Friday, March 22, 2019

Mentor Text from Master Storytellers


I’m finishing up our TeachingAuthors series on mentor texts.  It has been insightful to read the entries from my fellow TAs.  

Naturally, the books that I’ve considered mentor texts are all nonfiction books.  Writing nonfiction is not about stringing together a bunch of facts.  It is about curating an endless number of facts, distilling them in a meaningful way that tells a powerful true story like it has never been told before.  

In a way every nonfiction book I’ve ever read has been a mentor text.  If I read a paragraph that is particularly striking, I reread it and consider how the author got the information across.  But here I will point out a couple of authors and give examples from the books.  

One of the authors that I have long admired is Russell Freedman (who passed away about a year ago).  His books are serious but never boring.  For example in the Newberry medal winning book Lincoln: A Photobiography, the first paragraph of the book says, 

“Abraham Lincoln wasn’t the sort of man who could lose himself in a crowd.  After all, he stood six feet four inches tall, and to top it off, he wore a high silk hat.”   

These first two sentences give us a vivid picture of the man along with great facts.  



In one of Freedman’s picture books, The Adventures of Marco Polo, he begins the book this way: 

“As Marco Polo lay dying, friends and relatives gathered anxiously by his bedside and begged him to confess.”  

In all of Freedman’s books, he carries the reader along with the serious-but-never-boring story.  



Another author who was well-known for his fiction, but wrote nonfiction with equal success:  Sid Fleischman (he passed away in 2010). Years ago Mr. Fleischman was a speaker at our SCBWI conference and I had the honor of driving him to the airport. I’ve never met a more polished and kind gentleman, nor one that was as humble as this very successful author of many books.  I will never forget his graciousness to one and all.  His books were like the man himself, brilliant and funny without even trying to be.  At every turn, the texts of his books are witty and engaging.  For example, the first paragraph of The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West:  

“Mark Twain was born fully grown, with a cheap cigar clamped between his teeth.”  



Another example of a creative beginning is Fleischman’s book Sir Charlie Chaplin, The Funniest Man in the World which begins:  

“In the pesky rain on a March Night in 1978, nitwit thieves huddled at the grave of Sir Charlie Chaplin and dug up the body of the world-famous comedian.  They held it for ransom.”   



His text is always accurate, yet entertaining.  

As I write my nonfiction books, I keep in mind the great authors who have gone before me.  I’ve learned from their mentor texts to start each book in a way that hooks the reader.   Then even as I am telling a true story, I’ve got to hold their attention until the very last word on the very last page.   

Carla Killough McClafferty

Friday, March 15, 2019

MY VERY FIRST - TERRIFIC - TEACHINGAUTHOR!

I began my Writer’s Journey writing picture books pre-Internet, pre-J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter $ucce$$, pre SCBWI when it was minus the I.
Barbara Seuling had yet to write her first edition of How To Write A Children’s Book and Get It Published!
But Richard Peck was right. “We write by the light of every story every read.”
Had Marjorie Weinman Sharmat’s picture book I’m Terrific not shone so brightly for me at the start of my career, I’d likely have remained a Children’s Book Writer Wannabe

I discovered the book, illustrated by Kay Chorao, with my almost-three year old son on the New Books shelf during a Library Moms-and-Tots visit. The cover grabbed our attention: an obviously self-contented smallish bear, admiring his image in a paw-held mirror.  A robin sat nearby, a soon-to-be-awarded gold star in his beak.

Once checked out and read aloud, that small bear’s story struck a chord in my toddler’s heart. Yet the tale and the telling struck a chord in my heart, too: the first-ever picture book I was writing looked and felt the same. So I read and re-read I’m Terrific, only minus the toddler and wearing my Writer’s Cap.

Admittedly, I was first looking to learn the how-to of the picture book format. I began by typing out Sharmat’s text as it appeared on the pages, leaving triple-spaces for each successive page turn.  I indented where the author indented, placing characters’ words within quotation marks.  Dialogue, I sensed, contributed immediacy and energy, and that fine balance between narrative and dialogue moved along the story. I noticed repetition of both phrases and sentence structure. The sentences themselves offered noun-verb clarity, yet my fingers felt the rhythm of Sharmat’s playful words.

Jason’s three friends - Raymond Squirrel, Marvin Raccoon and Henrietta Emily Bear, appeared within the building scenes, always in the same order, creating the expectation necessary for young listeners. Jason’s Mama claimed the transitional scenes. Each scene called for a new and different setting. A star-studded Jason spoke the story’s final words.  “Thank you,” he said, once his friends dubbed him “terrific.”

Next, I revisited Kay Chorao’s soft, penciled illustrations.  I covered the text and let the pictures tell me the story, as my toddler son did each time he re-read the book.  The pictures said it all, amplifying characters’ actions, re-actions and emotions.

Finally, I cut apart one of my carbon-ed (!) text copies, paragraph by paragraph, then re-pasted the words to the pages of the blank 32-page book I’d created.  I left space for the front matter, then room for the accompanying illustrations.

