It is such an honor to welcome our featured 12 x 12 in 2012 author for August – Rebecca Kai Dotlich. Not only has Rebecca authored more than half a dozen books of poetry for children (including one coming next March co-authored with Jane Yolen), but I discovered she is a passionate and nurturing teacher as well. I was fortunate enough to attend the Highlights Poetry Workshop earlier this year, and Rebecca’s smiling face was the first thing that greeted me when I walked into the dining room, tired and frazzled from the trip. She made me feel instantly welcome, and more importantly, by the end of the workshop, she made me feel like a writer. Like a poet. Like I had a voice. So I asked her to write about using poetic form and devices in picture book writing, and I was not surprised that it read as if I were sitting in the room with her. And one lucky winner will receive a PB critique from Rebecca (up to 500 words) this month!!


Or Using Poetic Devices to Create Picture Books

The title of this post is a line from Barbara Cooney’s MISS RUMPHIUS. It is also a perfect line to demonstrate lyricism and the use of poetic devices found in picture books.

These few words strung together make music; “. . . far from the sea and the salt in the air.” They also spark our imagination, and give an aura of wonder and mystery. This line could have been much less poetic. It could have been written like this: “She left home and went to live in another city that was miles away from the ocean.” That would have been a well-written line. But it just doesn’t evoke the same feeling.

Often, writers mistakenly think alliteration is simply a succession of the same first letters of two or more words placed side by side on the page. And in an honest attempt to try and nail this poetic device, will mistakenly go for the neon-lighted-here-I-am-am kind of alliteration.  (Robo the raccoon cooked creamy carrot soup.)

In the example above, the f in far and from are indeed side by side on the page, but they fit there seamlessly. There are many ways this line could have been written. (A long way from, Out from, Away from, etc.) But joining the word far with from makes this line sing.   It seems like such a simple thing. And often it is. And it’s what works.

Same with the s in sea and salt. Still using the s but replacing shore for sea, you notice it doesn’t have that same poetic ring, that lyrical quality. Far from the shore and the salt in the air. Just isn’t the same, is it? Proving that all alliteration is not created equally. Sea and salt.  Shore and salt.  Listening to your word choices and lines aloud, over and over and over again, is the best way to determine if you have made the right choices. If not, it’s back to the drawing board.

There are thousands of examples similar to this, of course. As you read through stacks of picture books you will discover them. You can’t ask for better teachers than the books themselves. There are brilliant articles and educators that will dive in and come out with a much better roadmap for a post like this than I can. But this is my roadmap, and I am, no doubt, trying to simplify a complex subject. But here are a few thoughts:

As you craft your picture book, keep in mind all the tools and poetic devices at the ready; imagery, personification, metaphor, repetition.  Rhyme and rhythm are two very important poetic tools, but by far not the only ones. As you are writing your picture book, listen to the sounds of the words. Remember that something lovely and lyrical (like the Cooney example, above) is only one way of adding a poetic feel to your picture book. Be aware of these poetic tools as you write, but not focused on them. And whatever you do, don’t demand your muse to use them all.

Write sentences that flow organically, or seem to. They won’t really flow organically of course, but the goal is to make it look that way.  The reader wants to feel like he isn’t stumbling or tripping over rhythm that is off, rhyme that is forced into a corner, or language that is so lovely-contrived, it ends up being jarring to both tongue and ear.

Children love wordplay (palindromes, anagrams, spoonerisms, etc.,) but they also love to play with words (fascinating words, difficult words, clever, whimsical and silly words.) Dabble in the playground of fanciful and unexpected. Noodle in imagery; pull words from the magical pot called imagination. (Some people call it Thesaurus.) In truth, it’s both. And remember that every word counts. Every. Word.

My latest rhyming picture book WHAT CAN A CRANE PICK UP? (Illustrated by Mike Lowery, Knopf, September 2012) began with one poetic device; repetition. I didn’t consciously do it, it just happened like most ideas: driving in the car, my grandson (then about 6 or 7) and I were talking as he pointed out construction sites, highway work, a crane lifting a concrete barrier:

Ian:  Can a crane pick up a crane?

