BEST IN RHYME TOP 10 – INTERVIEW with Josh Dopirak by Debbie Vidovich

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Top 10 Best in Rhyme


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We are honoring the late Kate Dopirak and her wonderful talents with this interview of Kate’s husband Josh by Debbie Vidovich.

Debbie: Twinkle Twinkle Little Car is a bit of change for Kate, in that her previous books spoke to a slightly younger/Mommy and me type audience.  This is for a slightly older, more independent child.  What inspired her to write this story? Did it come to her quickly, in one sitting or over time?  Did it require a lot of revision or did book 3 come easier?

Josh: This wasn’t usually the case, but Kate came up with the title first. She always seemed to knock out a draft with ease but the revision process proved to be much tougher. Originally, the story involved a child looking for a car. Universally, it felt like she was on the right track but industry feedback forced her to rethink execution of the concept. Several iterations later she ended up getting it right. The final draft resulted from the right things coming together – valuable feedback from publishers/critique partners and persistence to get the story right (18 versions!)


Debbie: Kate was an amazing Mom, to the boys and her pup.  How did that influence her writing?


Josh: Kate was a mom first and she loved every minute of it. She was always on alert for good ideas and the stories just happened as a result of that love. Naturally, being a mom, a wife, a writer AND trying to do all of those things well presents challenges. Hurdling all of those obstacles made the little things in life a bit sweeter. These small victories are well represented in her works.


Debbie: Kate really connected to the 3-5 age group. Tell our members about Kate’s professional background and how that influenced her writing.

Josh: Kate loved children and spent much of her time working alongside them throughout her life. Starting out as the “in demand” neighborhood babysitter, she graduated to a summer camp counselor position in her teens and moved on to an elementary school teacher after graduating from Allegheny College. She had such a natural way of connecting with young kids through her smile and energy. Slowing down and being truly present with them enabled her to tap into their world.


Debbie: What would Kate like us to know about her writing journey. Was there a particular piece of advice she’d give while presenting workshops etc.?

Josh: Journey implies great difficulty and there was. But she was going to create rain or shine. Success wasn’t defined as getting published or creating a hit. It was creating, perfecting and enjoying the experience.

She did get sidetracked with various genres but ultimately refocused all of her time writing for young children. Other genres may sell better but she focused on what she loved and would advise the same. More importantly, she put herself out there joining the SCBWI, critique groups and attending conferences. This is where she got her first break – meeting who would ultimately become her agent. The approach was simple – write as much as possible and market in every possible way.

Lastly, she may not have always been writing but she was always working. She had an uncanny ability to eavesdrop on a conversation while having a conversation herself. I called her the ultimate multi-tasker. Also, if she was stuck on something she would simply assign her brain the task of solving the problem while she slept. Presto, it worked. I always teased her about it – who knew problems could be solved in your sleep? Overall, she’d tell anyone that this passion for the craft will help through the tough times. 


Debbie: Twinkle Twinkle Little Car is my favorite of Kate’s books.  Are there unfinished or yet to be published books we can look forward to in the near future?

Josh: Hurry Up! is set for publication in the summer of 2020. The theme is relatable…we’re on the treadmill of life and sometimes we need to dial it back, be present and appreciate the beauty around us. Illustrator Christopher Silas Neal is an accomplished, award winning talent. We’re excited to see how he tells the story. 


Debbie: Did Kate share any stories or advice about dealing with the dreaded rejection letter? I remember she told me her first book got tons of rejections before it got picked up.

Josh: Rejection never deeply bothered her. It did, however, serve as inspiration to become better. She actually kept a collection of rejection letters in a big binder. A glutton for punishment, I suppose…this thing is the size of an encyclopedia.


Debbie: Tell us about Kate’s and your reaction to getting her first book deal!

Josh: It all happened so quickly. She signed with her agent and within a month or so a deal was done for You’re My Boo. She had been writing for 7 years and had several published short stories and essays at that point. She always felt like she was inching closer so it was great to get that validation. However, the second one didn’t happen so quickly. Another 4 years passed before she landed a deal for Snuggle Bunny. This was tough for her because she figured things would get a lot easier once she sold Boo.


Debbie: Kate’s brother is a lawyer, did he do the contracts on Kate’s books or did you recommend a book contract specific lawyer? And where does one find those?

Josh: Kate was thankful to have a lawyer in the family. As a courtesy, her brother Joe combed through the document. There weren’t any red flags so she quickly moved on. Kate was always anxious to get that business stuff out of the way and just get back to writing!


Debbie: Rhyme Revolution member, David McMullin asks, “Why did Kate write Twinkle Twinkle Little Car in rhyme vs prose?”

Josh: After reading all of her drafts, it appears rhyme was the only option on this one. She was following the pattern of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and she had the most fun writing in rhyme.


Debbie: Kate developed and passed away from a neurological disease called Creutzfeldt Jakob, is there anything about this disease you want our audience to understand?

Josh: It’s a rapidly progressive, terminal disease with no treatments or clinical trials. It’s so rare that big research dollars are not committed to curing the disease. As a matter of fact, most grant money is raised through families impacted by the disease. Here a dollar goes a long way, giving families hope for progress and a chance at survival. 


Debbie: Kate’s funeral was beautifully up lifting. You and your family were exceptionally gracious to all of us in attendance. I would love to share the rewrite of Twinkle Twinkle that her siblings read in eulogy, if you care to share it. It was equally touching and so very true. Who wrote it?

