I first met Artemis Roehrig at Jane Yolen's Picture Book Boot Camp. I love how she writes with her mom, Corinne Demas. Their engaging and informative series is laugh out loud funny. Do Doodle Bugs Doodle? and Do Jellyfish Eat Peanut Butter are books you'll want to read and re-read. I'm excited to learn about their mentor text process.
Kirsi: Do you utilize picture books as mentor texts? If so, how?
Corinne: In my seminar, Writing Literature for Children, at Mount Holyoke College, I used mentor texts that offered examples for each week’s new assignment. At the start of the semester my students brought in their favorite picture book from childhood. We talked about the ways each picture book had engaged them when they were little, and why it still resonated for them now they were adults. What makes a book memorable? What gives it staying power? My students came from all over the world, and some of their choices were books I’d never heard of before, but they did share some common elements: characters kids could identify with, subject matter that touched on the joys and/or dilemmas of childhood, plots that held their interest, and humor. What characterized all of them, and seems like the most important aspect of a children’s book, is that they sustained their magic even after many readings.
The picture book that I treasured as a child and read aloud to my class at the beginning of the year is the mentor text I often return to: Margaret Wise Brown’s, The Golden Egg. Published in 1947, it’s remarkably timeless. What I love about this story is the emotional credibility of the characters, a bunny and a duck. Suspense is created artfully, and the mirror image structure allows young readers to delight in the predictability and the satisfying resolution. Brown captures children’s ability to get to the core of things and not worry about leaving big questions unanswered. “Where did you come from?” asks the bunny, and the newly-hatched duck answers, “Never mind that . . . Here I am.” One of Brown’s great achievements is an ending that is sweet without being cloying “So the bunny and the duck were friends And no one was ever alone again.”
Kirsti: Were there any particular mentor texts that inspired you in the creation of DO JELLY FISH LIKE PEANUT BUTTER?
Artemis: When I worked as an environmental educator, I always chose books related to whatever topics we were covering that day (either nonfiction or informational fiction). The most important things for me are whether a book is fun to read out loud, and whether it can get kids excited about a topic and inspire them to learn more about it. The books I kept reaching for again and again were the ones that, in addition to good cadence, had opportunities for audience participation or had appeal for multiple age groups. So many of these books inspired me when I wrote Do Jellyfish Like Peanut Butter? Amazing Sea Creature Facts and the books that came before it: Does A Fiddler Crab Fiddle? And Do Doodlebugs Doodle? Amazing Insect Facts.
One of my absolute favorite books to read out loud is Water is Water by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Jason Chin. This not only has a beautiful lyrical text, but the placement of the page turns and the rhyming allows kids to guess (and yell out) what comes next. Oh and you almost accidentally learn all about the water cycle along the way! Feathers Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen, High Tide for Horseshoe Crabs by Lisa Kahn Schnell, illustrated by Alan Marks and A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long are all great because the layered text enables different readings for different age groups.
Kirsti: How has reading picture books helped you discover who you are as a writer?
Corinne: I’m always rediscovering myself as a writer, both as I read new books and as I re-read old favorites. There are books I read as a child, then read to my children, and now read to my grandchildren, and at every stage I’ve learned new things that I’ve incorporated (both consciously and unconsciously) in my own work. I keep marveling at the boundless creative energy of the picture book writing community, and sampling all the exciting new picture books coming out encourages me to take on projects that are unlike any I’ve done before.
Kirsti: What do you feel is the BEST way for picture book writers to utilize mentor texts?
One of the best way for picture book writers to utilize mentor texts is to hear them read aloud. Listen to the text on its own (without looking at the illustrations) and analyze how the narrative works on the ear. Think about the pacing and sentence length and the texture of the prose or poetry, including all those literary goodies: repetition, alliteration, assonance, rhythm, and rhyme. Then look at the actual book and think about the way the text inspired the illustrations, what energizes the plot (or plot substitute), and what propels the page turns.
Artemis: You should have hundreds of mentor texts! And definitely think of mentor texts as guides rather than rules. I’ve often seen people looking for overly specific books to use as mentor texts, for instance “a rhyming book about a lizard who likes cooking tacos”. Different texts can inspire your voice, your structure, and your topics. So instead, look for rhyming books, and books about lizards, and books about tacos. And if you can actually find a mentor text that is a rhyming book about a lizard cooking tacos then it’s probably time to revise your story and create something more unique!
Kirsti: Thank you Corinne and Artemis! You've given us lots of wisdom about mentor texts!
Corinne Demas is the award-winning author of thirty-five books for children and adults. Her numerous picture books include Saying Goodbye to Lulu, The Littlest Matryoshka, The Disappearing Island, Pirates Go to School, and Always in Trouble. Her newest picture book, The Perfect Tree, will be published by Cameron Kids in 2022. She is a professor Emerita of English at Mount Holyoke College and a fiction editor of The Massachusetts Review. She lives in Western Massachusetts and on Cape Cod, and her memoir Eleven Stories High, Growing Up in Stuyvesant Town describes her New York City childhood.
Visit her at www.corinnedemas.com
Corinne Demas and Artemis Roehrig are the co-authors of
Are Pirates Polite?, The Grumpy Pirate, Does a Fiddler Crab Fiddle?, Do Doodlebugs Doodle? Amazing Insect Facts, and Do Jellyfish Like Peanut Butter? Amazing Sea Creature Facts
Artemis Roehrig is the author of Storey Publishing’s Tattoos That Teach series and the co-host (with Rajani LaRocca) of the podcast STEM Women in KidLit
When she isn’t writing or podcasting, Artemis works as an entomology technician for the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts and plays the violin with her community theater. She lives with her family in Western Massachusetts.
Visit her at www.artemisroehrig.com