Me:  It sure can.

Ian:  Can it pick up a truck?

Me:  Yep, a truck too.  (And then, being silly). . . and a truck, and a truck, and a . . .

And he laughed. (You had to be there.) And we proceeded to name all the things cranes might pick up. And we were making a book. We kept repeating it as we went, so we wouldn’t forget our collection of ideas. A part of the text reads like this: “. . . Watch as cranes with chains and hooks lift cartons and cages and library books! See the cranes with slings and straps lift cuckoo clocks and baseball caps.”

I point this out to make a few points.  The alliteration of cranes, cartons, cages, cuckoo clocks and caps would have been too much without the other words popped in to cushion them. This is only decided after many drafts and many readings aloud. The word cuckoo? I had a long list of clocks. Tower clocks and alarm clocks and mantel clocks and many more. I actually didn’t choose cuckoo for its alliteration. I chose it because it is fun to say. The addition of rhyme for this book came after the idea, after the loose use of repetition, and after the list of things a crane can pick up. I decided to layer it with rhyme after a straight prose approach didn’t seem playful enough to me.

Rhyme can engage the young child like nothing else. But the rhyme must be good, natural, easy. Never forced. What is forced rhyme?  Many writers ask that. The answer is simple. An end rhyme must complete the thought the way you want it to, must express the idea you are truly trying to get across to the reader, not in a convoluted, these-two-words-rhyme, kind of way.

The two picture books I highlighted here are as different as night and day. One is a lyrical, wondrous beauty of a picture story book. The other is a whimsical rhyming romp about a construction machine. Both are picture books, and both use poetic devices. One to tell a story, and the other to engage and entertain the child in a playful way.

Children, and especially very young children, are enchanted by rhythm, rhyme and repetition. They almost feed off of predictable language patterns, being entranced by the sound of the words, the cadence of the line, and the delicious knowledge that they are exactly sure what’s coming next. Being able to chime in to jump rope and nursery rhymes, song lyrics, prayers and cheers has always been, and will always be, one of life’s purest joys.  Lines from picture books do this too, and can they ever. From the youngest babe to the elderly grandfather, who doesn’t love to repeat the words to a poem or song they know, or once knew, or will forever know in the vault of their heart.

Rebecca Kai Dotlich grew up in the Midwest exploring trails by the creek, reading comic books, making paper dolls and building snowmen. She is a children’s poet and picture book author of titles such as Bella and Bean (an SCBWI Golden Kite Honor) and What Is Science? (Subaru SB&F finalist and Bank Street’s Best Book of the year.) She gives poetry workshops, visits classrooms across the country, and speaks at conferences, retreats, libraries and schools to teachers, aspiring writers and students of all ages. Her books have received the Gold Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Award as well as an IRA Children’s Choice and her work has been featured on Reading Rainbow and the PBS children’s show Between the Lions. She is the mother of two and grandmother of four. Rebecca still reads comic books and builds snowmen. Her newest picture book, WHAT CAN A CRANE PICK UP?  (Illustrated by Mike Lowery) is soon to be released by Knopf (September 2012) and just received a *starred* review from Publisher’s Weekly. 

Participants – to enter to win a critique from Rebecca, you must be an official challenger and leave a comment on this post (INCLUDING YOUR FIRST AND LAST NAME) any time during the month of August for one point. On August 31st, l’ll put a check-in post on the blog.  If you completed a picture book draft in August, you can let us know in the comments of that post for another point. I will draw a winner using and announce on September 2nd.








Categories: 12 x 12 Featured Author, 12 x 12 in 2012, Authors, Children's Books, Giveaway, Goals, Guest Blogging, Picture Books, Poetry, Rhyming, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,



  1. After reading this, I’m going to check my pb ms for poetic devices. Thanks, Rebecca! The crane book sounds and looks adorable!
    ~Tina Cho

  2. I’m with Tina! I’m more determined than ever to go over any draft I think is almost-final and see if there are places I can make it flow even better.

