How I Learned to Write Using Mentor Texts: Unspeakable, by Carole Boston Weatherford

Pho­to by Fal­lon Michael on Unsplash

Wel­come to a new occa­sion­al series about learn­ing from men­tor text pic­ture books!

I love pic­ture books, those wild­ly col­or­ful, won­der­ful­ly imag­i­na­tive works of chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture. Some pic­ture books are so good that every time I read  one, I always come away with some­thing new — a fact I did­n’t know, an excit­ing idea I had­n’t thought of, a point of view I had­n’t con­sid­ered — in a small, easy-to-read, beau­ti­ful­ly illus­trat­ed pack­age. As a writer, I use men­tor texts to improve my sto­ry­telling skills. 

What are men­tor texts?

These are well-writ­ten books we can use as mod­els to become bet­ter read­ers and writ­ers. Men­tor texts allow us to exper­i­ment, to take risks, and to test new ideas and points of view.

Patrice-GopoThere is an army of us authors (and teach­ers, par­ents and grand­par­ents, librar­i­ans, and stu­dents) devot­ed to and inspired by pic­ture books. Just lis­ten to the pop­u­lar pod­cast Pic­ture Books are for Grown-ups, Too led by my friend, the won­der­ful Patrice Gopo. Her guests are writ­ers who dis­cuss men­tor texts, fic­tion and non-fic­tion, of all kinds.

Like these writ­ers, I also study men­tor texts to learn the tricks and tips to improve my own writ­ing. I focus on HOW a sto­ry is told, includ­ing plot devices, page turns, and lyri­cal language. 

But what if I can’t find men­tor texts about the top­ics I want to write about?

That’s the chal­lenge I face. I write about my Native Hawai­ian com­mu­ni­ty’s dif­fi­cult his­to­ry, and men­tor texts on our gen­er­a­tional trau­ma writ­ten by ‘ō’i­wi authors are pret­ty much non-existent. 

If, like me, find­ing men­tor texts for your dif­fi­cult top­ics is a strug­gle, it may help to real­ize that our com­mu­ni­ties are not the only ones that face his­tor­i­cal chal­lenges. Pic­ture books by suc­cess­ful kidlit authors such as Car­ole Boston Weath­er­ford, Traci Sor­rell, Rob Sanders, Sun Yung Shin, and oth­ers can inspire and instruct us. 

That’s what this series is about — the search for men­tor texts that demon­strate ways in which dif­fi­cult / sen­si­tive top­ics can be han­dled with care yet hon­est­ly for young read­ers, and thus inspire us to write our own stories. 

Which men­tor text inspired me to write my own pic­ture book stories?

Unspeakable coverFor me, the influ­en­tial pic­ture book that helped me to write my first two non-fic­tion man­u­scripts is UNSPEAKABLE, THE TULSA RACE MASSACRE by Car­ole Boston Weath­er­ford (Lern­er, 2021.) In fact, I love this book so much that I chose it to speak about when I was a guest on Patrice’s pod­cast.

The book makes this dif­fi­cult his­to­ry sto­ry acces­si­ble to kids. Ms. Weath­er­ford does this in delib­er­ate, inge­nious ways:

  • employ­ing the famil­iar refrain, “Once upon a time,” to gen­tly ori­ent read­ers to the city and the res­i­dents’ accomplishments, 
  • mak­ing use of mea­sured yet musi­cal lan­guage, such as inter­nal rhyme and alliteration,
  • incor­po­rat­ing the every­day activ­i­ties of res­i­dents with the names of actu­al busi­ness­es, such as the soda foun­tain at Williams Con­fec­tionery, mak­ing the sto­ry more relat­able to today’s young readers,
  • pre­sent­ing the incit­ing inci­dent with the words, “All it took,” a dev­as­tat­ing moment in the book,
  • choos­ing words that demon­strate the vio­lence of the mob, result­ing in a clear-eyed telling that nev­er con­de­scends or insults the read­er’s intelligence,
  • end­ing with a call to action and a scene of hope. 

Because I’m such a fan-girl, I con­tact­ed Ms. Weath­er­ford through her web­site to thank her for her incred­i­ble book. Her response was a gra­cious email encour­ag­ing me to stick with it:

Thanks so much for reach­ing out. I love Hawaii but hate what was done to the indige­nous peo­ple. Please doc­u­ment that history.


My-guest-podcastWhat are your men­tor texts? Are you work­ing on dif­fi­cult, chal­leng­ing top­ics? Which pic­ture books inspire you? Email me and let’s talk books!