Hello Susan! Congratulations on your electric year in publishing, and thanks for chatting with us about mentor texts today!
How has reading picture books helped you discover who you
are as a writer?
Reading picture books, especially the most recent ones, is so freeing! I’ve always liked to try different things creatively, playing with different structures and forms, trying out different concepts or ways of storytelling, but I used to sometimes worry that I should be trying to follow conventional forms and fit into established templates. Now, I read and explore the incredible expanding range of voices, writing styles, and themes in today’s picture books. I see the publishing world opening up to so many more possibilities—welcoming them! My reading encourages me to take more creative risks. I feel even more inspired as a writer to ask more of myself!
How do you utilize picture books as mentor texts to learn more about craft?
Sometimes, after reading a picture book that I really admire—whether because of its economy of expression, its lyricism, its unique structure or form, its particular subject matter—I’ll type it out and save it so I can come back to it again—to just the words alone. I find it powerful to read the words of a picture book isolated, without the art, as a reminder of what words alone can and must do, of their power. And also, to refresh my understanding of how much they also must rely on accompanying art to achieve their full lift-off as a story. I’ll sometimes add comments below the text, reminding myself what initially drew me to it and, if I can, explaining how the writer achieved this or why. I’ll return to these texts for inspiration when I’m struggling with specific issues in a manuscript I’m writing.
I also find it helpful to read picture books aloud, or to close my eyes and listen to someone else reading aloud, whether in person or, more commonly these days, someone reading via an online video. The physical experience of hearing the story read aloud shows us why so many of Hearing the words of a story spoken aloud, the pause for the page turn, the story being resumed … Hearing the cadence and flow of the story, the dialogue … Hearing the effect of a gathering of many words, and the effect of the sprinkling of very few words … the craft elements we read about or use are important, shows us how they are effective in supporting the storyline.
Copying out texts, listening to stories read aloud, and, of course, reading the actual picture books themselves are ways of experiencing the various elements of stories using different senses. My hope is that what I learned and absorbed from these experiences help me craft and shape my own stories, both as something akin to “muscle memory” and by helping me make thoughtful decisions along the way.
Were there any particular mentor texts that inspired you in the creation of your picture books?
I am fortunate to have had four picture books published this year! My picture book Carmen and the House That Gaudí Built (Owl Kids Books, 2021) is fiction but is based on, and includes, some real facts and people, including the famous architect, Antoni Gaudí. While playing with possibilities for this story and revising its many drafts, I found it helpful to read picture books which feature a real (famous) person meeting a mostly-invented child character, for example, The Magical Garden of Claude Monet by Laurence Anholt.
When my story, Walking for Water: How One Boy Stood Up for Gender Equality (Kids Can, 2021), was contracted, I learned the publisher planned to include it in their series, Citizen Kids. So I read several of the wonderful books in that series to get a sense of how my story might be positioned alongside them, for example Monica Kulling’s On Our Way to Oyster Bay and Jude Isabella’s The Red Bicycle.
While researching for my first two books in The Science of How series (Kids Can), Sounds All Around and Lights Day and Night, I read many picture books but only fiction, rather than non-fiction. I read during my writing and revising process to help me try to achieve and maintain an accessible and friendly narrative style.
Susan Hughes is a writer, editor, and story coach, specializing in working with writers of children’s and YA manuscripts. She is the author of many children’s books, both fiction and non-fiction, from board books and picture books to chapter books, MG, YA, and graphic novels too. Her most recent picture books are Sounds All Around: The Science of How Sound Works, illustrated by Ellen Rooney (Kids Can, 2021) and Lights Day and Night: The Science of How Light Works, illustrated by Ellen Rooney (Kids Can, 2021); Walking for Water: How One Boy Stood Up for Gender Equality, illustrated by Nicole Miles (Kids Can, 2021); and Carmen and the House that Gaudi Built, illustrated by Marianne Ferrer (Owl Kids, 2021). She lives in a house with a red door in Toronto, Canada. You can learn more about Susan at www.susanhughes.ca or on twitter and Instagram.