Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Mentor Text Talk with Keila Dawson, Jeanette Bradley, and Lindsay Metcalf

We're thrilled to have our very own Keila Dawson talk to us about how she used mentor texts for the book, NO VOICE TOO SMALL: Fourteen Young Americans Making History.  She is joined by her co-editors, Jeannette Bradley (who also illustrated the book!) and Lindsay Metcalf.  All three of these kidlit stars serve the children's book community--thank you for sharing your insights, Keila, Jeanette, and Lindsay! 

Do you utilize picture books as mentor texts?  If so, how?


Lindsay: Absolutely! When I read a book that really sings, I type it out. Then I can get a feel for the pieces that add up to a book that really resonates with me. Is it the point of view? The page turns? The use of metaphors? The very sentence structure or other poetic devices? Then I can play around with using a similar structure or devices in my own work.


Jeanette: Yes, I study picture books as both art and writing mentor texts.  Like Lindsay, I sometime type out the text of a book that I think works really well - a technique I learned from my first ReFoReMo! I have been sketching from the masters since I was 10, but it never occurred to me to do a similar technique with writing before then.  I mark pagination in my typed text to help me study the pacing and use of page turns.


Keila: It’s unanimous! Picking apart a well-written book inspires me. Whether it’s the approach to a tough topic, a fresh approach to an evergreen topic, the story structure, or literary techniques used, I want to study the parts I think are well done.


Were there any particular mentor texts that inspired you in the creation of NVTS?


Lindsay: I remember taking inspiration from...



by Susan Hood, illustrated by various artists (HarperCollins, 2018)


by Charles R. Smith Jr., illustrated by Shane W. Evans (Roaring Brook, 2015)

by Chelsea Clinton, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger (Philomel, 2017)


Jeanette: I took inspiration from:


STICK AND STONE by Beth Ferry  (Author), Tom Lichtenheld  (Illustrator) (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2015)  Tom Lichtenheld’s use of color paper and pastels in this book years ago, in which he plays with the paper color as both foreground and background, inspired me when I first saw it years ago. I love drawing that way, but had never found a book that worked with that technique.

       FRY BREAD: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard  (Author), Juana Martinez-Neal  (Illustrator)  Once again, the use of toned paper in this book is brilliant. And the backmatter adds multiple layers of richness to the text.

       LITTLE LEADERS: Bold Women in Black History, by Vashti Harrison, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (December 5, 2017). This book is so unique, with Vashti Harrison’s sweet, childlike portraits of famous Black women. While my portraits are much more realistic and show the young activists engaged in their activism, I always come back to this book to study the power of simplicity, of editing out inessentials, and focusing on heart in picture book illustration.


Keila: I took inspiration from:

SHAKING THINGS UP: 14 YOUNG WOMEN WHO CHANGED THE WORLD  by Susan Hood, et al., HarperCollins (January 23, 2018). This book features fourteen different revolutionary, inspirational women. And a different female author and illustrator wrote about each of them. And I thought we had a lot of moving parts!


WE RISE, WE RESIST, WE RAISE OUR VOICES edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson, Crown Books for Young Readers (September 4, 2018). The buzz about this book came as we put together our proposal. This book, targeted for a middle grade audience, is also an anthology of poems, letters, and personal essays by well-known children’s book creatives and written to empower youth

·       SHE PERSISTED: 13 AMERICAN WOMEN WHO CHANGED THE WORLD by Chelsea Clinton, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger.  Philomel Books (May 30, 2017),

This book includes biographies of diverse female leaders from the past and present. Besides the illustration, each subject has a quote that shows how she persisted to reach her goal.


How has reading Picture Books helped you discover who you are as a writer/illustrator?


Lindsay: It helps me better understand the concepts I love to read, so I can better choose which story ideas to pursue. If I’m not writing for myself first — and for the little girl I once was — then I’m always in danger of losing interest in the project. Given that each project takes years to develop, you have to have passion for your own stories.


Jeanette: I wasn’t a writer or an illustrator before I started reading picture books with my first baby. I was working in fair housing/fair lending policy. Reading picture books as an adult brought me back to my first encounter with art, which was picture book illustrations and comics, and rekindled my love.  I went back to school to learn children’s book illustration.


