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I’m pleased to introduce
Author Heidi E.Y. Stemple
Author Heidi E.Y. Stemple
Rhyming With a Partner
I feel bad for writers who have to work hard to find a critique group. My family is one big writer’s support group. Sometimes it feels like summer camp and sometimes it’s more like a twelve-step program, but, for better or worse, we all work in this business of children’s books and it’s our shared passion. It’s no surprise that we all collaborate. My mother, author Jane Yolen, has written books with both my brothers and with me. We have all written one rather large book (Animal Stories, National Geographic Kids) together and are about to start on a second four-way collaboration. It’s what we do. On any given day, there are dozens of family projects in the works.
So, how do we do it? I can’t count the number of people who have said to me, “I could NEVER work with my mother.” My easy answer is always, “but you could work with MY mother.” And, it’s true. My mother and I have been writing together for 22 years. We work on large projects and small. We’ve written an adult collection together, close to 25 picture books, and numerous stories and even poems in collaboration. And, we manage this without killing each other. We banter and argue but we never leave angry.
Rhyming picture books are a special and delicate genre. You know we all love them when they’re done well. When all the elements line up, they are magic. But, we also love to hate the ones that just don’t work. Yes, I admit to being a rhyming picture book snob. When they are bad, they are awful. It’s why we are discouraged by agents and editors from submitting rhymed manuscripts. Can you imagine having to read bad almost-but-not-quite-slant rhyme, mangled meter, and awkwardly flip-flopped sentence structure all day long?
One way to prevent bad rhyme being sent out into the world is writing with a partner. This provides you a built-in editor. One who isn’t afraid to (nicely or not) tell you that your rhyme isn’t working. What’s more, your partner has a real stake in it being fixed because his or her name will be on the cover right alongside yours.
My mother and I, working in collaboration, have written four rhymed picture books: You Nest Here With Me, Not All Princesses Dress In Pink, Sleep Black Bear, Sleep, and Pretty Princess Pig. All of them have been written by passing the manuscript back and forth. One of us will begin and, when we come to a stopping spot, (which could be long sections or sometimes it’s even just a couple words at a time) we send the manuscript on to the other. In all our works together, there are parts we have passed back and forth so many times we can’t remember who wrote what. This back and forth is especially good for rhyming books because instead of having to figure out if your words read the way you intended, (or sounded in your head) you have a built-in fresh look at it every time.
As in any critique situation, we try to be gentle. Though, admittedly after a lifetime of knowing each other and so many years of writing together, we often forget our manners. Phrases like, “that sucks,” or worse have made it into emails and sit-down sessions more than once. But, since our shared purpose is a well-written rhyming read-aloud, we know that exacting critique is for the best.
The particular challenge with picture books is that there is no wiggle room. We have only 32 pages to play with. We cannot waste words. The brevity and economy of the picture book does not make it easier to write—in fact– learning to work within the confines of the picture book rules makes it anything but! When rhyming, this becomes even more of a challenge because of the additional puzzles of the rhyme, itself. Having a writing partner and built-in critique partner on board is one way to avoid some of the common mistakes rhyming writers can make. But, really, the best reason to write your rhyming picture book with a partner is that writing can be a lonely business. Sharing a project with a friend makes it a little less so.
Heidi didn’t want to be a writer when she grew up. In fact, after she graduated from college, she became a probation officer in Florida. It wasn’t until she was 28 years old that she gave in and joined the family business, publishing her first short story in a book called Famous Writers and Their Kids Write Spooky Stories. The famous writer was her mom, author Jane Yolen. Since then, she has published twenty books and numerous short stories and poems, mostly for children.
Heidi, her two daughters, her mom, and a couple cats live in Massachusetts on a big old farm with two book-filled houses.
Thank You Heidi!
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