Learning From the Best by James McGowan

Looking for the perfect mentor texts? Not sure how to use mentor texts? Agent extraordinaire and debut picture book author James McGowan is here with the deets. -Laura

Last week, I was on Nerdy Book Club, recommending my favorite kids books about space that could be read alongside my debut, GOOD NIGHT, OPPY!

This got me thinking. How many of these incredible books really paved the way for me to write GNO? In truth, it was all of them. I learned from some of the best in terms of focusing in on the vastness of space and writing a fascinating interplanetary picture book.

Cover of the picture book Good Night, Oppy.
GOOD NIGHT OPPY landed on shelves on September 14, 2021

More importantly, though, the process of writing (and rewriting, and –yes—rewriting) GOOD NIGHT, OPPY! taught me the importance of being in conversation with the picture book market, finding your mentor texts, and growing your craft with every read, every draft, every reread, and every revision. I thought I’d share the books that were my North Stars in the writing process and what I learned from them. I hope I pass along some of the ways we can learn from the picture books we’re reading, and how we can apply that to our writing. 

PLUTO GETS THE CALL by Adam Rex and Laurie Keller

I’ll say it every single time, this is one of my favorite picture books ever. It’s not only hilarious and entertaining, but also educational and fascinating. I own something like 3 physical copies and one digital. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to take a read.

When you read OPPY (which I hope you will), you’ll notice her personality from the title page. She makes for quite a character, and that’s in no small part due to Graham Carter’s incredible illustrations. In the text, though, I wanted to make her lovable, to make children root for her, celebrate her, and yes even miss her when the book is done. Adam and Laurie did that for me with Pluto. It makes it a book worth coming back to time and time again. It was really what I kept coming back to. Pluto is a bit more of a developed character than Oppy, but they’re both full of life. I don’t think I would have been as successful in anthropomorphizing the Opportunity rover without this book, and sometimes that’s just what we need. A similar representation of what we want to do in our books to know we CAN do it. No shame in that. Thank you, Adam and Laurie.

Cover of the picture book Pluto Gets the Call

RED ROVER by Richard Ho and Katherine Roy

My word. OPPY would not be a book if not for me having read this book. When I was anxious that I had no idea if I could pull off writing GOOD NIGHT OPPY, this book made me feel like I could. It was the precise text I needed to bolster the courage (yes, courage) to write a book on the Opportunity rover. First, it got a bit more specific on how to turn a rover into a character. (Curiosity roved so Oppy could joyride!)

But what I love so much about Red Rover was how it celebrated the mission and achievements of the Curiosity rover and doled out the science in an incredibly accessible manner. These missions are enormous in scope. Getting the right facts and the facts right is no easy task. But it felt easier to do once I read RED ROVER.

Cover of the picture book Red Rover.

FLYING DEEP by Michelle Cusolito

Well before I started working with Michelle, I found this book and fell in love with it. No, it’s not a space book. But that’s the point. I learned a ton from reading Michelle’s work, but what I took most from her incredible debut was that while there are so many directions I could go in, and details I could add, I needed some sort of narrative arc.

Michelle’s is a day in the Alvin Submersible. Oppy’s is, well, her life on Mars. But I didn’t need to start with the landing and end with the dust storm. I could start it anywhere. Then once I did, it was my job to make things flow and settle neatly at the end of things. I don’t know why that wasn’t clicking for me. My first draft of Oppy was frankly a mess and all over the place. Then I read about 60 nonfiction and informational books to help me gather my footing. Michelle’s made it all click for me. Obviously, all the books I read in that time helped mentor me in some way I probably can’t recognize, but this one holds a special place for me. And now I work with Michelle on her future books. 

Cover of the book Flying Deep.

I’ll always credit these three for inspiration, affirmation, and my education in how to write a strong informational fiction picture book. But I think this can be done with any genre, and any age group. Identify the kind of book you want to write. Identify the books you love in that genre. Then re-read them, critically and closely. You’d be amazed at what you take away this time.

Photo of James McGowan

James McGowan is an Associate Agent and Social Media Manager at BookEnds Literary Agency. He’s been a reader since his first time reading A Series of Unfortunate Events book, and ordered the sequels regularly through Scholastic book orders. His debut picture book, GOOD NIGHT, OPPY, launched earlier this month from Boyds Mills Kane Press. When James is not reading/working/writing, he might be found watching sitcoms, or Jeopardy!.

Connect with James:

Website: https://www.jmcgowanbooks.com/

Twitter: @jmcgowanbks

Instagram: @jmcgowanbks

Hiya, reader! Laura Lavoie here. If you enjoy my blog, let’s connect so you can be the first to see when a new post is on the way! Find me on Twitter and Instagram: @llavoieauthor

1 thought on “Learning From the Best by James McGowan”

  1. James is a generous man. In all his interviews, not only has he given us a multi-faceted glimpse into how he wrote Good Night Oppy, but he has given us a crash course in how to publicize a book during COVID. It’s on my to-buy list! Thank you.

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