Keila: As a former teacher, I read picture books to my students all the time. And continued to do so when I became a parent. I have witnessed the power of story. It is undeniable. And to see how children respond to books can be enlightening. We can look to the diverse books movement to see exactly that stories are important, for representation, inclusion, and to allow readers to experience a world or point of view that may differ from their own.


What do you feel is the BEST way for picture book creators to utilize mentor texts?


Lindsay: By typing them out, marking the spreads, and getting a feel for the text as it appears on a blank page, without illustrations. I didn’t realize until quite a bit later that the main text is only a small piece of what writers can take away from a published book. Type out the dedication. Type out the flap copy, which is its own art form. And be sure to look for the logline on the copyright page to see how the publisher boils down the themes into a sentence or two. You won’t need to know how to write a dedication or flap copy until you have a book contract, but practicing writing loglines will help tremendously in focusing your stories and preparing your pitch for conferences as well as Twitter contests.


Jeanette: In addition to the above, I try to read as many of the picture books related to my WIP as possible - even older ones - and take extensive notes on what I feel works and what is lacking in the current literature. I’m fortunate to live in a state that, while small, has an excellent statewide library system, so I can get almost everything through interlibrary loan.


Keila: Whenever I read a book that resonates with me, I want to figure out why. Where am I getting the information that makes me laugh, wonder, expect? Is it the text or the art? I will re-read and note those parts in the book. Having worked closely with Jeanette, I am getting a better feel for how art and text work together depending on each scene. They each have jobs to do, and studying that relationship in a picture book is very helpful.


Lindsay H. Metcalf is a journalist and author of nonfiction picture books: Beatrix Potter, Scientist, illustrated by Junyi Wu (Albert Whitman & Company, 2020); Farmers Unite! Planting a Protest for Fair Prices (Calkins Creek, November 2020); and No Voice Too Small: Fourteen Young Americans Making History, a poetry anthology co-edited by Lindsay H. Metcalf, Keila V. Dawson, and Jeanette Bradley, illustrated by Bradley (Charlesbridge, 2020). Lindsay lives in north-central Kansas, not far from the farm where she grew up, with her husband, two sons, and a variety of pets.


Website: lindsayhmetcalf.com

Twitter: @lindsayhmetcalf

Instagram: @lindsayhmetcalf

Pinterest: pinterest.com/lindsayhmetcalf/

Flipgrid: No Voice Too Small Book Club

Keila V. Dawson
 worked as a community organizer, teacher, school administrator, educational consultant, and advocate for children with special needs before she became a children’s book author. She is co-editor of No Voice Too Small: Fourteen Young Americans Making History, along with Lindsay H. Metcalf and Jeanette Bradley, illustrated by Bradley (Charlesbridge, 2020), she is the author of The King Cake Baby illustrated by Vernon Smith, (Pelican Publishing, January 2020) and  the forthcoming Opening the Road: Victor Hugo Green and His Green Book, illustrated by Alleanna Harris (Beaming Books, January 26, 2021). Dawson is a New Orleans native and has lived and worked in the Philippines, Japan, and Egypt. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.


Website: www.keiladawson.com

Twitter: @keila_dawson

Instagram: @keilavdawson 

Pinterest: pinterest.com/keiladawson/

Flipgrid: No Voice Too Small Book Club


 once worked for fair housing organizations, but now she writes and draws for kids. In addition to co-editing and illustrating No Voice Too Small, she is the author and illustrator of Love, Mama and the illustrator of When the Babies Came to Stay. Jeanette lives in Rhode Island with her wife and kids. www.jeanettebradley.com



Website: www.jeanettebradley.com

Twitter: @JeanetteBradley

Instagram: @jea_bradley

Flipgrid: No Voice Too Small Book Club


  1. Three fabulous streams of advice, all converging at the delta of mentor texts. Awesome post!

  2. Great post - thanks for bringing these folks and their ideas to us today.

  3. Thanks for sharing these tips for using mentor texts as writers! It’s always nice to read a list of books other authors love. Great post!