Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Mentor Text Talk with Gabi Snyder

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/

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

ReFoReMo Mini-Monthly Writing Challenge: Writing Stories About Words

By Janie Reinart

... I loved only words: I would raise up cathedrals of words 
beneath the blue gaze of the word sky
I would build for thousands of years.
~Jean-Paul Sartre

We love our words. We build stories word by word. But have you ever written a story about words? That is your challenge. Build a story about words beneath the blue gaze of the word sky. 

By Jen Bryant

One of my favorite picture books is A River of Words. This biography about poet 
William Carlos Williams tells how Willie's words gave him freedom and peace. The end pages are full of his poetry.

"Like the other boys in Rutherford, New Jersey, Willie Williams loved to play baseball and to race his friends up and down the street. But when the other boys went inside, Willie stayed outside. Climbing over the fence in his back yard, he wandered alone through the woods and fields."

By Peter H. Reynolds
This story sounds like all of us who keep word journals. This story is a "celebration of finding your own words -- and the impact you can have when you share them with the world."

"Some collect bugs. Others collect baseball cards. Some people collect comic books. 
And Jerome? What did he collect? Jerome collected words."

By Melanie Florence

What would happen if someone stole your words? When a little girl comes home from school and asks her grandpa how to say a word in his Cree language, he is sad because he doesn't remember the words. He tells her his words were stolen from him. The grandfather then tells the tale of being taken to a residential school when he was a boy.  

"She came home from school today. Skipping and dancing. Humming a song under her breath. Clutching a dream catcher she had made from odds and ends. Bits of string. Plastic beads. And brightly colored feathers. Her glossy braids danced against her shoulders. Swaying with her. Black as a raven's wing."

By Rebeca Van Dyke

Lexi is a strong cowgirl. She protects baby letters as they grow. And ties shorter words together to make longer words. She herds words into sentences and corrals them to tell a story. Then letters start disappearing. The "D" disappears from her bandana leaving Lexi with a banana.  

"Lexi was the best wrangler west of the Mississippi, and everyone knew it. She wore a tall hat, fancy boots, and a bandana."

From nonfiction biographies to dictionaries, have fun building stories about words. Did you notice all the mentor texts have WORD in their titles? Raise up your own cathedral and build your stories... for a thousand years. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

THINK QUICK with Author Christy Mihaly

Hi Christy,  Free for You and Me is an engaging and informational text paired with colorful illustrations that make this book perfect for any kid who wants to learn about what it means to be free in our country. All of the THINK QUICK themes below appear in your book.  Let’s see which way you lean. Remember, THINK QUICK!I

On colorful diverse illustrations:
Collaborative or synergistic?

Both! Isn't Manu Montoya's art in Free for You and Me wonderful? My editor at Albert Whitman communicated with me about the book design team's illustration ideas, and shared preliminary art. How could we be inclusive when illustrating the founders? We collaborated to incorporate diversity in a fun "Hamiltonian" approach, so it's synergistic with the text. I'm so pleased with how it turned out!

On Speech Bubbles:
Helpful or distracting?

Kids like speech bubbles. One young reader explained to me: "It lets me know who is saying what." In drafting and designing the book, I tried several approaches to convey the various stories I wanted to tell. The speech bubbles seemed to work best.

On Rhyme:
Easy or challenging?

Rhyming isn't hard (cat-hat-bat), but it can be a real challenge to ensure each line is well-crafted with the right meter and clearly conveys its meaning without awkward wording.

On Backmatter:
Enriching or boring?

Definitely not boring. I love back matter of all kinds—and often turn to the back first. In my prior picture book Hey, Hey, Hay! there's a glossary of haymaking terms and a recipe for haymaker's punch, or switchel. In Free for You and Me, we provided a glossary and a great deal of historical background information. There was so much material I wanted to include that I couldn't squeeze it all in! There's always good stuff in the back matter.

On Freedom:
Subjective or definable?

Of course, a feeling of freedom can be subjective, but it's important that we as a culture define the meaning of "free speech," "freedom of the press," and other freedoms – we need to know what we're talking about.

On the First Amendment:
Necessary or superfluous?

Interestingly, some founders believed the Bill of Rights (which includes the First Amendment) was unnecessary because the American system they had established limited the federal government's powers. They said the power resides in the people. But the new nation opted to add the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, to make these rights explicit.
And now, I'd say, the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment are indispensable.

On freedom of speech:
Exciting or dangerous?

How about: Formidable – which is kind of a mixture of these concepts. To exercise one's free speech can be exhilarating. It can also be dangerous. But it's so important to democracy; the greater danger is when we undermine freedom of speech.

On protests:
Helpful or rash?

People sometimes protest rashly, but expressing political views by peaceful protest is a constructive act. Protesting informs our elected representatives what we're thinking and what we want them to do. Protests may also let people know that others share their views; they may push public opinion to evolve. All this moves our political dialog forward.

On the United States of America:
Becoming stronger or becoming divisive?

Oh, boy, that's the question of our day, isn't it?
I hope that by bringing young Americans a deeper appreciation of our democratic structure, values, and heritage, we can help the country become stronger.

On books:

Well, much as I advocate freedom of choice in reading, I have to say – "Free for You and Me!"

Thank you Christy!!  

Christy Mihaly writes for young readers because she believes that our best hope for the future is raising kids who love to read. Her recent picture book, Free for You and Me: What our First Amendment Means, illustrated by Manu Montoya, celebrates the First Amendment with poems and stories. Christy co-authored the YA nonfiction Diet for a Changing Climate: Food for Thought, with Sue Heavenrich in 2018. Her picture book Hey, Hey, Hay!(A Tale of Bales and the Machines That Make Them) tells the story of how hay is made. Christy has published more than 20 nonfiction books on topics from free speech to food to fashion, as well as articles, stories, and poems. She lives in Vermont, where she loves walking her dog in the woods and playing the cello (though not simultaneously). Visit her website at www.christymihaly.com.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Author Study: Revisiting Lesléa Newman

Last June, I wrote a mentor text author study featuring poet, author, and activist Lesléa Newman. At the end of that post was the cover of what was to be her forthcoming book, Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with a Tail, illustrated by Susan Gal. Since my library is closed because of the pandemic, I do not have access to a body of work from another author to feature this month. So I looked at what makes Newman’s latest work worthy of study.


Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with a Tail uses a poetic parallel sentence structure to tell the story of a boy and a kitten. Inside, a young boy takes part in a Seder, outside a stray kitten follows a similar ritual. 


Early on Newman engages playful language using the homophone tale and tail in the title. The alternating couplets create a sense of connectedness between the parallel story lines.

Inside, candles glowed.
Outside, stars twinkled.

Inside, the boy drank grape juice.
Outside, the kitten lapped at a puddle.


Using a Seder as the setting allows Newman to show how a family celebrates Passover. Two stories unfold through the point of view of a young boy and a stray kitten. Inside, children follow the boy and experience what happens during a Seder. Outside that same night children witness the kitten as it mirrors the boy's actions in its own way.  And in the ending, when the characters and story interconnect, it is welcoming.

The story is sweet and endearing and the artwork represents a festive night inside in comparison and contrast to the mood and atmosphere outside.