Monday, May 5, 2014

Using Poetry as a Mentor Text by Marcie Flinchum Atkins

Poetry by itself is lovely because it’s like boiling down syrup until the only thing that’s left is the pure sweet taste. Writing picture books that utilize poetic techniques can really help your writing stand out. 

Picture Books AS Poems

You can write an entire picture book AS a poem. 

Some of my favorites include:

NAAMAH AND THE ARK AT NIGHT by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, illustrated by Holly Meade
A LEAF CAN BE by Laura Purdie Salas, illustrated by Violeta Dabija
WATER CAN BE by Laura Purdie Salas, illustrated by Violeta Dabija
RED SLED by Patricia Thomas, illustrated by Chris Demarest

Both NAAHMAH AND THE ARK AT NIGHT and RED SLED utilize particular types of poem. 

NAAMAH AND THE ARK AT NIGHT is told in a ghazal, an Arabic poetic form. 

RED SLED was inspired by an ancient form of writing called chiasmus, or mirror image. 

What I love about these, is that you can use them as mentor texts for you own practice. For instance, I used RED SLED’s form and created my own similar poem called BLUE SHOES. Julie Hedlund also did this recently when she used the format of Jane Yolen’s HOW DO DINOSAURS… series as a pattern for her poem. 

Finding books that are poems themselves often involves a very low word count, at least in the cases that I mentioned. And each word has to pack a punch and also allow for a picture book full of illustrations. 

Artist in Training

Think about it like an artist who copies the great works of great artists. It gives the artist the opportunity to embody that technique and try it on for size. Imagine copying "Starry Night," not to sell it, but to practice doing what Van Gogh did. 

Teachers are notorious for using a text as a pattern for young writers. There is nothing wrong with this as practice. In fact, it’s great practice. 

My students often write “Where I’m From” biographical poems patterned after George Ella Lyon’s own famous poem. We use her poem as a mentor. It helps kids try on poetry, and make it their own, utilizing a framework. 

As a precaution, most of the time, these types of mentor text exercises would be for your practice only. Why is useful if we don’t actual seek to ever publish it? Because a lot about getting to be a better writer is about writing a lot to get better. Only a fraction of what we write is actual going to be published in book form. The rest is important as it helps inform what we write later. 

Picture Books Using Poetic Techniques

Many picture books use poetic techniques, including onomatopoeia, alliteration, assonance, consonance, imagery, refrains and more. Just like in a stand alone poem, where the poet has to keep only the words that are really necessary, a picture book writer has to make sure each word really must be there. Utilizing poetic techniques in a picture book can really make it stand out.

Lately, some of my favorite picture books that utilize poetic techniques have been nonfiction. 

Here are some of my recent favorite nonfiction picture books that use poetic techniques:

MOONSHOT by Brian Floca
FROG SONG by Brenda Guiberson
THE TREE LADY by H. Joseph Hopkins
MARTIN AND MAHALIA: HIS WORDS, HER SONG by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney

Study books like these to see how the writers took poetic techniques to turn factual information into interesting nonfiction books. In fact, you can type up the text (for your eyes only), print it out, and highlight the different techniques used by the writers. 

Your Turn

How do you use poetry or poetic techniques to improve your picture book writing? Do you read classic poems? Study different types of poems? Utilize your favorite poetic techniques?
Shout out your favorite picture books utilize poetic devices to elevate the writing. 


  1. Great post, Marcie. I need to read those picture books you mentioned.

  2. Thanks for introducing me to some great books, Marcie! I turn to poetic texts frequently. They swim with great examples of word choice and unique imagery. But, more importantly, reading them draws me, subconsciously, into a more lyrical rhythm in my work.

    1. Yes, I love lyrical texts too! Some of my favorites.

  3. After participating in the very first RhyPiBoId Mo by Angie Kacher, I have rhyming on my mind. Since I like to paint in acrylics and watercolor, I like how you used an analogy of painting a "Starry Night" to using a story or poem as poetic framework, when one writes. That idea has actually crossed my mind. So, thank you for the affirmation, of doing so, will result in being a better writer. You are so correct. This educator uses text as a pattern for her students. Recently, I read "Watch Your Tongue, Cecily Beasley" by Lane Frederickson and Illustrated by Jon Davis, to my preschoolers. Such a rambunctious, rhyming tale! Must check out the book titles that you suggested, Marcie. Thank you for the post.

  4. Thanks Marcie for these great leads on mentor texts...great post.

  5. These resources are mighty fine & ghazal - great to hear about a poetry form I'm not familiar with. But I should be. Some of my favorite authors are here such as Laura & George Ella (Have you looked at her WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?) The true story gives me goose bumps.
    Here are some I'll share -
    a picture book about many poetic forms A KICK IN THE HEAD
    from Paul B. Janeczko & illus. Chris Raschka
    a look at imaginary animal houses GOOD MOUSEKEEPING (just the title alone...)
    from J. Patrick Lewis, illus Lisa Desimini
    and the sijo poetry form in TAP DANCING ON THE ROOF
    from Linda Sue Park & illus. Istvan Banyai