Call them what you will: mentor texts, inspiration, or research. But whatever you call them, they grow in a big stack on my desk when I am working on a story.
I largely use these texts as a way of inspiring the mood or style, as well as mentors for theme or plot.
To best explain, I’m going to give you a super-secret, insider’s peek at “the stack” I used for my forthcoming book, Love, Triangle (Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins).
Shhhhhh…ready? This is some top-secret stuff here. I’ll have to erase your memory afterward.
1) The Little Men and Little Miss books by Roger Hargreaves
This was simply visual inspiration.
The characters in Love, Triangle are shapes: Circle, Square, and Triangle. Because this is an abstract concept, I needed to figure out how these characters would move about and interact. I needed to world-build. Immediately the Little Men and Little Miss books came to mind.
Once I had these images of simple—yet full of personality characters—my story took shape. (Pun intended!) I highly recommend, especially when dealing in the inanimate, to find some visual inspiration.
I knew that I wanted Love, Triangle to pack edgy, smart humor. I also wanted my story to have as much parent-appeal as kid-appeal (a la the Pixar effect). Crayons does both. It also skillfully deals with inanimate objects. I studied this book to better understand how Daywalt achieved what I wanted to achieve.
My agent later noted in her Love, Triangle submission letter, “Love, Triangle does for geometry what The Day the Crayons Quit did for…crayons!”
I have always been a fan of Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s work. I love the heart with which she approaches inanimate objects. I love her word play. I wanted Love, Triangle to have heart and lots of punny, geometry humor. Imagine my delight when many editors started comparing Love, Triangle to Spoon. Swoon!
OK. Now this is a funny story. This book isn’t even out yet, and although Tara is a good friend, I have not read this manuscript. But, I read this in Publisher’s Marketplace:
THE MONSTORE author and PiBoIdMo creator Tara Lazar’s 7 ATE 9, a pun-packed, preschool noir mystery, starring a hard-boiled Private “I” and a mysteriously missing number, to Kevin Lewis at Disney-Hyperion, by Ammi-Joan Paquette at Erin Murphy Literary Agency (World).
Just this announcement inspired me. A title and a one sentence synopsis. I thought, “YES! That’s what I want Love, Triangle to be!”
Hilariously, when Love, Triangle was out on submission it received a rejection from Disney-Hyperion because “it seems a little too similar to an upcoming title on our list, 7 Ate 9.” Too funny! I still haven’t read the book, but was certainly inspired by the concept.
5) Two by Kathryn Otoshi (KO Kids Books, 2014)
I love so much about this book. I love the high concept. I love the simple text that is truly layered deeply. I love the sparse presentation. And this book is about One and Two who are best friends until Three shows up. Sound familiar? Love, Triangle is about Circle and Square who are best friends until Triangle shows up.
Although it has a sweeter, quieter approach than what I was going for in Love, Triangle, I wanted to see how the plot was dealt with within this style.
This fun book tells the story of a duo who hit a sticky patch in their friendship. I studied this book as a way of seeing how to tell the story of two. Can I really only have one protagonist?
Don’t tell Goat, but I think Unicorn is pretty great, too! I adore this book. It’s a wonderful tale of jealousy told in a fun way.
My characters of Circle and Square deal with jealousy, but I didn’t want either one of them to become too negative. They need to still be loveable. I want my readers to feel for both of them. There are no bad guys here. So, I turned to Unicorn to look at how Bob Shea humorously dealt with jealousy.
Another fun, punny tale of inanimate objects from Amy Krouse Rosenthal, but this time dealing with a duo. It is a friendship story. A buddy story.
In my agent’s Love, Triangle submission letter, she called my story “a kissing cousin to Chopsticks.” She didn’t even know I had used it as a mentor text. Heart sing!
Lastly I want to address those books that you might come in contact with that seem a tad too similar in concept or plot to your own story. Take a deep breath. Knowing of these stories can be helpful in determining whether or not your story is fresh. They can inspire your story, while also pointing you towards your own unique way of delivering a similar tale. Therefore, do not freak out. While I was writing Love, Triangle two titles were brought to my attention. They became “accidental” mentor texts.
9) The Dot and The Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics by Noah Juster (Chronicle 2000)
While I was writing Love, Triangle, I shared the concept with a few close friends. Right away some of them exclaimed, “Oh! Like The Dot and The Line!” I had no idea what they were talking about. Then I had my critique group read an early version and someone said, “This reminds me of The Dot and The Line.” By then I realized that I needed to check this title out. Although it wasn’t incredibly similar, it did have some of the same fun word play which inspired me further.
Similarly to the experience with The Dot and The Line, people started referring to my story as similar to The Missing Piece. I think the similarity ends with the high concept, layered story of inanimate objects, but I needed to read it to make sure and to see if it held any further inspiration.
Again, don’t be upset when these types of situations occur, simply use them as inspiration to making YOUR story fresh and uniquely you.
And there you have it! Hopefully this look into “the stack” provides a little insight to inform your own research. And it’s worth pointing out that research doesn’t only come in the form of other picture books. I’ve used comic strips and animated cartoons. I am even currently watching The Sopranos for research—for a picture book! Yup! Boy, does this life rock!
Now go forth. Explore the mood or themes of your own stories. Oh, before you go, look into this light so I can erase your memory, k?
Marcie is donating a picture book critique to be given away at the conclusion of ReFoReMo! To be eligible, leave a comment for Marcie here, read daily, and keep a record of your progress.
Marcie Colleen had a busy 2014 with the sale of her debut picture book, The Adventure of the Penguinaut to Scholastic to tentatively be published in 2016. Additionally, her next book Love, Triangle sold in a five house auction to Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins as part of a two book deal. Marcie is proud to be represented by Susan Hawk/The Bent Agency. She lives in Brooklyn, NYC with her husband—LEGO artist Jonathan Lopes—and their mischievous sock monkey.
Along with agent Susan Hawk and author Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, Marice is teaching a new picture book revision class for KidLit Writing School. To learn more about Marcie, visit her at www.thisismarciecolleen.com or follow her at @MarcieColleen1.