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Mentor Text Monday: Using Rhetorical Devices as the Structure of Your Next Picture Book

by Maria Marianayagam

When conceptualizing a picture book, we’re often focused on the story, which of course, is the most important thing. The second, to me, would be structure.

Structure is the scaffolding that holds your story together, and oftentimes, it can be a hook in and of itself. A clever structure can impact the reader experience in a meaningful way, and give editors and agents the extra oomph they need to not look away. If the story is the WHAT, the structure is the HOW. How do you plan to tell your story?

Structure can take many forms. Many times, it’s a narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and end. Other times, it can be more creative: dual narrative, told backwards, repeated questions, mirrored beginning and end, except if, and so on. Today, however, I’d like to focus on using rhetorical devices as the structure. Usually, when we think of rhetorical devices, we’re thinking of how to use them in the body of our manuscript: what metaphors, imagery, alliteration, and onomatopoeia can be used to elevate the text? Today, I want to share stories that used these devices as the HOW.

First up, On Account of the Gum by Adam Rex. This book is a great example of using HYPERBOLE as structure. A girl gets gum stuck in her hair, then butter, then grass…then her aunt. It’s ridiculous and exaggerated but does an incredible job of conveying the humor of this story. 

Next, we have Charlie Parker Played Be Bop by Chris Rashka. This book is full of

ONOMATOPOEIA and by using words like “be pop” “fisk fisk” and “boppitty bibbitty bop BANG” you can literally hear the sounds of Charlie Parker’s alto saxophone, the perfect way to convey his story.

I’m taking a leap here but I believe We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins is a great metaphor for young kids biting at daycare or preschool. Using Penelope Rex, a tiny T-rex who feels tempted to eat her classmates, is a hilarious and yet effective way to share that hurting our peers is probably not best.

With repeated SIMILES throughout this book, I am Enough by Grace Byers and Keturah A. Bobo uses child-like comparisons to convey what a person is capable of. With gentle phrases like “Like a ladder, I’m here to climb and like the air, to rise above,” this story is both soothing and inspiring. 

In my upcoming debut picture book, The Amazing Power of Girls, illustrated by Skylar White, I use PERSONIFICATION. My book explains the forces of physics—gravity, buoyancy, magnetism, and more—by embodying girls as the different forces. The text serves the double purpose of explaining the force while empowering young girls.

I hope these mentor texts provide structural inspiration for your next story. Any new ideas on how you can use structure to elevate your next picture book story? Let me know in the comments.

PRIZE: 30 minute AMA

BIO: Maria Marianayagam is a Tamil Sri Lankan-Canadian children’s book author. She was born in India and grew up in Nigeria and four provinces across Canada. Maria graduated from the University of Calgary with a B. Sc. in Chemical Engineering and spent a decade working in the energy industry. She fell in love with children’s books (again!) after becoming an Amma (mom). Maria enjoys writing lyrical picture books centered on STEM, faith, and South Asian culture, as well as high-concept middle grade grounded in culture. Her debut board books, Baby Hope and Baby Courage, released with WorthyKids/Hachette in January, and her debut picture book, The Amazing Power of Girls comes out this June with Sourcebooks eXplore.

When Maria is not writing, she can be found traveling the world, devouring books, and spending time with her wonderful family. She resides in Alberta, Canada, with her husband and two daughters. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter/X @msmarianayagam. Sign up for her Maria’s Musings Substack for more news and more helpful writing tips!


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