Learning from other authors and books isn’t cheating: using mentor texts when writing or illustrating creative non-fiction picture books by Juliet Clare Bell

November sees the stars align for creative nonfiction picture book writers in the UK. It's Tara Lazar's ever inspiring PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Ideas Month) and it's National Nonfiction November, where the Federation of Children's Book Groups celebrate all things nonfiction. And as part of their month-long celebration, here's a post for writers wishing to, or already writing, creative nonfiction picture books.

Rebecca Colby and I ran a session on creative nonfiction last week at the SCBWI annual conference in Winchester. We arrived, weighed down with as many creative nonfiction picture books as we could carry. Since most of the books are published only in the US and not the UK, we knew that lots of the participants wouldn’t have had a chance to see them, and we were keen to spread the creative nonfiction love.  I was drooling at the sight of so many beautiful books and we could see that others were, too.

Participants at our nonfiction session, identifying mentor texts and writing opening scenes (with thanks to Katherine Lynas).

Ideas for creative nonfiction books come from anywhere and everywhere (I did a blog about ideas for nonfiction last year that you can read here...). Last night, I was speaking to my sister on the phone. She was telling me about one of the amazing carbon-emission-reducing projects they support where she works, a piece of equipment that has a massive impact on the environment and health. Initially, I thought that although it would be a fascinating thing to research and write about, it probably wouldn’t be for me because I’m drawn to writing about people, rather than things…

And today, I was in our bathroom, with a plumber whilst he sorted out our central heating that hadn’t worked so far this autumn/winter. The strange noises coming from the boiler, so different from how it all sounds when it’s working, started me thinking about how it all works (or doesn’t) and again thought, hmmn, interesting, but not for me because it’s not about a person…

And then, having almost dismissed these ideas because they wouldn’t be about specific people, I started thinking about some of the books that have been written so creatively and poetically about non-human subjects:

A Seed Is Sleepy by Dianna Aston and Sylvia Long (2014; Chronicle Books)

Some Bugs by Angela DiTerlizzi and Brendan Wenzel (2014; Simon and Schuster)

Locomotive by Brian Floca  (2013; Atheneum):

They cleared the rocks
and dug the tunnels,
They raised the hammers
and brought them down-

"Three strokes to the spike,
ten spikes to the rail!"


Or Miranda Paul’s book about the water cycle, Water is Water (Miranda Paul and Jason Chin, 2015; Roaring Book Press) which has been turned into a song by Emily Arrow

These books all use really interesting, poetic ways to tell their story about seeds, or bugs, or water, or trains… and it got me re-thinking about the piece of equipment used in developing countries and what it does; and it got me re-thinking about the sounds I could hear coming out of our central heating system when it wasn’t working, and how those sounds changed as it all started to work…

And I thought about how it’s not cheating to be influenced by the way other people write their books, or using mentor texts…

Mentor texts are texts that teach us about aspects of writing in a particular area. When I started writing picture books about twelve years ago, I religiously typed out texts of picture books that I loved, in spreads, so I could see how they looked in manuscript form and compare them with the look of my own manuscripts. I didn’t try and copy them, but I looked at their shape and how they used page turns, and where they left the pictures to tell aspects of the story… It was a great way to learn more about the craft of picture book writing. Without ever having heard of the phrase, they were my mentor texts. I analysed what really worked with them and what made me want to engage with them.

Creative nonfiction picture books provide us with new information in a compelling way and there are so many beautiful books that use interesting ways to do that. The more I read, the more excited I get about how I can get information across in a book, and the more I realise that a lot more subjects are ripe for writing about than I ever thought before.

I want to give you a little taster of some of the beautiful books that are out there but even more, I want to show how we can use them as mentor texts to create books that children will love and return to again and again.

First, books that tell their stories in a really simple, lyrical way (in addition to A Seed is Sleepy and Some Bugs, above):

a real favourite of mine, Me...Jane by Patrick McDonnell (2011; Little Brown). With a few words, Patrick McDonnell has focused on chimpanzees and the importance of being outside for Jane, right from when she was young. Perfect...

and Mama Built a Little Nest by Jennifer Ward and Steve Jenkins (2014; Beach Lane Books), which writes about different birds and how they build their nests to the rhyme of Mary Had a Little Lamb.

I love that these books tell their story simply, even though the subjects could be told in a far more in-depth, complicated way. I love that there’s a book about Jane Goodall, whose books I devoured in my twenties, that is aimed at under fives. And it works brilliantly. There’s someone I’ve been wanting to write about for some time and had a publisher who was interested but suddenly there were loads of books about her. Until recently, when I went through Me… Jane (for the umpteenth time), I’d given up on finding a different angle about this woman and thought there would not be room for another book about her. But I think that her message can be condensed into something that’s very simple and yet powerful and meaningful to very young children. Me… Jane is my mentor text for that story as I’ll look at how such a simple narrative can be used so effectively. With only a few hundred words, each word is critical and it’s great to have such a lovely example of a book that works so simply for that age group.

I also love that quite a lot of new creative non-fiction is told in rhyme. A few useful mentor texts that show how you can get factual information over in a really fun, rhyming way include Some Bugs, Mama Built a Little Nest and A Seed is Sleepy (featured above).