Ah, I thought: the picture book story’s told across fourteen double-page spreads, creating, sort of, a play’s three acts. And, Oh! Within each newly-set changing scene, the characters speak their thoughts and feelings as the action worsens. And, Yes! Everything comes together at the end, tied up with a bow. There wasn’t one part of Jason’s story hanging out, un-tethered.

                                        (My well-worn copy of I'M TERRIFIC)

But to my surprise, it wasn’t just the text that showed me the way forward on my Writer’s Journey.  It was THE BOOK in its totality that taught me what I needed to know!  The front flap copy showed me the importance of hooking a reader – child, editor, agent.  The title page introduced a publisher (Holiday House).  The Library of Congress listing showed me both the book’s plot summary (“Jason Bear thinks he’s terrific and even awards himself gold stars for superior performance in his chores.  His friends don’t like to be around him.”) and its themes and curriculum connections (Pride and vanity, forest animals).  The dedication encouraged me to consider my book’s dedication, a someone in my life likely to keep me keepin’ on (namely, that almost-three-year-old son of mine). The book’s back flap author and illustrator copy connected me to other books Marjorie Weinman Sharmat wrote as well as the work of Kay Chorao. Soon I was discovering other illustrators of Sharmat’s books and other authors illustrated by Chorao, which meant other publishers, whose catalogues I studied, other formats, other structures, other genres. I deconstructed and rebuilt Sharmat’s Nate the Great to learn how to write easy-to-reads; I did the same and learned novel writing, thanks to Sharmat’s Maggie Marmelstein.

Reading I’m Terrific as a reader, the book amused and delighted me, as it should have. Reading I’m
Terrific as a writer, the book informed and inspired me, as only it could have. Jason Everett Bear and Mesdames Sharmat and Chorao deserve buckets of gold stars for all they taught me.

I still turn to children’s books to learn and hone my craft; I encourage my students and writers to do the same. I consider each published book a Teacher-in-Waiting. Or even better, a TeachingAuthor!

As luck would have it, Holiday House published my very first picture book There Goes Lowell’s Party! one year after re-issuing I’m Terrific to mark its twentieth anniversary. (My now-grown toddler and I knew a good book when we saw one.)  When I found myself seated across from Kay Chorao at the Holiday House ALA Dinner that year, I shared how I’m Terrific illuminated my writer’s journey.  “Thank you,” she said.  Then she graciously signed my copy, drawing stars that lit the page.
Speaking of stars, thanks to My Juicy Little Universe and Heidi Mordhost for hosting today’s Poetry Friday.

Happy learning! May a terrific book light your Writer’s Journey!

Esther Hershenhorn

P.S.
If you’re seeking a human TeachingAuthor to light your way, one or two spots remain for my MANUSCRIPT WORKSHOP, July 14-19 at The Landgrove Inn, Landgrove, VT.
You can read more about this long-time workshop, created by Barbara Seuling, by scrolling to the bottom of my TEACH page on my website. Fortunately, bags fly free on Southwest so I’ll be bringing lots of relevant mentor texts from Chicago for my writers.



Friday, March 8, 2019

Show Don't Tell Me, Mentor Text

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Howdy, Campers ~ happy Poetry Friday!  (my poem and the link to P.F. and are below.)

And the winner of our latest give away--Laurie Wallmark's book, Hedy Lamarr's Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor--is....Katie G!  Katie, a loyal subscriber, also won a TeachingAuthors giveway in 2013. Moral: it pays to hang out in the TeachingAuthors' tree house!

And speaking of the TeachingAuthors' tree house, these days we're up here drinking hot cocoa and sharing how we use Mentor Texts.

Carmela starts us off by defining what mentor text is and more; Bobbi's post talks about what 54 TV years of Doctor Who can teach us; and Mary Ann shows us the ways in which she systematically studied picture books (and found love...sort of).

In all my classes I use mentor texts. Show, Don't Tell is the first thing I teach. Even if a student is a published novelist, a renown screenwriter, or a seasoned journalist, it never hurts to be reminded of what Anton Chekov means when he writes: "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."  


image from Pixabay.com by Dana Tentis

In one exercise (created by my son when he was in elementary school), volunteers act out something in silence and their classmates guess what they are trying to convey. We discuss: how did they know the dog was happy, the child was having a tantrum, or the woman was old?  They showed us, they didn't tell us, of course.

The first book I read to introduce Show, Don't Tell is Barbara Shook Hazen's masterful and moving picture book illustrated by the brilliant Trina Schart Hyman, TIGHT TIMES (Viking Press, 1979).

I wish I could put this book in your hands, but I can't, so I'll give you an example of how Hazen shows, rather than tells:

When the child narrator asks why he can't have a dog, his father explains,
"Because of tight times" and continues:
"He said tight times are when everything keep going up.
I had a balloon that did that once.
Daddy said tight times are why we all eat Mr. Bulk instead of cereals in little boxes.
I like little boxes better.
Daddy said tight times are why we went to the sprinkler last summer instead of the lake.

I like the lake better."