  3. Okay! WHOOPEE WOW! Excellent post. Isn’t it something how we come up with ideas? What Can A Crane Pick Up sounds adorable. I truly love how you describe life’s purest joys. That was pure poetry itself. Thank you so very much. Have saved this post that hopped into my inbox, tucked safely away inside a folder.

    Robyn Campbell

  4. What a great way to start the month – with alliteration and poetry. Thanks, Rebecca! This is just the right reminder that it ain’t about just getting words on the page – but making those words sing.

  5. Beautifully expressed, Rebecca! Your post has inspired me to write a poetic picture book this month. I need to be reminded to read the lines over and over, both silently and aloud, to see if the words flow. I enjoyed your story of how the Crane book came to be. I need to spend more time with my grandsons!
    Jarm Del Boccio

  6. After reading Rebecca’s post, I’m reminded of how much fun it was to read aloud picture books to my kids. I still read PB’s–and I work on stuff to get the right sound–but there’s something magical about kids lighting up when words sing! Thanks for the tips!

  7. Beautifully written post on the power of using rich language. I wonder whether, in the quest for ever-lower word counts, writers are too often slicing out those gorgeous words. I concur with Rebecca that those words can be the most memorable, add life to the text and make the text really sing.
    Lisa Rogers

  8. These are fantastic tips, Rebecca, reminiscent of my favorite picture book writing book by Ann Whitford Paul. Even as a nonfiction writer, I try to employ poetic techniques to make the MSS more interesting. I’m off to check out “What is Science?” Kirsten Larson

  9. Thanks for sharing these wonderful rhyming tips Rebecca. I love hearing how books are born. Great interview ladies.

    Jennifer Young

  10. I’m so happy to see that this isn’t a post about writing a rhyming picture book. It’s really packed full of goodies for ALL of us, rhymers and non-rhymers alike. Thank you! Plus any reference to Miss Rumphius is two thumbs up in my opinion. I spent many years outside with my third graders, planting lupines around the school (which never grew, so we eventually switched to tulips). Yay Miss Rumphius – love her!!

    Genevieve Petrillo

  11. Great line from Miss Rumphius – it is such a lovely book!

    For August I will do my best to “pull words from the magical pot called imagination.” Thank you for the great lessons in this post.

  12. Every. Word. Counts. I knew this, but I’m eager to go back and look at my manuscripts with a fresh spirit along with the tips you’ve provided, Rebecca. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your pov about poetry in picture books.
    — Carol Munro

  13. Thanks, Rebecca, perfect post.
    Thank you, Julie, humble host.
    I shall (without hesitation)
    Rhyme and use alliteration.

    Tim McCanna

  14. Cranes pick up clocks. Writers pick up great tips in your post! Thank you, Rebecca.

    Wendy Greenley

  15. Oh, this is going down as one of my FAVORITE Rebecca Kai Dotlich interviews/features – I’ve read lots of them and written a couple myself! ;0) I LOVE these specifics of choosing one word/sound/letter over another and the “why’s” behind those choices. Well done, Rebecca and Julie – thanks for sharing!

  16. For me, this threw light on more of writing poetically even if not a rhyming book. There is just so much to know about writing that (my) illusive perfect picture book! Thank you for a helpful post.

  17. Whoa wow. This post is amazing! I’m on Team Words always, and these considerations are a gem. And now I can’t wait for WHAT CAN A CRANE PICK UP? I’m so curious!
    Carter Higgins

  18. Thanks for the refresher on poetic devices. I may be guilty of overdoing the alliteration. I am going to double check my drafts now and apply what I’ve learned from you. Great post, Rebecca.

  19. Perfect examples! So perfect that we just plain get it. Looks like we’ll all be checking our work, and even better–at least in my case–we will know what we’re looking for….And yes, as a former kindergarten teacher I can say that Rebecca hit the nail on the head with her summation of what kids like.

