In honor of Penny’s magically poetic There Was an Old Dragon Who Swallowed a Knight, I had my rhyming friend (aka Derick Wilder) conjure up a fitting introduction…
There was a kind author who picked up her pen.
She had an idea, then started to grin.
She picked up her pen to conjure a rhyme,
then polished and tweaked it till it was sublime.
She added an arc, for that was imperative,
and also included impeccable narrative.
She wrote of a dragon, a knight and a castle
(swallowed up whole, to the last golden tassel).
She added a lady, a squire and a cook.
Then wrapped it all up with a wonderful hook.
She’s a children’s book author – there have been many.
But few are as bright as this shiny new Penny!
Before you were a picture book author, you were an elementary school PE teacher, and you created games based on books. Would you share one of those with us?
I created a game based on Bony Legs, written by Joanna Cole and illustrated by Dirk Zimmer. Here is a short synopsis of the story:
When a terrible witch vows to eat a little girl for supper, the girl escapes with the help of a mirror and comb given to her by the witch’s cat and dog.
First, I read the book. Then I chose two or three students to be Old Bony Legs. They wore colored pinnies. All the other students were given a card to carry as the students playing Old Bony Legs chased them. The cards had a picture of either a mirror, a comb, or Old Bony Legs. When a student was tagged, they had to hand their card over to the Old Bony Legs that tagged them. If the card had a mirror or a comb on it, the student was free to get another card from me. If it had Old Bony Legs on it, they switched places with the Old Bony Legs that tagged them. This kept the students constantly active, and it was exciting for them to reveal the picture on their card.
There Was an Old Dragon Who Swallowed a Knight has won several awards, including Best in Rhyme at the 2015 Rhyming Picture Book Revolution Conference. The book is full of surprising rhymes. You talked about one of these in your interview with Matthew Winner on his All the Wonders podcast, and it was impressive how long you took to explore alternatives to castle/hassle (which you felt was the obvious choice) to eventually get to the alternative castle/tassel (the surprising choice). It took you days, and yet the result seems effortless. How long, on average, do you work on a rhyming manuscript before it goes to your critique partners?
It’s really hard to say because each story is so different. I spent seven days on DRAGON before sending it to my critique group the first time. But that was really quick. And it was earlier in my writing career and now I think I would have held onto it longer and perfected it more before sending it to them. Other than DRAGON, I would say that after a draft is written I spend about two months perfecting a rhyming manuscript before sending it to my group.
Do you have any best practices for rhyming picture book writers as to how to find those less predictable choices?
I research my character, setting, and anything else I think is relative, and then paste the research at the bottom of my story. This immediately helps as I’m looking for language that’s relevant to my story. For instance, with DRAGON I researched medieval times. I wanted to know who would work with a knight and in a castle. This helped with ideas for rhymes and ideas for my story. And I always keep RhymeZone.com and Thesaurus.com open in my browser. I use them constantly to see if there is a rhyme I’m not thinking of or if there is a synonym with options for more surprising rhymes.
You have a feature on your blog “A Great Nephew and a Great Aunt” which highlights collaborations between you and your seventh-grade nephew Landon, as well as guest collaborators. It’s a great introduction to the cooperative process of making picture books. What inspired you to start this series?
I was trying to think of something different to blog about. Since I also write poetry and feel that writing poetry has helped me immensely with writing picture books, I thought I would share poems. But I wanted another element. I wanted images. So I thought it would be great to have an illustration to go along with the poem. I’m not an artist so that wasn’t an option. Then I thought about my nephew, Landon, who is a very talented artist. I loved this idea because I love children’s art. When I taught school seeing their art hanging in the hallways made me smile. So I ran it by his parents and then they ran it by him and “A Great Nephew and a Great Aunt” was born.
Any fun new projects you want to share with us? When does A Cooked-Up Fairytale release?
At this point I have several stories on submission but no new book deals. A Cooked-Up Fairytale releases September 5, 2017. I’ve seen the final art and it’s amazing!
There Was an Old Dragon Who Swallowed a Knight is written in rhyme but A Cooked-Up Fairytale is written in prose. Do you prefer rhyming over prose or vice versa?
I don’t prefer one over the other. It seems that a story comes to me one way or the other. In fact, my stories on submission are half rhyme and half prose, and one of them is both — prose with a rhyming refrain.
Thank you Penny! To apply for a mentorship with Penny please see http://beckytarabooks.com/contest/