I just typed the text of this book. It's astonishing what Hazen does in just 694 words. This book was published at a time it was perfectly acceptable to turn in a picture book manuscript of 1200 words or more!

And having typed this text, I can feel in my fingers that one of the picture books I am working on needs more showing, less telling!

* * *

A month before my mother, a classical pianist, died, I couldn't tell you what I was already missing...I had to show it:

WHERE IS MY MOTHER?
by April Halprin Wayland



Quietly she cries,
“Mama, Mama…”

Eyes half-closed,
she lies blanketed in grief.

Where is my mother:
whirling dervish,

spark of light,
moving, always moving,

striking a match,

setting piano keys on fire?

poem (c)2019 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved.

Okay, Campers...do you have favorite picture book that demonstrates Show, Don't Tell?  I'd love to know what it is!

Spread the word: on April 13, 2019 from 9:30 am-4:30 pm, author/illustrator Barney Saltzberg, fiction and nonfiction picture book author Alexis O'Neill and I are reprising our one day class at UCLA, Writing a Picture Book and Getting it Published. Join us!

Thank you, Catherine, for hosting Poetry Friday today at Reading to the Core ~

posted with love by April Halprin Wayland, with help from Mateo, our latest monarch butterfly caterpillar, who is currently looking for a place on our kitchen wall to build his chrysalis. 

Mateo, named after a character in this book

Did you know that monarch butterflies are endangered...and that you can help by raising them?  Just ask beloved TeachingAuthor emeritus, JoAnn Early Macken; click here  for the monarch resources on her website.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Getting the Rhythm with Picture Books

I didn't start out to be a picture book writer. My Best Friend was a gift from God, written in two hours (when I was boiling mad) for my four-year-old daughter.  My Best Friend was the first book I ever sold.

Now...how to do that again?
My first born picture book--and it's little friends.

I had no idea.

The picture books intimidate me. If you've been reading my posts awhile, you know I get wordy. How could I cram a story into a 1,000 words? (That was in 1999; today's word counts are more like 300 words and less.) I was (and still am) a novelist, who likes a lot of breathing space for my story to expand.

Picture books, unlike novels, are meant to be read aloud. They're a performance piece with several components. The art (which I don't do; I'm not an illustrator), the word choices and cadence of sentences all come together (hopefully) to tell the story.

Although I didn't know this was what I was doing, I used other picture books to "mentor" the birth of my next book, First Grade Stinks.


I picked my favorite books from my daughter's shelf.  What did they have in common?

Lots of picture books rhyme. Even in elementary school I couldn't string together six rhyming lines that made any sense. Forget about rhyming.

My mentoring books had other things in common. Words that were fun (and easy) to say. Lots of onomatopoeia. I love making up sound words. Click Clack Moo by Doreen Cronin is a book title that repeats in my brain when I am in "sound spinning" mode. 

Repetition of a catch phrase. Years of doing library story hours taught me that kids love to join in by repeating the expected phrase.  Carolyn Crimi's Don't Need Friends has the memorable phrase, "Don't need friends. Don't need friends at all."

Alliteration. I love alliteration, although a little will go a long way. One of my daughter's favorite books was Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut by Margaret Atwood. (Yep...same person who wrote A Handmaid's Tale!) Literally every other word in that book began with the letter "P." I never knew whether Lily actually loved the story, or loved making her dad (who stutters a little) read it. (He tried hiding Princess Prunella. Lily found it.) Picture book words should roll off the tongue without being interspersed with the reader adding "crap" as all those P's pile up on the palate. (Oops!)

Most of all, the story should have rhythm. For me, the lines should have beats and pauses, ups and downs, like music. Music that doesn't rhyme.

Nailing down that rhythm was the grunt work of the mentoring process. I typed and typed out whole books. Then I printed them off, and read them aloud again. I marked off the beats in the line. How many? Was there a consistent beat to the whole story? Or just at the predictable catchlines? (Think of those as "the chorus" of a song.) How did the author achieve the rhythm without it sounding sing-songy?

My dad used to recite Poe's "The Raven" to me as a bedtime story (!!). When I think of sing-song writing, I think of "The Raven."  Once upon a midnight weary, while I pondered weak and weary/Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.  I thought all poetry had to sound like "The Raven" which may have contributed to my childhood writer's block when it came to poetry. I had to erase Poe and his bird from my writing subconscious.

There is more to picture book writing than this. Character, motivation, structure and resolution don't give me much trouble. Making the story "sing" when read aloud--to me, that's what makes for a great book. The book that children want to hear over and over.

For the record, when I was writing First Grade Stinks my favorite picture book was Kevin Henkes' Julius, The Baby of the World, which introduces his inimitable mouse-child, Lilly. (Yes, my daughter Lily was in part, named for a fictional mouse.) This book uses the predictable catchphrase and certain repeated words perfectly.  Lilly's frequent description of baby brother Julius, "Disgusting!" inspired my character Hayley's oft repeated opinion, "First grade stinks!" 


Thanks to Doreen Cronin, Carolyn Crimi, Margaret Atwood and most of all Kevin Henkes (my secret author crush) for all they taught me...without charging a dime!.