Write Better Stories with Master Studies of Mentor Texts
Do you need a little help figuring out your picture book stories?
Arree Chung uses an exercise in his Crafting Picture Book Stories class that can probably help. I'm going to cover how doing Master Studies of great picture books can help you improve your own. You can use this exercise to study the basic elements of picture books you admire, like I'm going to demonstrate in this video. Books you study to improve your own are often referred to as “MENTOR TEXTS.” I'll go through some examples of how to use the Master Study exercise with mentor texts, and then we'll explore the different ways you can use Master Studies to improve your work.
Master Studies Exercise
Take a notebook and pen to a bookstore or library. Bookstores are better because you can see all of the most recent books, and which ones are getting the most attention.
Pick out ten picture books to read. Don't try to analyze them on your first read through.
Narrow your selection down to your five favorite books and write down the following for each of them:
- Inciting Incident/Escalation: (How does the story increase tension?)
- Book Concept: (What makes this book special?)
Master Study #1
by Isabella Kung
- Character: a cat who thinks she’s a queen named “NO FUZZBALL!”
- Problem: The cat thinks her subjects (her family) have abandoned and forgotten her.
- Inciting Incident: The family goes on vacation.
Escalation: The cat imagines things that could have happened to them. She decides to turn over a new leaf and make their lives better with “royal renovations” that basically destroy everything in the house.
- Resolution: The family returns home, and upon seeing what the cat has done, begins yelling her name. The cat feels loved and appreciated.
- Book Concept: Definitely the character. I’m using this one as a mentor text because of the character’s strong, first person POV voice. But the illustrations are also striking. A child would pick this up because of the cover.
Master Study #2
A BIG MOONCAKE FOR LITTLE STAR
by Grace Lin
- Character: a mother and daughter who are stars. The main character is Little Star.
- Problem: Little Star can’t resist eating the big mooncake.
- Inciting Incident: The first sentence is the inciting incident: “Little Star’s mama laid the Big Mooncake onto the night sky to cool.”
Escalation: Her mama asks her not to touch the Big Mooncake until she tells her to, and Little Star agrees. But then every night, Little Star wakes up and nibbles at the mooncake until one night there isn’t anything left but crumbs. Her mama asks Little Star if she ate it, and she confesses.
- Resolution: They make another one!
- Book Concept: This book turns the stars into a loving mother and daughter and creates a fun new mythology about the stars and the moon. And unlike the usual white background pages, this picture book has striking illustrations on black, which is perfect for the subject matter.
Master Study #3
I TALK LIKE A RIVER
Written by Jordan Scott, Illustrated by Sydney Smith
- Character: a father and son. The main character is the boy.
- Problem: His stutter makes him not want to speak.
- Inciting Incident: His teacher asks him a question.
Escalation: His teacher wants him to talk about his favorite place in front of the class, but his mouth isn’t working. His dad picks him up from school and takes him to the river. His father explains how he talks like a river.
- Resolution: The next day, the boy tells his class about his favorite place, the river.
- Book Concept: This book is so lyrical, and it can help readers understand what it’s like to have a stutter. The author grew up with a stutter, so it’s #ownvoices. There isn’t anything else out there quite like it. Sydney Smith’s illustrations pair perfectly with the lyrical voice of the story.
Why Mentor Texts?
I love this video of Chronicle Books Editor Melissa Manlove talking about the importance of reading and studying lots of mentor tests.
Some of you might not be able to use your bookstores and libraries right now, but you can also study books on your shelves or watch someone read books for you on Instagram or YouTube. A lot of publishers have relaxed their normal copyright restrictions temporarily due to the pandemic.
A fabulous resource for mentor texts, especially in March is ReFoReMo (Reading for Research Month).
This has been a rough time for Asian Americans, and our kidlit community wouldn’t be the same without the many talented and generous Asian American creatives, including the founder of Storyteller Academy, Arree Chung. To give back a little, I’m giving away Grace Lin’s A BIG Mooncake for Little Star and Isabella Kung’s No Fuzzball! Post a Master Study of any children’s book in the comments to enter. This giveaway will close on May 1st at midnight, PDT. You can share this post on social media for extra entries. Just post a link (or let me know) in a comment below.
Thanks for reading!