Behind the Scenes: “Mining Your Mentor Texts” by Lindsey McDivitt

Mining is a perfect metaphor to talk about using mentor texts because mentor texts can offer gems of all sorts for a writer. Thanks to Lindsey McDivitt for drilling down into how she used mentor texts as aids for writing as she tackled a bio on Nelson Mandela. 

AND thank you, Lindsey for offering a GIVEAWAY to win a copy of A PLAN FOR THE PEOPLE: NELSON MANDELA’S HOPE FOR HIS NATION! Just leave a comment after the post to enter!

The winner of DON’T HUG DOUG from Carrie Finison is Patricia Tilton! 

9780802855022 (1)Mining Your Mentor Texts by Lindsey McDivitt

My new picture book biography, A Plan for the People: Nelson Mandela’s Hope for His Nation, was sparked by my 2013 return visit to South Africa. I’d visited grandparents there since emigrating to America when very small. But after a gap of twenty five years, I visited and finally experienced the new democratic South Africa—minus the cruel laws of apartheid.

I took a trip to Robben Island prison where Nelson Mandela spent eighteen of his twenty seven years behind bars. His spirit of forgiveness toward white South Africans, the oppressors, astounded me. I learned that while in prison he purposely changed himself from an angry activist to a statesman capable of leading a diverse and divided nation. It woke me up to how little I really knew about my birthplace. I dove deep into research on Nelson Mandela with absolutely no intent to write about him.

1517660_570648073025498_21388590_nAfter several years of reading about Mandela, South Africa and apartheid I developed a burning desire to share how Mandela and his fellow freedom fighters used their long and painful prison sentence to educate themselves, readying themselves to free dark-skinned South Africans from apartheid and lead a new nation. I wanted to tell how they managed to change even some white prison guards. And also, to somehow incorporate that even white South Africans had been freed from the chains of apartheid in the new South Africa.

Nelson Mandela’s own words guided me, and a very special anecdote about his favorite gift would be the perfect ending. But I was truly intimidated by the many challenges ahead. Relatively new to writing for children and unpublished, at first I considered several formats. I thought about fiction—a child learning about Mr. Mandela? Middle grade? A chapter book?

I finally landed on the picture book biography format, inspired in part by books I’d reviewed for my “A is for Aging” blog. I went back to books that had delighted me and drawn me in. I’d not yet heard of mentor texts, but examining them closely I stumbled upon some helpful discoveries that inspired these tips:

  • Don’t restrict your reading of texts to those that seem to closely fit your vision for your story. If a book draws you in, perhaps there is a valuable nugget there for you.
  • Think hard about exactly what draws you to a particular picture book text. What delights you?
  • Consider beginning with lists. Lists of words related to your main themes, lists of words the opposite to your main theme, lists of fascinating facts, of especially kid-friendly anecdotes, of potential back matter and more. IMG_1369

It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw by Don Tate showed me I could begin with my main character as an older man and then jump into his younger days almost immediately. My book would need to remind readers of Mandela’s importance and his youth, but then focus on the prison years that changed him. Few readers would see similarities in A Plan for the People and It Jes’ Happened, but I did!

I knew I’d need to focus on some heavy topics like racism, racial injustice and prison time.

Sit In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Pinkney showed me how a challenging topic like the struggle for racial equality could be handled with outstanding creativity.

Pinkney’s lyricism and rhythm made for a terrific read-aloud—something I treasure in picture books. She carried the diner theme throughout the narrative in playful ways. Obviously Andrea Pinkney had made lists of diner related words. Poring over Sit In I started making lists too.

IMG_6844Lists freed me to explore exactly what information I needed to include. And also how to make it interesting to young readers. I listed words related to South Africa—lions, elephants, Table Mountain, grasslands, hot sun and sea. Words related to prison—think cage, jail, warden, captive, bars, key, shackle. Lists related to freedom, and more. My lists sparked possible metaphors and similes to include. Many times I returned to my lists and pulled from them to enrich my story.

It was Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything that helped me find my voice. Author Maira Kalman dove into that a famous man’s life with a confident, yet confiding tone I’d not heard before. She was talking directly to young people. Its casual tone helped me finally put pen to paper to try for a story.

Delving deep into picture books that delight me continues to inform my writing. Even those I must puzzle out what it is I like so much. I highly recommend trying to put your finger on just what you like about a favorite. It’s now my “go-to method” to jumpstart much needed revisions to a manuscript. So pull those picture books off the shelves and pile them onto your desk.

A Plan for the People: Nelson Mandela’s Hope for His Nation finally heads out into the world on March 30th. I dare to believe that it will give readers of all ages hope—hope that people can change. That racism and social justice can be tackled in bold and broad ways, but also one person at a time.

Don’t forget to leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of A PLAN FOR THE PEOPLE. (US addresses only, please)

Bio: Lindsey McDivitt is the author of Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story, and Truth and Honor: The President Ford Story from Sleeping Bear Press and A Plan for the People: Nelson Mandela’s Hope for His Nation, releasing March 30, 2021 (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers). Christmas Fairies for Ouma (Familius Books; 2022). Find her at where she reviews picture books with accurate images of aging and older adults on her blog “A is for Aging.”

Find Lindsey at

Find Charly Palmer at

For a signed copy of A Plan for the People: Nelson Mandela’s Hope for His Nation and book swag, pre-order from Lindsey’s local Indie before March 30th.

20 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: “Mining Your Mentor Texts” by Lindsey McDivitt

  1. Interesting advice, cool process and memories, and loved how you couldn’t get the story out of your mind. This is a much needed tribute to a great leader. Looking at the cell he was in, at least I am glad he had some light. can’t wait to read this beautiful sounding and looking book. Much success to you, Lindsey!Stay well.✌🏼💙🎶🎨📚🌻

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks for your kind comments Annie! I’m also glad Mandela had a window in his cell. But its unbelievably small and cold. 😦 My hope is his story will inspire change toward racial justice still much needed around the world. Stay safe and well.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I love the story behind the story! Thank you for sharing your process. My husband and I traveled through southern Africa for a couple of months in 1996. It was an eye-opening experience. About 90% of the people lived without electricity, if I recall correctly, and of course they were Black. The inequity was astounding. I’m glad you returned to write about this amazing man. I look forward to reading your book!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Jilanne. It’s true, the inequity between races is still astounding in South Africa. So much work still to be done. Sadly their last President was corrupt and millions lined the pockets of the few rather than improving infrastructure and schools as intended. Housing, schools, electricity and plumbing are slowly getting better, but the economy desperately needs tourism dollars and foreign investment. I highly recommend a return visit post pandemic!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I love your suggestion on lists. I have used them before but not in the same ways. Thank you for making me think more expansively. Looking forward to your book!

    Liked by 2 people

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