Monday, April 21, 2014

My First Try With Mentor Texts by Leslie Colin Tribble

I'd never heard of mentor texts until Marcie Flinchum Atkins wrote about them as one of GROG'S very first posts.  I found the idea of mentor texts intriguing so I've been working with this idea and thought I'd report on what I've learned.  
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Marcie's idea of emulating experts in the field you want to break in to made sense to me.  How easy is it to pick a favorite book and break it down to discover why it's a favorite?  What is the wording like, the pacing?  I haven't taken any actual "writing picture book" classes, so I may not be correctly analyzing everything, but at least I can figure out what makes the book work for me.  And this is a much cheaper alternative than taking a fabulous class!

I first began trying to think of some favorite titles. Recently, I finished up a two year stint working at our local children's library so I had all sorts of books running through my mind.  I loved all those more recent titles, but they weren't favorites yet.  I'd only read them once or twice.

So I started thinking about the books I used to read out loud to my children - there are definitely some favorites in those boxes out in the shed.  I ran through the titles in my mind and made note of the ones that made me smile.  The ones that I immediately thought, "Oh, I loved that book!"  

I decided those would be my mentor texts.  Ox-Cart Man

So out to the shed I went and after locating some of the boxes with the picture books I started pulling out the well-worn favorites.  I'm a little distressed because I haven't been able to locate THE box with THE favorite books in it but I did find some good ones.

I decided to start with Can't You Sleep Little Bear? by Martin Waddell and illustrated by Barbara Firth.
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So now I had to figure out how to use this great book as a mentor text?  First I read it.  Then again.  Then I read it out loud.  And I began noticing patterns.

The first pattern was the use of Big Bear and Little Bear's names.  The author never just calls them "Big" or "Little."  Their full names are always used.  And when mentioned together, Big Bear is always first.  That sounds good to me when I read it aloud, even if I can't analyze exactly why.  It might be age before youth, or the size difference,  or because B comes before L in the alphabet.  I don't know.  It's just right.

Next, there was a pattern in the bears' conversations.  Their conversations always begin, "Can't you sleep Little Bear?" and continued the same through the next six exchanges.  Always the same wording, in exactly the same order.  This provides structure and anticipation for the listener - they know what's coming and can 'read' along.

I also love the repeated use of the word bear - as in, "When night came, and the sun went down, Bear Bear took Little Bear home to the Bear Cave."  And, "Big Bear settled in the Bear Chair and read his Bear book, by the light of the fire."  Why wouldn't a bear have a bear chair and a bear book?  For me this sets up a sort of cadence and reinforces that these characters we already are beginning to love are in fact, bears!  The story would have felt less cozy, less contained if Big Bear had been reading "Golf Trivia for Bears."  As someone just learning to craft picture books, I need to remember that simple is good.  I don't have to be clever with something in my own manuscripts - sometimes simple is best.

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Another Little Bear book

This is my start with mentor texts.  I'm excited to explore this simple yet tender book further.  I'll be looking for more patterns, word choices and plot and then trying to emulated all that in my own manuscripts.  Plus I'll definitely be trying to decipher the plot line as my own stories are weak in the plot development department.  

How has your writing changed after doing some mentor text work?


  1. That's great you're exploring mentor texts! I've been using pb biography mentor texts.

  2. It's so interesting taking a book you know by heart and absolutely love and figuring out WHY you love it. Really has been an eye opener.

  3. I've been delving into old favorites, too, Leslie. And I agree that it's fascinating to pick them apart and then realize the clever techniques that the author used to make a book work so well. Martin Waddell is a favorite of mine -- my #1 book of his is Owl Babies.

  4. My favorite mentor text from "back in the day" is HARRY THE DIRTY DOG. It's simple but moves along at a quick pace, lots of action, and the perfect twist ending. Love it! Thanks for the post :)

  5. Sort of like a book review, only more in-depth.

  6. Bear books for kiddos (& in real life, bears) melt my heart, too. I appreciate the repetitive language from the Waddell/Frith book. And the lovely pictures.

    Thanks for this idea, Leslie.
    It reminds me of Lin Oliver's comment that if you aspire to publishing a great picture book, read 1,000 of them (or something to that effect.)

  7. YAY!!! So glad that you are delving into mentor texts. I always suggest books using books that you love, ones that you don't mind reading 1000x because there's something about that book that works, that resonates. :)