I've found it helpful to study how other books draw the reader in, right from the first page, like Henry's Freedom Box (by Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson, 2007; Scholastic):

Henry Brown wasn't sure how old he was. 
Henry was a slave. And slaves weren't
allowed to know their birthdays.

(c) Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson (2007)

Given the limited space in a picture book, many stories don’t start from the beginning of someone’s life, and it's helpful to study others’ texts and books to see different ways of starting a story:

The Day-Glo Brothers (by Chris Barton and Tony Persiani, 2009; Charlesbridge).

Most of us in the UK have grown up with information books that are very different from the creative nonfiction picture books we’re talking about here, and so for us, with so few such books available to buy in the UK, I think mentor texts become even more useful. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are lots of beautiful books out there and we can make our books better by studying them. It isn’t cheating, or a short cut. It's good practice in improving your craft. The end product will be something written your way, in your voice and the subject matter will be completely different. It’s highly unlikely anyone would even be able to guess what your mentor text/s had been for your own book, because what appeals to you (and therefore what you take from it) in your mentor text will be different from what appeals to someone else.

Our creative nonfiction picture book, Two Brothers and a Chocolate Factory: The Remarkable Story of Richard and George Cadbury (by Juliet Clare Bell and Jess Mikhail) will be out in March, 2016. Unusually, Jess and I worked closely together as writer and illustrator and we pored over American nonfiction picture books before Jess started working on the illustrations. There were things we identified in several books that we really loved, like the use of quotes within the pictures Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s A Splash of Color: The Life and  Art of Horace Pippin

and the way Melissa Sweet used panels to tell part of the story

and we liked how for a book like The Tree Lady (by H Joseph Hopkins and Jill McElmurry, 2013; Beach Lane Books) they used a landscape orientation because there were landscapes in the book.

(c) H Joseph Hopkins and Jill McElmurry (2013)

We also chose a landscape orientation for our book because the theme of the book (where outdoors and environment was so key to the story) lent itself to landscape -having looked at The Tree Lady. Without mentioning it explicitly here, no one would ever think that we were using those books as mentor texts (or more literally, in our case, mentor illustrations).  

With my first creative nonfiction picture book coming out in March 2016 and some really exciting ideas for new ones that I'm working on, not to mention enjoying all the other beautiful books out there, and the growing interest in these books in the UK, I'm very excited to be celebrating National Nonfiction November with the Federation of Children's Book Groups here on Words and Pictures. Happy Nonfiction everyone! x

(Jess Mikhail [R] and me [L] riding the (chocolate) waves to creative nonfiction publication.)
Silly. But hey, you can do worse than silly...

Juliet Clare Bell, always known as Clare, is a long-time member and fan of SCBWI. She co-coordinates Central West SCBWI, British Isles, and runs the Friday Night Critique sessions every year at the annual conference. Her latest book, The Unstoppable Maggie McGee (illustrated by Dave Gray, fellow SCBWIer) was released earlier this month, with all £6 of the cover price going to Birmingham Children's Hospital Magnolia House Appeal. In the first two weeks, it has raised over £30,000 in book sales alone). www.unstoppablemaggie.co.uk 


  1. Super post and you mentioned many of my favorite nonfiction titles. Thanks for sharing. It sounds like a lovely session.

    1. Other mentor texts: BALLOONS OVER BROADWAY (by M. Sweet), Don Tate's POET: The Remarkable Story of George Moses. And the highly praised SWAN: the Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder and Julie Morstad.

    2. Thank you, Kristin. You were the one to recommend The Day-Glo Brothers to me! I'm so glad to be in a mostly American critique group -we just don't have anything like the range of nonfiction picture books to choose from here. I'm always on the lookout for more. Please do say if there are ones that you love that aren't mentioned here. Thanks, Clare x

    3. I have TWO copies of Balloons Over Broadway! It's great. I don't know POET at all, and I've not yet read SWAN. I'll have to try and get hold of them. Thank you for sharing them, Kristin.

  2. This is a very timely post with it being National Non-Fiction Month, and what a great follow-up from our conference workshop. Like you, I love "Mama Built a Little Nest" and used it as a mentor text for one of my ideas. A creative NF PB that I'm really keen to read (as I think it would make a good mentor text for me) that comes out tomorrow (!!) is "The House that George Built" by Suzanne Slade and Rebecca Bond. Thanks for this, Clare!

    1. I've just looked up The House That George Built, on line. I've tried writing a story to that rhyme before and it looks really interesting (and more successful than my attempt!). Thank you, Rebecca. Just spending time with all those lovely books and with all those lovely people who were excited about all those lovely books has got me even more enthused...

  3. Wonderful post. Thanks so much for writing it.

    1. Thank you, Darlene. Happy researching and writing!

  4. Searching for how I could get a copy of your Two Brothers and a Chocolate Factory book, I discovered this article, Clare...excellent...thank you so very much! I am writing almost all nonfiction picture books now...with Sweet Dreams, Sarah debuting in Spring 2017. I'm excited for all of your beautiful books! Congrats. And now I will continue the hunt. ;)

  5. This is best book for home-schooling thanks for share it computer science statement of purpose .


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