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Art by Michael Kress-Russick
As I prepare to leave today for the Wild Wild Midwest Conference in Chicago I am excited about all the writer friends I will see! Many, I have met before and we will cherish the time together again. And some are friends through social media that I am SO excited to meet for the first time. This always feels like we have known each other for years because, in some says, we have. Our connection through writing is a tight bond.
One such friend, I met for the first time last summer at the LA SCBWI Conference and she is today’s guest blogger. It felt like Verla and I had known each other forever! She was so gracious to agree to participate this year and excited that I asked her about her rhyming non-fiction picture books! She said, “Everyone always wants to talk about the Blueboard,” which an amazing way for authors to connect. I have been a fan of Verla’s non-fiction books for many years and she has written a great blog post describing the challenges of combining two tough genres. When it’s done well…it’s simply magical!
Author Verla Kay
Author Verla Kay
Rhyming Non-Fiction Picture Books
by Verla Kay
After I became an adult I discovered there are fascinating stories and facts that are truly interesting and fun to learn about. It was the way those facts were presented to me in school that had turned me against non-fiction stories as a child. Now that I’m a writer, I can write things that kids ENJOY reading – exposing facts in a totally fun way.
Be forewarned, though. Rhyming non-fiction is an extremely difficult kind of writing. Just like prose, non-fiction books need a strong, solid, compelling beginning, a middle fraught with interesting situations, facts, and/or events, and they need a perfect, satisfying ending. But they also must be 100% factually accurate AND they need to have perfect rhythm and perfect rhyme!
It can take a long time to get a non-fiction rhyming picture book perfect enough to submit. Some of mine (250 – 350 words long, all written in my signature style that I call Cryptic Rhyme) have taken up to eleven years to write before they were ready to submit!
Beginnings are just as important in non-fiction as they are in prose. Here’s the evolution of my Gold Fever book beginning:
People call them,
This was “okay,” but it didn’t reflect the flavor of the old west, didn’t tell how the miners were rushing to get out west before the gold was all gone and didn’t show how the people laughed at the miners. And I wanted all of that in the first verse. It took two years to find the “right” three words to make this verse work.
What a difference those three words made in this beginning!
Every word must “sing” in a picture book, plus all your facts, your rhythm and your rhymes must be absolutely accurate when writing non-fiction rhyming picture books.
Rhythm & Facts
Rhythm in rhyming books of all kinds is where most rhyming books fail. If a sentence in your story doesn’t sound natural, like it would normally sound, then it shouldn’t be in your story. In Whatever Happened to the Pony Express? I had a horrible dilemma. My rhythm pattern for this story was:
DA da DA da,
da da DA.
DA da DA da,
da da DA.
No matter how I tried, I could NOT put the words, Pony Express, into my story, because the natural beat for them was: DA da da DA. (POny exPRESS). My solution? I put them into the title instead of the story.
In another of my books (Tattered Sails) I wrote about a family traveling from London to Boston in a 1600’s sailing ship. Here is the evolution of two verses in that story:
Piled is a tricky word. Is it pronounced with one or two syllables? This was my fix for it:
Piles of trunks.
But then… I discovered in my research that trunks were not in common usage on sailing ships until the 1700’s and my story took place in the 1600’s! So… I had to change this verse yet once again and since trunks was my rhyming word in that verse, I had to change the final line, also. After my changes it read like this:
Rhythm & Making Words Sing
Lice and rats.
Again I had another tricky word to pronounce with the correct number of syllables – foul. This was my fix for it:
Lice and rats.
Tainted is a two syllable word and it was a better, more descriptive and visual word than foul.
Broken Feather – the story of a Nez Perce boy – took eleven years to write!
Many of the verses in this story had to be radically changed or cut altogether after I had it “fact-checked” by the Nez Perce tribe in Idaho and many of those changes left gaps in the story – creating MUCH rewriting:
Some Words changed or eliminated were:
Tepees – the Nez Perce lived in lodges most of the year, only using tepees when traveling to hunt during the summer months
Chiefs – the Nez Perce called them headmen or leadmen
Tomahawks & peace pipes – they weren’t “native” to the Nez Perce
The Ending of Broken Feather took 5 years to get “just right”
I loved this ending! But during fact checking I realized their reservation was not barren or dry, so it had to be changed. I changed it to:
This was a great ending for adults. Unfortunately, it did NOT work for kids! When I read it to a 5th grade class as a “test,” the children just sat there…waiting for the ending! So I added two more verses. The last one was the hardest of all to write.
We no give up,
Stand here proud.
As you can see, this is SO bad…. Although it was the “essence” of what I wanted to say in the last verse, the actual words are HORRIBLE and I would never have actually used them.
White clouds many,
You stay proud, son,
Stand up tall.
This is a little better, but it still doesn’t do the job. The words are “okay” – but when writing picture books “okay” is just not good enough.
We will bend — but —
Will not fall.
This is better. It’s much smoother and feels almost right, but again, “almost” is not perfect, and anything less than perfect is definitely not good enough.
