PICTURE BOOK FOCUS How to Use Mentor Texts to Create Winning Picture Books

Experienced editor Natascha Biebow shares tips on how to use Mentor Texts to take your Writing and Illustrating of Picture Books to the Next Level
Picture book creators are always looking for ways to improve and design better books. Here's an easy and handy idea for how to do this:

First, take an objective look at your writing and illustrations
– what are you good at? What do you need to improve? What kind of feedback are you getting from critique partners and editors / art directors to whom you are submitting (hint: those rejection letters could actually provide you with some useful nuggets on where to improve).


Do you have a gut feeling, a niggle, about something that isn’t working in your book? LISTEN!


Look to all of these for guidance to identify areas where you could hone your writing and illustrating.

Make a list.


Now, use picture book mentor texts (and illustrations) to help you create a picture book that really shines.


Your bookshelf is an excellent place to start looking for different mentor texts.
Or try your local library or online booksellers for inspiration.

1. Find the Right Mentor Texts for YOU and your project. How?


Look for books that do something really well in the area in which you need to improve. For instance, if you need help crafting stronger openings, look for books that have openings that really grab the reader. Look at how other authors do this successfully.


You can also do this for specific manuscripts or projects, for instance, if you’re writing a non-fiction picture book on sharks, you can look for other books on this subject and others that tackle similar natural history topics. Or you can choose non-fiction biographies, character-driven picture books, or funny books.

A selection of non-fiction picture book biography mentor texts is a great
place to start when exploring how best to tackle a new topic

How do you find these books? If you have a library near you, you could check out a bunch of books and then arrange them into piles to examine more closely:

-       Books That You Like, But aren’t YOU: these are the books you admire, but they aren’t what you might write or illustrate, e.g. they aren’t your style. For instance, I admire authors who can write in verse, but I’ll never write a book in verse . . . Sometimes, it’s a question of admitting you don’t think or write/illustrate like that, but don’t worry – it’s important to be true to your own voice, while being open to learning and improving your craft.

-       Books That You DON’T Like: these are the books that don’t resonate with you. Perhaps the style isn’t for you, or the book doesn’t capture your interest. Consider where these books are placed in the market, how they might appeal to a child who is interested in this topic, and why they aren’t working for you.

-     Books That You Love: WHY do you love them? What makes them special and re- readable? These are the books that you admire, the ones you wish you’d written or illustrated.
To expand your selection, now you can find similar books to the Books That You Love. To help find these, you can consult review journals, ask other authors or friends for recommendations, or look on Amazon for books that are suggested in the category of ‘if you liked this one, you might like . . .’ 

Mentor Texts showing different ways to tackle the topics of Nature and the Natural World

Great! Now, you’ve got a LIST of mentor texts to inspire you and give you tips for improving your craft.

2. Once you have your pile of books to STUDY, you can drill down to the detail of how the book is made and put together.

Highlight, study and reflect – what makes this book sing and stand out for you? HOW does the author/illustrator achieve this? Immerse yourself.

These are Mentor Texts for Biographies about Authors

Depending on your way of learning, here are some ideas of ways you can unpick and study mentor texts:

- Read it OUT LOUD: what can you hear? What works particularly well in how the book reads aloud? What is the VOICE like?

- TYPE UP the text to get a feel for its PACE and FLOW: rhythm, structure, word choice, etc.

Look for patterns.

Check for the 75% rule (the climax should come at this point, ¾ of the way through the story)

- MAP OUT what happens on each spread - you can use a blank grid of 12 spreads of make a dummy book. This will help you look closely at Structure (pacing, beginning, plot, climax, ending, etc.)
Check out Debbie Ohi's great free templates.

I tried it out on Lizzie Finlay's wonderful new book The (Ferocious) Chocolate Wolf



- Get out your HIGHLIGHTER PENS or sticky notes . . .

Stationery is your friend! Post-it note, crayons, highlighters
and notebooks help you keep ideas and mentor texts organized.

Colour code such elements as:

 Sentence level: strong verbs, onomatopoeia, alliteration, adjectives, sensory words
• Plot elements (set-up of the problem, inciting incident, climax, climactic turning point, resolution)
Refrains (How often do they appear and do they change?)
Character arcs (look at motivation, for instance)


For example: Select a series of books that are character driven to model how character works successfully in picture books and series (from left to right: Fancy Nancy, Dandelion, Dirty Bertie, Lola, Olivia, Harry & the Dinoaurs, Mabel, Daisy, Emily Brown)



• How are the scenes put together?
• How does the author/illustrator hook in the reader?

• What point of view has been used and why?

• What is happening in the pictures and not in the words and vice-versa?

- Make LISTS:

• LOOK at the words – make a list. What words could work well for your topic?
• List out internal and external stakes

• Brainstorm back matter ideas (for non-fiction picture books)


TOP TIP: You can find examples of mentor texts related to all of these key picture book topics as part of the free craft tips on my website.


3. Apply what you’ve observed and learned as a template to your own story.

Think of this as a way of trying on a different ‘hat’ – it may not be the final one you go with, but it will give you a fresh idea for your book or even take it in an exciting new direction.


You could: 


-       Apply a structure like a template: for example, take a mentor text and, using its plot structure like the framework for a house, apply it to your story also. How does it work? What will you discover?


Road test a new structure on your story - use the framework of
a mentor text as a template.

-       Apply a technique: if you admire the way an author uses a different point of view, refrain, or how an illustrator uses certain visual layouts, try it out on your story and see what happens.

Here, the illustrator uses the Zoom Lens to show the contrast between
Billy's imaginary world inside the bucket and his parents' disbelief. The sea creatures
take up 2/3 of the spread now, as the story builds up to the turning point in the plot.
(From Billy's Bucket by Kes Gray and Garry Parsons)

-       Apply a voice: listen to the voice and word order of a couple of mentor picture book texts and apply these to yours to see what happens. For instance, you could 'try on' several different openings, like an actor trying on a costume. It may get you unstuck and help you to find a voice that works for your story.


By the end of this process, you will have honed your story and your skills.

Mentor texts are a fantastic way to immerse yourself in the art of the picture book and to remind yourself of what good quality writing sounds and FEELS like.


Give yourself time and space to soak it in, reflect and experiment.
The results could be surprising!


Natascha Biebow is an experienced editor, mentor and coach, who loves working with authors and illustrators at all levels to help them to shape their stories. www.blueelephantstoryshaping.com

She is the author of the award-winning The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons

Picture credits: Animals Baking and Badger Baking by kind permission of Lizzie Finlay
Frame of New House photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

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