  20. Yeah! Thank you Rebecca – great info. What an honor that you share your wisdom with us. Thank you.

  21. Thank you for inviting me in, Julie! I sure appreciate each and every
    comment and wish you all the best of writing days with a good dash of luck
    thrown in.

  22. Shannon Abercrombie

    What a great post. Thanks for sharing!

  23. This is a wonderful post! I do love rhyme and you gave such useful information. It was really fun to hear how “What Can a Crane Pick Up?” came to be.
    Penny Klostermann

  24. Rebecca, wow! What a complete picture of this aspect of our craft.
    Yes, you said what I kinda knew, but only subconsciously–that every word, and every phrase, has more than one dimension, perhaps dozens.
    A word and it’s partners might express any or many of the dimensions of sound, emotion, humor, surprise, texture, wonder, question, certainty, familiarity, fun, calm…the list is infinite.
    Doesn’t it make writing fun?!?! – Damon Dean

  25. What a wonderful post! One of my most favorite pieces of advice for writing a picture book is that every word counts. So true. And here, the example of how poetic devices can used in both lyrical or playful ways was excellent. This is the best job ever! Words are so much fun! Looking forward to reading your latest book! Thanks for the great post! I love exclamation points!

    Elizabeth Stevens Omlor

  26. Excellent post! What Can a Crane Pick Up sounds like a book my boys would really enjoy!

    Nicole Zoltack

  27. It’s so interesting to learn how picture books start from the simplest of ideas or conversations. Thanks for an info-packed post!

  28. Thanks for the tips! I like poetry books and rhyming books but I find them very hard to write. I like the cover on WHAT CAN A CRANE PICK UP I will check it out! Erik Weibel

  29. Starting with a quotation from my all-time FAVORITE picture book, Miss Rumphius, and providing such helpful advice, this post is simply super, Rebecca. Julie, what an inspired choice for the August post. Thank you both, so much!


  30. What Can a Crane Pick Up sounds like a really cute book! 🙂 I prefer rhyming books to read to my children, but it’s not always the best form for me to use in my own picture books.

  31. Another great post. Thanks. – Stacy S. Jensen

  32. Elizabeth McBride

    What a wonderful and astute post! The beautiful lines in the stories we love do stay with us because we feel they are natural as well as lyrical. I am completing a submission of a poetry book for children this week (I set deadlines for myself when it comes to submissions, otherwise my manuscripts stay here at home while I continue to try and generate more). I would love to enter in the drawing for a critique from Ms. Dotlich!

    Elizabeth McBride

  33. Thank you, Julie, for the hosting,
    Of Rebecca’s awesome posting.
    Rebecca’s tips are magnifique,
    As is the prize of her critique.
    Which I would love to win next week. 🙂

    Rebecca, thank you for graciously sharing your knowledge and expertise.
    Vivian Kirkfield

  34. That was the best blog post I have read in a while. And probably my favorite of the 12×12 thus far. Thanks, ladies!!! Just wonderful.

  35. Margaret Greanias

    Thank you for such a great post. I’m so glad I stopped by. I have been wanting to go to a Highlights Workshop in September taught by Rebecca but couldn’t work it out logistically. This was a wonderful surprise.

    Margaret Greanias

  36. I’ve always been a big fan of the poetic and rhythmic feel of picture books and try to carry it across into my own writing. Thanks for the great tips!
    Jo Hart

  37. So great to see Rebecca here, and with wonderful advice to boot! There really is such a delicate line between using poetic devices to create gorgeous music as in the Miss Rumphius line and beating readers over the head with poetic devices. 🙂 It’s not easy to point out where that line is, either, but Rebecca has managed to show us how to marry instinct with technique. Thanks to you both!

  38. Thanks for the terrific advice! Taking time to pay attention to details such as these is the difference between simply telling a stor and letting the story sing itself!

  39. Wow, what an informative interview! (And I love the concept of the crane book. Will be looking for it in the stores this fall.) Thanks, Julie and Rebecca!

