Meet Mentor Diana Murray

We are happy to welcome Diana Murray to our Writing with the Stars mentor lineup this year! Diana is a children’s poet and the author of nine picture books, with six more coming soon. Her published books include the delightful DORIS THE BOOKASAURUS, illustrated by Yuyi Chen (Imprint, 2017); NED THE KNITTING PIRATE,illustrated by Leslie Lammle (Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan, 2016); and GRIMELDA: THE VERY MESSY WITCH, illustrated by Heather Ross (Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins, 2016).

On your website you say that, because of your background in design, you are a more visual writer. Can you explain what you mean by this and how it affects your writing process?

When I write, I visualize what each page will look like. The final images may be quite different (since the illustrator will add his or her own perspective and expertise), but during the process of writing, imagining the illustrations is very helpful to me. I think about having enough variety from page to page and consider bits of humor or surprises that might be added. I consider the climax and try to have text that will lead to an image that pops. Visualizing also helps me leave room for the illustrations and to keep the text tight and not overly descriptive.

Your children’s poetry has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, and has also won several SCBWI Merit Awards and Honors. Why is poetry so appealing to you,and what do you think makes it so kid-friendly? 

I was always really into art and drawing. I remember my kindergarten teacher commenting on it. But it wasn’t until high school that I discovered that words can function as a kind of art, too. That words could paint a picture in a whole new way.That just a few words could leave a reader with a deep sense of emotion or truth. And then, when I had my first child in 2005, I came across children’s poetry, rhyme, and humorous poetry. As someone who is bilingual, I have a special appreciation for words. I delight in their various sounds and nuanced meanings. I feel that poetry plays that up to the maximum—even more than prose. As far as being kid-friendly, metrical poetry has rhythm, much like music. Research shows that music is even more ancient than speech, so I feel like it hits us on a deep, visceral level. Also, the end rhymes set up an expectation that allows children to actively participate by guessing what comes next. And then there’s alliteration, metaphor, and all those other great poetic devices that are so useful for writing and expressing ourselves.

In your books you employ sophisticated rhyme patterns and manage to make this kind of writing look (deceptively) easy. How do you approach a story when writing in rhyme so that the plot, structure, rhyme scheme, etc. all come together into a cohesive unit? What advice do you have for authors who are interested in mastering this writing style?

One of the most common mistakes people make when writing in rhyme is to let the rhyme lead the story. I often did this, too, when I first started writing. It’s fine if the rhymes lead to surprises, but the writer needs to take control of the reins. It’s best to figure out most of the story before getting into the rhyming. I like to type out the page numbers and then write a sentence or two under each spread to explain what should be happening. That also helps with pacing the story arc. Others may have a different approach, but methodical planning is what works for me.

And as far as learning to write in metrical verse, I recommend reading tons of rhyming picture books, poems, and articles/books on craft. Then practice, practice, practice and join a critique group with other rhymers.

And here is a resource for learning how most picture books are paginated: https://taralazar.com/2009/02/22/picture-book-construction-know-your-layout/

Doris in DORIS THE BOOKASAURUS is such a voracious reader! What was the inspiration for this particular book? What inspires YOU to write books that kids will never want to stop reading?

DORIS THE BOOKASAURUS was mostly inspired by my kids. One daughter was always a voracious reader while the other is more reluctant.

In the story, I wanted to show that it’s just a matter of finding the right book. That there’s a book for everyone. Some people might enjoy non-fiction books about world records. Others may prefer fantasy, or joke books, or books on some specific topic. I truly believe that anyone can become an enthusiastic reader if they just find the right book. I also wanted to show that reading and playtime don’t have to be separate things. My kids would often read books and then act out parts of the story with their toys, for example. Books can be active and engaging and can actually enhance playtime.

Finally, I feel that reading together with a child creates such a special bond. It’s like taking a journey together. My kids are older now and I miss those times, but I feel so lucky that I still get to be part of that experience by creating picture books and early readers.

In your bio, you mention that you sometimes hear bagpipes playing while you’re writing on your patio. This sounds very romantic and mysterious–please tell us more! 

One of our neighbors, who is in the volunteer fire department with my husband, was giving bagpipe lessons to a student. They were several blocks away but the sound of bagpipes really carries. The student was very good! I enjoyed imagining I was in the Scottish countryside—a place I’ve always wanted to go. I also found it amusing because when I lived in midtown Manhattan, my next door neighbor was an opera singer and I used to always hear her practicing through the wall. The contrast is funny. If I move again, I wonder what I’ll hear next.

Thank you so much for your time, Diana, and for mentoring a lucky writer in 2019! Diana’s next book is UNICORN DAY, illustrated by Luke Flowers, so look for that in June. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your local librarians how awesome they are. Details on how to apply for the Writing with the Stars contest can be found on the WWTS Contest tab.