A BRIEF HISTORY OF UNDERPANTS, by Christine Van Zandt, illustrated by Harry Briggs is hilarious and informative. I love the puns, idioms and playful voice. So I'm excited to learn from Christine in this mentor text talk.
Do you utilize picture books as mentor texts? If so, how?
Yes! Whenever I have a new idea I’m working on, I seek out previously published picture books to see what’s already been done. The Los Angeles Public Library is my go-to source. I’ll also buy the books I want to keep on hand to read again or use as reference sources for my nonfiction manuscripts.
Were there any particular mentor texts that inspired you in the creation of A BRIEF HISTORY OF UNDERPANTS?
I research even when writing fiction. For my ~1,500-word, 48-page nonfiction picture book, A Brief History of Underwear, the three main mentor texts were Underwear: What We Wear Under There (2,682-word, 32-page picture book, Holiday House, 2008), The Revealing Story of Underwear (2,413-word, 64-page early reader, Usborne, 2006), and How Underwear Got Under There: A Brief History (~4,000-word, 48-page middle-grade book, Dutton, 2007).
How has reading picture books helped you discover who you are as a writer?
Picture books have evolved so much—it wasn’t so long ago that we didn’t even have children’s books in all these categories such as board book, picture book, chapter book, and on up through YA. In college, I specialized in children’s literature and it was fascinating seeing how picture books have changed in regard to content, the role of art, and word count.
When I first began writing picture books, I kept hearing that picture book writers should read 1,000 picture books to become fluent writers. That number floored me back then, now, several thousand books later, I totally get it: we need the breadth and depth to hone our craft.
Reading widely has helped me discover which books resonate with me so I could then think about why. It also keeps me atop of the many creative formats in which stories are told. When I see something that grabs my attention, such as dual narrative, I want to try it!
What do you feel is the BEST way for picture book writers to utilize mentor texts?
I rely on Goodreads as a place to track, sort, and rate what I’ve read. Since I have many manuscripts underway at the same time, after I’ve set one aside for a while, I use Goodreads as a source to review the mentor texts for that picture book idea.
Once I have mentor texts for a project, I feel they are best utilized as a gauge of what’s been published. I consider how to make my manuscript different, approaching from a new angle or in a fresh way that hasn’t been done before.
I also track Publisher’s Weekly and Publisher’s Marketplace to find books with possibly similar stories that are making their way through the publication process.
Christine Van Zandt hasn’t found fossilized underwear, but loves digging up ideas that make great books for kids.
She’s a literary editor and lives in Los Angeles, California, with her family and a monarch butterfly sanctuary. Visit her online at christinevanzandt.com.