Today's nonfiction picture books are the real deal. The combination of words with vivid illustrations make history relatable and understandable for child readers. The result is engagement with history and people. As an educator, this excites me! Beth Anderson is on a roll with appealing nonfiction picture books. She continues to be selected as a Junior Library Guild author, first with Lizzie Demands a Seat: Lizzie Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights, and now with her newly released Smelly Kelly and His Super Senses: How James Kelly's nose saved the New York City Subway. Congratulations, Beth!
How do you utilize picture books as mentor texts?
I log all the PBs I read into a spreadsheet with notes on plot points, key ideas, topics, structure features, and such. That way, I can search the document for mentor texts later for whatever topic or craft element I need. For example: complex topic, breaks 4th wall, 1st person, child narrator, 2 main characters, animal rescue, questions, quotations, sidebars, etc. I also type up the text of PBs I find significant in some way. I mark page turns and note any unique use of illustrations. Then I can print out a copy and highlight different aspects such as transitions, conflict, “heart” threads, turning points, voice, imagery. I can trace how certain elements weave through the story. This is how I learn the most—by analyzing the best. Then, as I write and revise, I examine my own manuscripts similarly. I highlight to see how different parts of the story carry through, connect, build plot, characterization, emotion, and more, looking for gaps, flow, and arcs. When I’ve seen how the craft elements work in a stellar story, I can better identify problems in my own.
Were there any particular mentor texts that inspired you when writing or revising Smelly Kelly?
It was really tough to find mentor texts when writing “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses. I pored over two PBs. Marvelous Cornelius, Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans by Bildner is a book I LOVE about a community worker bringing joy and resilience. Strong Man, the Story of Charles Atlas by McCarthy helped guide structure. I also looked at the plot line of the movie Superman. For Smelly Kelly my largest challenge was how to link together the anecdotes I had and shape them into a meaningful story.
For the story that would become Lizzie Demands a Seat, my January 2020 release, I explored different ways to tell the story. I looked at a lot of civil rights stories, including Boycott Blues, How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation by Pinkney; Lillian’s Right to Vote, a Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by Winter; Leontyne Price, Voice of a Century by Weatherford; Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp Stride by Pinkney; Back of the Bus by Reynolds; Moses, When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Weatherford; and even The Tree in the Courtyard, Looking Through Anne Frank’s Window
by Gottesfeld. I played with some different narrators for the story and also different structures. Having this rich pile of books to turn to really helped set me free to experiment. You can see from that list, that I was trying to learn from the masters of children’s lit!
Has reading picture books helped you discover anything about yourself as a writer?
Reading a range of PBs has helped me hone in on my own passion and how I might be able to tell the stories I want to tell, as well as allowing me to see where I “fit.” I’ve discovered several mentor authors who set a high bar and push me to reach for it in my own tellings. Sometimes picture books encourage me to trust myself by letting me see that something I tend to do naturally as part of my process is legit! PBs continually reinforce my love for language and word play, as well as my passion for learning in the midst of a great story.
How would you advise other writers hoping to learn from picture books as mentor texts?
I think logging every book you read and recording notes on it (Thank you, Julie Rowan-Zoch, for that tip!) is extremely valuable. Not only do you create a great searchable database, but it also teaches you to analyze and examine PBs as a writer. Also, typing up the entire text creates another great tool. Even as I type it out, I’m noticing things the author is doing—it’s like opening up a treasure box and seeing what’s inside! It’s most definitely worth the time! There are some mentor texts I’ve used at different times for different purposes. And there’s always more to learn from them.
Boyds Mills Kane is giving away of copy of Smelly Kelly! Enter the drawing below. (US only)
Beth Anderson, a former English as a Second Language teacher, has always marveled at the power of books. Armed with linguistics and reading degrees, a fascination with language, and penchant for untold tales, she strives for accidental learning in the midst of a great story. Beth lives in Loveland, Colorado where she laughs, wonders, thinks, and questions; and hopes to inspire kids to do the same. Author of AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET (S&S 2018), LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT! (Calkins Creek, 2020), and “SMELLY” KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES (Calkins Creek, Oct. 2020), Beth has more historical gems on the way.