Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Behind the Books: All Writers Depend on Mentor Texts

Whenever I do a book signing, there are a few people who tell me that they dream of writing a book for children and ask how they can get started. I always give the same two pieces of advice: (1) join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and (2) read 100 books in the genre they would like to write. I first heard this second tip from Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park back in 2006, and I couldn’t agree more.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized what I was doing from an educator’s point of view. I was suggesting that the aspiring authors use mentor texts. A hundred of them.

Educators know that using children’s literature as a model for student writing can be powerful. But the truth is that ALL writers can benefit tremendously by reading and studying the techniques employed by other writers. I often use mentor texts as I’m thinking about elements like voice and structure.

While I was writing Feathers: Not Just for Flying, I struggled to find just the right voice. I can remember asking myself, “How did April Pulley Sayre craft the light, lovely voice of Vulture View?”
To understand her process, I knew I had to put myself in her shoes, so I typed out the text of the entire book. Seeing the words, phrases, and sentences in manuscript form gave me enormous insight into how language devices can play off one another in books with a strong lyrical voice. 

When I realized that No Monkeys, No Chocolate would have a structure in which one piece of information builds upon another, I looked closely at the cumulative structures of The House That Jack Built and The Gingerbread Man. Even though these classic stories are fiction, they helped me see possibilities for my own manuscript.

 I also looked at an assortment of books with layered text, including Beaks by Sneed Collard , When the Wolves Returned by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, my own book A Place for Butterflies, and several books by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. In each case, the layers were executed differently and served a different purpose. Understanding the range helped me see how I could use layers to the best effect in my own manuscript.

Do mentor texts have to come in book form? No way! The bookworms in No Monkeys, No Chocolate were inspired by Statler and Waldorf, the two old guys in The Muppet Show balcony. While discussing the show with my nieces, I thought about the purpose of the two curmudgeonly characters—they comment on the action on the main Muppet Show stage and added humor. I instantly realized that my book needed a similar element, so I created characters and wrote dialog as a third layer of text. It solved a major problem with the book by allowing me to reinforce complex science concepts in a fun way.

No matter how much experience we have as writers, mentor texts can guide us as we strive to stretch in new and exciting directions.


  1. Agreed, Melissa! I'm currently using FEATHERS: NOT JUST FOR FLYING as a mentor text for a new book I'm writing.

  2. Wow, Patty, I'm delighted to hear that. Good luck with the new book.