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.
Beth, I so enjoy your books. I appreciate seeing exactly how you log a mentor text entry and what you look for specifically. Can't wait to read SMELLY KELLY.ReplyDelete
Thanks, Kathy! Poring over the text on its own is so revealing - and the more I learn, the more I have to look for as each story provides unique challenges.Delete
"Smelly" Kelly sounds right up the alley for a 5th grade boy. Excited to see this one! Congratulations and I love the analysis of the mentor texts!ReplyDelete
Thanks, Megan! Smells are definitely fascinating! Especially when they lead to science, surprises, and heroism!Delete
Your research methods are very good! Thanks for sharing with us! Smelly Kelly is such a great book! :)ReplyDelete
Thanks, Angie! I've learned so much from this kid lit community!Delete
Thanks for sharing about how you use mentor texts, Beth. Your system sounds great and I'll have to try it. Congrats on your book, too! It sounds wonderful! Love the title.ReplyDelete
Thanks, Kim! It's a challenge to stay organized with research, but this works to use mentor texts effectively.Delete
I liked reading how you create a spreadsheet to organize your mentor texts. I especially liked seeing the color coded sample. I am curious to know what the craft element "breaks 4th wall" is. I have never heard of this before. I thoroughly enjoyed sharing Lizzie Demands a Seat with my students. I look forward to sharing Smelly Kelly with them as well.ReplyDelete
Breaking the 4th Wall is when a character talks to the reader. Like in The Monster at the end of this Book. So glad you are sharing my books with your students! Thank you! And if you ever want to do a virtual visit - happy to chat with them (30 min free). Just let me know.Delete
I have started typing out picture book text and then trying to learn how the author left room for the illustrator. The idea of starting a spreadsheet sounds like an excellent organizational tool.ReplyDelete
It really helps to have a searchable spreadsheet - and once you have an idea of the kinds of things you'd like to be able to reference, then you can use those terms or create columns for that stuff.Delete
I can't wait to read this book. And thank you so much for the hints on using mentor texts. Although I use them all the time, I honestly am not that organized. Thanks to you, Beth, I will try harder!ReplyDelete
I often turn to some favorites and analyze for different things as a ms requires - so I just print out a copy and use highlighters - and the best thing is that then you start looking at your own mss through those eyes. Good luck!Delete
Beth, I am feeling far less organized (and disciplined) than you. Perhaps I need to get more of this information down in a single document. I tend to just sort through my typed up mentor text files when I'm looking for inspiration on structure, voice, etc...not the most efficient use of time. Thanks for the prod!ReplyDelete
That's the one thing I have organized - ha! Hope it helps you!Delete
Thank you for generously sharing your research process and providing a specific example. I love how you played with telling the story from multiple viewpoints before settling on one. SMELLY KELLY is sure to become a mentor text for many of us.ReplyDelete
Thanks much for your comments! I always learn the most from peers! And I think it took me a while before I had the courage to play with structure and take a wrecking ball to a ms. But having those mentor texts can inspire one to do more than usual.Delete
Loved the picture with the color-coding. I am such a visual learner that it makes a huge difference for me when I am able to see how others work. Thanks so much!ReplyDelete
Thanks for stopping by, Susan! I usually use highlighters of varied colors after printing out, but every once in a while I do it on the computer. Paper is actually better because I draw lines all over it to connect threads I'm looking at. I'm visual too and like to see how it all falls on the page.Delete
I like the idea of a spreadsheet. I read so many nonfiction picture books, this seems like such a great way to reference them again easily. Thanks Beth!ReplyDelete
You're welcome! Thanks for stopping by!Delete
Thank you Beth for this great article. I like mentor texts too, and find them helpful when doing layout for any present piece that I am working on. I am also an illustrator, so I love looking at page spreads, fonts and how space is utilized for special effects. I think this is helping me train my eye to come up with new illustration ideas.ReplyDelete
I'm sure you would have additional notes on the spreadsheet as an illustrator, but all the same - record anything noteworthy and then you can find it easily later. Hope you find the process useful!ReplyDelete
Thanks for sharing how you use mentor texts. I use them heavily...escpicially in my revision process just for the reason you mentioned above - it’s like opening up a treasure box and seeing what’s inside! I note the strengths and then try applying them to my WIP where applicable.
I love the spreadsheet idea! I just have a folder with typed out mentor texts but I need to try the spreadsheet to note strengths, etc.
The spreadsheet is helpful because my memory is not up to retaining all the books I read. 🤣 I type up the ones that really hit me in some way. But there are so many others that have a special feature or topic that I might want to refer to when working on a ms. - the spreadsheet just makes them easy to find and then request from the library.Delete