Picture Books for Young Writers: My Pencil and Me and How to Write a Story

My Pencil and Me by Sara Varon. First Second, 2020, 34 pages.

Reading Level: Picture Book, ages 4-8

Recommended for: ages 5-7

Every writer knows the terror residing in a blank page. “It’s always so hard to get started,” our nameless protagonist laments. Fortunately, she has a secret weapon: her pencil. This cheerful chap oozes encouragement right out of the can: “C’mon, you can do this! You and I are a team!” Since this writer is also an illustrator, she starts with sketching ideas. Real characters at a baseball game are soon joined by imaginary characters. Nice start, but where’s the conflict? A dispute leads to a broken pencil, and just like that, the plot becomes a meta-story about telling stories.  Readers won’t get much in the way of specifics, but some insight into the way writers (and illustrators) work. The third-from-last double-page spread, where the real Sarah Varon appears in her studio with pencil in hand, is worth the read.

  • Overall rating: 4 (out of 5)

How to Write a Story by Kate Messner, illustrated by Mark Siegel. Chronicle, 2020, 28 pages.

Reading Level: Picture Book, ages 4-8

Recommended for: ages 7-10

Kate Messner, an author with several highly-recognized middle-grade novels to her credit, offers sound advice on how anyone can write a story. The story elements don’t vary: plot, characters, setting, theme, and conflict. Messner’s approach is to break those elements into ten steps, offering several possibilities for each, until the story has solidified into a fantastic tale involving a sea monster escaping from the city aquarium. But the story doesn’t have to flashy. Step one is finding the idea—“something you love or something that scares you,” for instance. Setting, protagonist, and problem follows, then an overall plan and interesting details.

Some kids like to dream up the idea first and follow where it leads them. Others, who just can’t think of anything, could find the list of steps helpful—especially since, at the end, the story is complete and ready to be shared.

  • Overall Rating: 4 (out of 5)

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Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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