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!!
FAR FROM THE SEA AND THE SALT IN THE AIR
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 Random.org 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: 12 x 12 Featured Author, 12 x 12 in 2012, Critique, Giveaway, Goals, Julie Hedlund, Picture Books, Poetry, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Rhyming, Works in Progress, Writer, Writing