Writing Tips: Mentor Texts

I have learned so much about the craft of writing during this last year. I’m no expert, but I thought it would be fun to share some tips and tricks that have been the most helpful to me for improving my skills. Hopefully some of you will find this helpful.

One of the first things I learned about when I joined SCBWI was the concept of mentor texts. A mentor text is a published book that you study and use as a reference while writing your own book. It could be a book that has a similar topic or theme to the one you are writing. Or it could be written in a similar voice or point of view that you are trying to use. Obviously the goal is not to copy another book, but it can be helpful to see a finished product when you are still working with pen and paper or a blank computer screen.

My most recent manuscript is about what it’s like being a pastor’s kid. For my mentor texts, I looked at several other pictures books that were about church so I could see how people wrote about attending church. These mentor texts helped me be aware of some trends with picture books for the Christian market. A lot of these books were rhyming. My book is not. I noodled around with making my book a rhyming story, but ultimately I decided against it. But now I know that I might be competing with books that rhyme and that might be a preference for publishers and agents. If I decide to retool at any point, I know that rhyming might be the way to go.

I also looked at a few books that featured kids talking about their parent’s job. I wanted to see examples of writing from a kids point of view about working parents. This helped me figure out how much I wanted to center the child’s experience.

There was one mentor text that didn’t fit into any of these categories, but in the end it was the book I looked to the most in this process. It is a lovely book called IN MY MOSQUE by M. O. Yuksel and Hatem Aly. In the book, a child takes readers through their day at the mosque. The writing is very lyrical, but not rhyming, and it engages all five senses in its descriptions of the community, rituals and activities in the mosque.

This book really showed me how to make my writing less didactic and more sensory. Yuksel made the experience of the mosque come alive to me as someone who has never been to a mosque. I wanted to bring that approach to my story about a specific childhood experience that many people have never had for themselves. And the book really stays faithful to showing a kid’s point of view which is what I want to do in my book.

One trick I learned with mentor texts is to type them out. This is relatively easy to do with picture books. With IN MY MOSQUE, I sat down and typed up the whole text of the book. I made paragraphs to represent page turns to get a sense of how the book was structured and how ideas were grouped in the book. This way I was able to see how text looked on a typed page versus in an illustrated book. I then used that as a reference to help me see where my page breaks could be and how to give my story a sense of flow and structure with the not-yet existing illustrations in mind.

It might seem a little ironic that for my book about a pastor’s kid, the most helpful mentor text was a book about a kid going to the mosque. But other showing different faiths, IN MY MOSQUE was the perfect book to study for POV, structure, use of language, and its approach to depicting religious practices and communities.

It’s fun to discover new books and understand them in a deeper way, and mentor texts really allow you to do that while improving your writing.

The Birth of a New Book

I had a plan that I made at the beginning of the year. I would write 4 picture books by the end of 2021. The first would be the global food book, followed by a picture book biography, and then 2 more that were not yet clear to me. It was ambitious, but I felt it was do-able.

Well, here we are near the end of 2021. As of a couple of weeks ago, I had completed exactly zero picture books. The global food book had ballooned and become a massive project. What I originally envisioned as a rhyming board book had become almost an encyclopedia. I submitted a draft to a professional agent-editor and received some really great feedback in September, so my revised goal is to edit and complete that book by the end of year.

But then a new idea for a picture book popped into my head just about a month ago. I was so excited about it, but I wanted to hold off and make sure that I finished my food book first. The book had other ideas though. I was writing it in my head and thinking about it so much that I couldn’t help myself. One night, it was bugging me so much I finally decided to type it out on my phone at 2am, just I could finally sleep.

It was the easiest first draft ever. Within days, I sent copies out to some beta readers. A week later, I brought it to my SCBWI critique group. I spent the next couple of weeks revising, and simultaneously drafting a query letter. I sent my query letter off for a critique as well and then spent another day revising that. At this point, both the manuscript and the query are as ready as they’ll ever be to send out for submissions.

While AJ’s Neighborhood is self/indie published, this project is one that is probably better suited to a traditional publisher. The query letter will allow me to submit the manuscript to agents and publishers, and hopefully get someone interested in putting it out into the world for me.

This whole new book process has been just about six weeks. For me (maybe for anyone) that’s crazy fast. When I think of the year that I have poured into the global food book–the research, the revising, the taste testing–six weeks is nothing in comparison! But this new book poured out of me. It’s based a lot on my own life experiences and family stories. And I am so excited because, as far as I can tell, no one else has written this picture book yet.

So, good luck, little book (whose title and subject I am keeping secret for a few more weeks) as you go out into the world! I hope you find a good, safe home where you can grow and reach your full potential!

And I hope you all can read it someday soon!