This verse works! It says what I wanted to say using words that are powerful and evoke a strong image. It allows readers to “feel” what Broken Feather would have been feeling. This ending “sings.” Notice how closely it mirrors that first “bad” verse? Only two lines really changed – but what a difference those few words make in the story!
We no give up,
Stand here proud
Writing non-fiction rhyming picture books is truly an art and it cannot be rushed. Give it your all, make sure every single fact in your story is accurate, every beat is perfect, every line is filled with interesting facts and/or images, and every rhyme is perfect and you will have created something of which you can be extremely proud.
Verla Kay lives with her husband and two Himalayan cats in the state of Washington. She writes historical and non-fiction picture books in her own style of poetry she calls “cryptic rhyme.” She has had a total of eleven picture books published.
Verla Kay’s website, which she designed and maintains herself, has twice been named one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer’s Digest. She created and runs a message board, the Blueboard, which has become almost an “icon” for children’s writers and illustrators on the internet. In 2013, the Blueboard was acquired by SCBWI, but Verla still maintains it.
Verla is a former instructor for the Institute of Children’s Literature where she taught the basic “How to Write for Children” course. Since retiring from ICL in 2009, she has been concentrating on doing what she loves best – writing award-winning picture books, running her website, critiquing other writer’s manuscripts, giving author talks at schools and conferences, and giving back to children’s writers and illustrators by continuing to keep the Blueboard running smoothly for SCBWI.
Buy it Here
Buy it Here
Buy it Here
Buy it Here
Thank You Verla!
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73 thoughts on “RhyPiBoMo 2016 Day 20 Author Verla Kay”
Joy Main – Thank you Verla, I love reading revision histories, they’re so interesting and really help me to think about revising word by word.
Penny Parker Klostermann
I have long been a fan of Verla Kay. Early in my writing journey, I paid her to critique two stories. Wow! What great comments she made.
I loved seeing the examples in this post that highlight the way she perfects her stories. Those little things matter soooo much!
Thanks for all you do for children’s literature, Verla!
NATALIE LYNN TANNER: Hi, Verla! i am a BIG fan of writing non-fiction for children. Seeing all the hard work that goes into pairing this genre with rhyme — WOW! You have opened my eyes to all the hard work, but also all of the great possibilities! I especially appreciate your wisdom: “when writing picture books ‘okay’ is just not good enough.” SO TRUE!!! THANK YOU!!! (WOW! This rhyming-thing is really rubbing off on me; can you tell??!!!???!!!).
Thank you, Verla, for the tips and examples for making words sing. I admire your books and appreciate your inspiration.
Thank you, Verla, for sharing the details about your writing. Your examples were an excellent class in how to achieve the perfect rhyme for a NF, rhyming manuscript. Your books are wonderful!
Thank you for a terrific post, Verla! Your examples served as the perfect reminder about the importance of fact checking and revising accordingly. There is a special place in my heart (and on my bookshelf) for non-fiction stories in rhyme.
Jill Proctor – Thank you so much, Verla! Your post was so inspiring for me. And so helpful. I’ve been stuck in a rut and feel like I may be able to climb out. Thanks again!
I loved the samples you gave and how ,with thought you made changes that fit. I write many non-fiction books so I found your blog most helpful. I just finished one about a National Park called If i could go to Point Pelee and I risked rhyme with help from critiques on 12×12. Re-writing is essential.Thank you again Angie for getting such informative posts on Rhyming.
Thanks so much Verla for so much great information in writing non-fiction rhyme…I’ll be re-reading your post many times!
Thanks for the great post, Verla! It was amazing to see, up close, the process of strengthening a “work in progress” through revision.
Wonderful post – thank you so much for sharing the evolution of your verse and your thought process behind it!
Loved “seeing” your process, Verla. Thanks so much!
Melanie Ellsworth – This is my favorite kind of post, Verla. It’s so helpful to see how an author revises to find the “just right” words.
Ingrid Boydston- This was an inspiring post! Someday I might attempt this…but I’m not ready yet. Thank you for sharing actual examples of your process. It was enlightening!
Thank you for showing us how your verses changed. I love seeing the progression of a story.
“Every word must sing.” Love that!
“Okay is just not good enough. Anything less than perfect is just not good enough.” Words for writers to live by.
Fruitful post! Thanks, Verla 😀
Verla your post is just chock-a-block full of great advice. I have a few non-fiction ideas, and you have given me helpful direction. Thanks for sharing.
Chris Clayson – thank you Verla Kay for showing us your unique way of getting to the heart of the rhyme. Most eye opening procedure.
Thank you Verla for your insights on how to write rhyming non-fiction. I love non-fiction PBs when they have a narrative, but if they rhyme, too – wow!
I appreciate this information as I love non-fiction. What do you mean by “cryptic rhyme”?
Amazing post from Verla — so informative and enlightening. Thanks, Verla and Angie! (Lynne Marie)
DebbieLubbert Thanks for the post!