book, a sense of wonder is evoked through use of lyrical language and specific imagery. For example, one spread reads, “You might pass a cat or an early raccoon taking a bath in squares of yellow light.” I find this text lovely and vivid; yet it’s also spare enough to leave plenty of room for the illustrator to add to the story.
Were there any particular mentor texts that inspired you in the creation of TWO DOGS ON A TRIKE?
Yes! While the dog versus cat dynamic that plays out in TWO DOGS ON A TRIKE was inspired in part by my pets, it was also inspired by one of my favorite books from childhood—GO, DOG. GO! by P.D. Eastman. I must’ve read that book hundreds of times. So while my debut picture book is very different than GO, DOG. GO!, the silly dogs and sense of movement and fun in TWO DOGS ON A TRIKE are, in part, an homage to the P.D. Eastman classic.
Revisiting old favorites and thinking through what it was about those stories that enthralled your child self can be a helpful exercise.
How has reading picture books helped you discover who you are as a writer?
I studied writing in graduate school but was focused on writing fiction for adults at that time. It was only years later, reading daily with my kids, that I rediscovered my love for picture books. There’s something magical about this art form in which the words and pictures combine to make a whole that’s so much bigger than the two parts.
Once I decided to try my hand at picture books, I started reading picture books not only as a mother, but also as a writer. I started paying more attention to which books resonated with my kids, which resonated with me, and which resonated with both. As picture book writers, we want to delight our child readers; but it’s lovely when we can delight the adults who read the stories, too!
Like many writers, I often check out huge stacks of books from my local library. I add books to my TBR list when I read a review that sparks my interest, when a critique partner recommends something that may inspire or inform something I’m drafting, or when I’m looking for books on a particular topic or theme. Overall, as I’m reading through picture books, I’m tuning in to which books move or surprise me, which books I want to read again and again. Seeing which books resonate with me helps inform the type of books that I want to write.
I love poignant, lyrical picture books that move me in some way, stories that might be described as having a lot of “heart.” I also love funny picture books – books that are straight-up silly and also darker, more subversive texts. So, as I picture book writer, I like trying my hand at both lyrical texts and funny texts!
What do you feel is the best way for picture book writers to utilize mentor texts?
There are so many ways to utilize mentor texts and writers can discover their favorites through experimentation. I find it super helpful to use mentor texts when grappling with a particular problem with a picture book manuscript. If I know the story arc needs strengthening, then it’s helpful to look at books that have stellar arcs. If the beginning needs more oomph, then I read the first spreads of several picture books I love. I ask, how did those first pages pull me into the story? Or maybe my ending doesn’t quite work. Again, I read a bunch of strong endings and analyze why they work so well. Often this exercise sparks a new idea!
Past ReFoReMo posts are a goldmine of mentor texts examples. Want examples of how a strong beginning and ending can bookend a nonfiction text? Check out this post from Marcie Flinchum Atkins, or maybe you’d like to see how master picture book writer Tammi Sauer used mentor texts when she set herself the task of writing a book using the “how to” structure. Or maybe you want to see examples of picture books that incorporate mathematical concepts? Check out this post by Rajani La Rocca: . Chances are, if you Google “reforemo” and key words regarding the story problem you’re trying to solve, you’ll come up with a post that will help!
Also, it’s worth noting that mentor texts and comp titles are not the same. Please see this fabulous post by Tara Luebbe for an explanation of the difference. (Short answer: “A mentor text is all about craft…A comp title is all about sales.”) After you’ve written and polished your manuscript, you can use ReFoReMo lists to help you find comp titles (that will help you sell your manuscript). See this great post from Cindy Williams Schrauben to learn how.
Thanks for featuring me and TWO DOGS ON A TRIKE on the ReFoReMo blog. Happy reading!
Thanks for modeling the mentor text process with us, Gabi! We wish you the best!
Reader. Writer. Lover of chocolate. Gabi’s debut picture book, TWO DOGS ON A TRIKE, is out now (May 2020) from Abrams Appleseed. Her second picture book, LISTEN, will be out in spring 2021 from Simon & Schuster/Wiseman. Gabi lives in Oregon with her family, including one daredevil dog and the cat who keeps everyone in line. She blogs about perfect picture books at https://gabisnyder.com/blog/