Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Mentor Text Author Study: Revisiting Deborah Underwood

 by Keila V. Dawson

Since the last mentor text author study of Deborah Underwood’s work in 2017, she’s released many new picture books. It’s always a pleasure to read Underwood’s stories and take a closer look at what makes them work so well. And kids, and adults, find the humor and heart equally engaging.



THE PANDA PROBLEM, illustrated by Hannah Marks (Dial Books, April 2019) is written from the point of view of the unnamed characters Panda and Narrator. The conflict starts early, right on the cover. Under the title, THE PANDA PROBLEM, Panda is hanging out on a bamboo tree and asks through a speech balloon, “What problem?”

On the first spread, Narrator starts the story about a panda who lived in a beautiful bamboo grove but had a BIG problem. But Panda insists he does not. And Narrator insists the main character in a story must have a problem! And chaos ensues.


“I don’t know. Looks like you’re the one with a problem, buddy.”

Panda speaks through speech bubbles, and Narrator’s words are on the page in typical text which lends to read aloud fun using two distinct voices. Besides the fun dialogue, Underwood uses onomatopoeia. 

  “BRAAAAP!” (Panda’s burp)

Although Narrator offers different problems a main character could have, Panda remains resistant to those ideas. Underwood introduces other characters and settings and problems and strays far away, (literally) from the original storyline.  And the story continues on the back cover where the cantankerous Panda sits in his bamboo tree, crayon in hand, and draws a line through NO PROBLEM, NO STORY presumably written by Narrator.  Then writes NO STORY, NO PROBLEM!

What a fun story to teach a young audience about how to create a story. Or how not to?




In OGILVY, illustrated by T. L. McBeth (Henry Holt and Co., May 2019), a gender bending bunny moves to a new neighborhood and challenges rules that dictate who can do what based on the clothes they wear. Bunnies wearing sweaters make art and climb rocks. Bunnies wearing dresses, play ball and knit socks. But it’s hard to tell who is wearing a sweater and who is wearing a dress! So, the clothing is identified by Ogilvy depending on what the bunny wants to do.

Written in rhyming text, this engaging story will spark a lot of discussion around topics of gender stereotypes, acceptance, and inclusiveness.

A bunny bounced over, “What is that you’re wearing?”

Ogilvy paused and looked down at the clothes.

But is it a sweater or is it a dress?

“It matters?” asked Oglivy.

“Goodness! Oh, yes!”


EVERY LITTLE LETTER illustrated by Joy Hwang Ruiz (Dial Books, August 2020) is another story with a powerful message. In this allegory tale, Underwood uses letters as characters to tell the story. Big letters build walls to keep their community separated from other letters. A curious little letter h finds an opening and together with a small letter i from the other side build the word, “hi”. When the hole is discovered, Big letter H patches it up and the other big letters foil other ways the little letters try to connect with other letters. But little h finds a way to make friends and words. And the messages the little letters create tear down the figurative and physical wall that divides all.

The H’s felt safe behind their walls.

They knew other letters lurked outside.

Different letters.

This story helps children understand walls are divisive and limiting. But when combining communities and different groups, there’s a lot that can be accomplished, together.




OUTSIDE IN illustrated by Cindy Derby (HMH Books for Young Readers, April 2020) is filled with heart. Although this book was written long before the COVID-19 pandemic, and its heartfelt message is universal, current events make it more relevant. The lyrical writing is the perfect structure for a story that reminds us how connected we are to the outside, even when inside. And now that children and adults have all had outside time limited, Underwood's words resonate even more today.

I’m here,

Outside says.

I miss you.

Outside waits…

The illustrations beautifully complement the sparse text. Throughout the book, Underwood taps into our senses, reminding us of the smells, sights, sounds, taste and feel of outside.

Outside sings to us

with chirps

and rustles

and tap-taps on the roof.


Outside cuddles us

in clothes,

once puffs of cotton.


There are many reasons to study books by Deborah Underwood. Her ability to find the right voice, or theme, or heart are only a few. 

Other recent releases from Underwood include:


  1. Deborah's books are always wonderful - some of my favorites.

  2. Deborah's books are among my most favorites. Keila, thank you for sharing these books-great mentor texts!

  3. Great list of books! I do enjoy reading Deborah's books. Thanks for giving us mentor books to study. :)