Mentors on Your Bookshelf

“There are only two ways, really, to become a writer. One is to write. The other is to read.” — Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life

“During our fourteen sessions together you will begin writing a novel for young readers. You may be surprised by how committed you become to this work and how much you accomplish. But it will happen because you’ll have help from some of the best mentors writing today – the authors of the books we’ll be reading.”

For years, I began my children’s fiction writing MFA classes with some version of this statement. Creating a reading list each semester was my favorite thing to do. I chose books that would give my students a sense of the scope and possibility in writing for children. I looked for the titles that would transport them back to their own childhoods by recapturing the child’s world with its uniquely heightened senses and near-primal beliefs. I chose books by authors who were wizards—conjuring wonder, magic, make-believe, longing, justice, adventure, and hope in their pages.  I was a good teacher because the masters I’d learned from had become my teaching assistants.

I’m sharing five of my all-time favorite titles here, along with with notes on why and how I use them. I still read these books when I’m writing and trying to capture a mood, a character trait, a voice, or whatever is feeling elusive in my work. It’s not about copying, but about evoking something within.

Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

 Why I chose it:

  • One of the many things I love about this story is how Kate DiCamillo reveals the invisible child–the part of a character that is open to readers but not to other characters in the story. How does the author capture the invisible self? Her protagonist, Opal, talks to the dog she adopts in the first chapter and names Winn Dixie. He is her first and only friend in the town she’s just landed in. This is how readers learn what’s on her mind and even the backstory that has brought her to this point in her life.
  • Another powerful way Opal reveals her invisible self is through praying. While talking to God, she discloses a secret she believes is true: No one wants to be her friend because her father is the preacher and she’d tell on them for everything they did wrong, and the preacher would tell God and their parents. What a heartfelt way to reveal the conflict that drives the story!

Read this book to see how the author created her lovable, quirky, and vulnerable character, and for Opal’s vibrant voice!

Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins

 Why I chose it:

  • The characters! The three protagonists,  a red ball, a stuffed starfish, and a toy buffalo, provide a wise and witty introduction to setting the rules and boundaries of fantasy. Favorite examples: The ball can read. The toys are able to use subliminal messaging to influence their mistress (a little girl). The stuffed starfish cannot swim.
  • In creating the rules for what these toys can and cannot do, the author gets young readers thinking about the meaning of life. The three toys confront identity, status, and competition. They ask Who Am I? and What Am I Good At? The amazing thing about this book is that it’s for readers in grades 1-4!

Read this book if you are new to writing fantasy or if you just want to up your game.

Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor

 Why I chose it:

  • Addie, the immensely engaging protagonist of Connor’s novel, embodies one of the most valuable qualities we can give our readers— No matter how strong or brave or numb a character is, vulnerability lets us know that she or he can be hurt, can feel pain, can be affected and therefore be changed. But in order to enable a character to survive and grow, vulnerability must go hand-in-hand with resilience. Addie’s resilience includes staying alone in her trailer home for extended periods while keeping up her ‘normal’ routine of attending school, preparing meals, and caring for her hamster.

Read this book for an example of how to inspire readers to ask, ‘Could I be as strong as Addie?’

 Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

 Why I chose it:

  •  The first chapter of this compelling Newbery winner contains a roadmap of the novel’s structure. In just 3 pages, there is a move from Bybanks, KY to Euclid, OH, a secret hidden under the floorboards, the foreshadowing of a momentous 6-day trip, and the first appearance of the girl whose story will help protagonist Sal understand her own.
  • Story within story; plot and subplot. Creech has woven both of these techniques into her story as a way of creating mystery, surprise, and the complexity of human relationships.The climax of this healing story sends Sal on a fateful journey in which she takes risks that will enable her to learn and grow.

 Read this book for everything about the importance of structure in storytelling!

 One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

 Why I chose it:

  •  This book is a brilliant example of how to tell the story of a character’s personal struggle to find truth within the larger canvas of history—in this case, the early days of the Black Panthers, their struggles and triumphs in the late 1960’s.
  • Through 11-year-old Delphine’s eyes, author Williams-Garcia captures the excitement and importance of the times.  Her storytelling includes poetry, music, fashion, politics, and commitment to showing a lesser known side of the truth . Her vivid details are a lesson in bringing an important period in the civil rights movement to life.

Read this book if you have ever thought about using personal experience in a novel of historical fiction.

Now it’s your turn! Which books on your shelves serve as writing mentors? Tell us the titles and what to look out for!  


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Annabelle Fisher
Annabelle Fisher is the author of The Secret Destiny of Pixie Piper and Pixie Piper and the Matter of the Batter. Under the name, Phyllis Shalant, she’s written ten other books for middle graders, including Bartleby of the Mighty Mississippi. She lives in Westchester County, NY, not far from where the Headless Horseman takes his midnight rides. For more information visit her on Facebook @AnnabelleFisherbooks or at her website,