  40. Thank you for stories that sing. Thank you for a most informative post. And thank you again, Julie, for hosting this blog.
    Karen Kallis Cheesman

  41. Thanks for the great information! You have a fantastic way with words!
    Lisa Birenbaum

  42. Super tips, and I’m really excited that these all grew organically. Thanks a lot.
    Catherine Johnson

  43. Thanks for sharing!
    Beth MacKinney : )

  44. Excellent post! Poetic devices do not naturally seep out in my writing yet. Hopefully one day. Thanks for sharing.
    Darshana Khiani

  45. Great post. Poetry still scares me a little, but I loved your descriptions!
    Jennifer Rumberger

  46. I feel inspired to write a picture book in verse now. Thanks for a great post and I look forward to the publication of ‘What Can a Crane Pick Up?’ next month.

    Rebecca Colby

  47. Thank you for sharing your knowledge! A very inspiring post!
    Looking forward to ‘What Can a Crane Pick up?’
    Nicky Johnston

  48. Thanks for the great post and interview, Rebecca and Julie. I like your point about even the small words can make a difference.

    We continue to try to write all genres of picture books to expand our writing legs.

    Thanks, again!

  49. Oh wow! What a great post! And I have exactly the manuscript that needs a critique!

  50. This is very helpful! Thanks so much!
    Cynthia Iannaccone

  51. I have been looking for some advice on making my picture books sound more poetic and lyrical. It is as if poetry is a kind of magic only known to the chosen ones. I read a lot of posts on writing, but not many that are so full of practical advice. Thank you!

  52. Wonderful advice on keeping our writing beautiful. It’s important to remember that our children pick up more than just a story when we read to them. They start to get a feel for how language can be used in different ways and how words can fit together to create specific images. Thank you! Heather Newman

  53. Thanks for the post! Miss Rumphius is one of my favorite picture books. I think it’s time to pick it up again…
    Heather Cyr

  54. Great tips! Thank you for such a perfect post for me. I have such a hard time teasing out only the words that truly make a difference!

    Beth Gallagher

  55. How did I almost miss this great post??!! (August was just too busy I guess!) Thank you, Rebecca, for these insights. I love poetry, but I’m not comfortable trying it on my own, but your one statement that ‘every word is important’ resonates! Every. Word.

  56. I cannot wait for your book to come out! For someone who is always looking for a way to make her books sing without rhyming, I want to thank you! Best, Marcie Colleen

  57. Wow, I missed this, thanks for the reminder, Julie, it is a fabulous post – and I have saved it. I know I need to watch for an excess of alliteration. Can’t wait to read, “What Can a Crane Pick up?”. Joanna Marple

  58. Wow. What a helpful blogpost! I’m printing it out and will keep it close when writing and revising. Thanks so much, Rebecca and Julie.
    Dana Carey

  59. I write poetry and try to let it seep in when writing stories. “What can a crane pick up?” sounds fun.

  60. What a wonderful post! I appreciate the help in the poetic devices department. The inspiration was much need as well. Thank you!
    Beth Thaler

  61. Kathleen Cornell Berman

    I love this post. I agree, using poetic devices enrich the language in a picture book. It also makes the read aloud experience so much fun. Thanks!
    Kathy Cornell Berman

  62. Thank you for reminding me of many ways to look at picture books and my own writing. Great article/interview. I’ll look for the crane book in my pile of new stuff at work. Sounds like a great storytime book.

  63. Good to hear from all of you and thank you for each
    and every comment. Thanks again Julie, for inviting me to your fabulous
    blog. WHAT CAN A CRANE PICK UP? is released in just a few days. I’m always excited, but I think because I have one year old twin grandsons, I’m looking forward to this being their *favorite* book (we all believe that, right?) by the time they are two. They ARE already loving to watch construction equipment out their window.
    All best to you guys and your works in progress. Rebecca

  64. I love this post and the lyrical example from MISS RUMPHIUS. I will immediately implement this advice to improve my writing. Thank you!

    Erin Pearson

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