Josh: The Twinkle poem was a collaboration between Kate’s two siblings. Inspired by her words and body of work, Joe and Molly worked together to craft a worthy tribute. They were hopeful Kate the author would have been proud of their endless revisions.


Twinkle Twinkle brightest star

How I wonder where you are

Up so high in the sky above

Shining down with abundant love


Thinking of you and times so funny

Convinced that you are the original Snuggle Bunny


Wishing that our time with you lasted longer

Realizing that you have made us stronger


Reminding us to slow down, not to hurry, and to enjoy life

An A+ teacher and writer, a Super Mom and a best friend wife


Striving to be as “good” as you

Treasuring the magical person behind “You’re My Boo!”


A million watt smile to light our way

Our love and respect you have every single day


Your impact on us, oh so great

Thank You, Thank You, Beautiful Kate (Katie)!


Debbie: I am very grateful for the time I spent with Kate, to meet her was to call her friend. Her generosity, kindness and joyful spirit will forever live on in her books. Is there anything you’d like to say, that we haven’t touched on here today?

Josh: She leaves behind this great legacy for her boys, families and friends. During a summer getaway a few years ago she mentioned that, despite the inevitable someday, she felt comfort that her works could live on forever. Her writing will be a perfect gift for our family’s next generation and hopefully many others for years to come.

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Please include Kate’s favorite illustrations from the book and why she like them.

Josh: Kate lived the simplicity of the cover and how the car pops. She also loved the convertible illustration and thought it was the perfect way to drive around through the story.

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BEST IN RHYME TOP 10 – Laura Sassi INTERVIEW BY Linda S. Mai

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Top 10 Best in Rhyme


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Congratulations on being chosen for Angie Karcher’s Top Ten Rhyming Picture Books for 2018!  I’m very honored to have this chance to interview you.

Linda: Your book DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE is adorable and your rhyme delightful. What was the inspiration for this book? Was there any special reason why you chose an opera house for your setting?

Laura: My initial inspiration was crossing paths with a little mouse in the woods. The writer in me immediately started imagining what his life might be like, where he might live etc.  The first result of those observations was a rhyming rebus called “Mouse House” (Highlights for Children, May 2013). Months later, I was paging through my notebook looking for inspiration for Tara Lazar’s Picture Book Idea Month writing challenge (now called STORYSTORM) and I came across that mouse again! Only this time, I imagined where else a mouse might live – and that imagining led me to the opera house, which I thought would be a humorous setting for a mouse full of rich language and illustration possibilities.

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Linda: You’ve proven you’re gifted when it comes to rhyming books, but when did you first know you wanted to write in rhyme? Did you have a mentor? Critique group?  

Laura: I’ve been an avid reader and writer since childhood. My mother actually saved most of my earliest childhood writings. Interestingly, many of them are written in rhyme – and not badly – which goes to show that I’ve loved rhyme (which is my favorite mode of storytelling) almost all my life! Becoming good took a lot of writing (and reciting), a lot of reading and a lot of just plain playing with rhythm and rhyme in my journal. The best decision I ever made in terms to truly improving my craft was to join a critique group – and I’ve been in several now over the years – that focus on picture books and rhyme. 


Linda: Any suggestions for authors who have not published a rhyming book yet – but love to write in rhyme?

Laura: The key, in my opinion, is to saturate yourself in the kind of writing you love.  Read as many rhyming picture books as you can – with a writerly eye – thinking about what makes them work – or not.  Do the same with poems from anthologies and magazines. And then, using those as models of rhythm and rhyme, write, write, write! I also have three great resources that I have found invaluable to improving my craft.  They are:  The Complete Rhyming Dictionary Revised (Doubleday), edited by Clement Wood and revised by Ronald Bogus, Timothy Steele’s All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing: An Explanation of Meter and Versification (Ohio University Press) and Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases (Longman). Finally, if possible, join a critique group!

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Linda: After you’ve written and revised your manuscript, how do you know when it’s “ready” to be submitted?

Laura: That’s a tricky question. It’s kind of like asking when you know a pie is ready to come out of the oven. Each pie is different just like each poem or story is different.  That being said, there are certain hints that indicate to me that a rhyming manuscript is ready to submit. These include: 1) The meter and rhyme are working flawlessly – and are fresh and unexpected. 2) The story arc is satisfying and is not limited by the rhyme 3) At least THREE people beside myself have read it aloud smoothly and with enjoyment. 4) My agent gives it the thumbs up. 

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Linda: Do your own children influence/inspire what you write? 

Laura: Absolutely!  Many, if not most, of my stories and poems got their initial spark from something that my kids said or did, or something that we saw together.  One of the joys of being a writer is seeing the world through writerly glasses and I’m quick to jot down any ideas that come to me, as they often do, when I’m with my children.  


Linda: Debbie Smith, a member of Rhyme Revolution would like to know if you write in rhyme from the start, or do you write the story first and add the rhyme later?

Laura: I write in rhyme from the start, but interestingly it’s seldom in the metrical form I ultimately choose for the piece.  My mind just likes to think in playful rhymes.  I do, however, bullet point the plot line pretty early on, but this is more like telling a story in list form than prose. I also like to capture snippets of rhyming phrases – couplets or quatrains – that have the feel that I’m going for in a particular story.  I call this phase my playing around phase and I can sometimes do it for months before settling on the right versification for a particular story. 

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Linda: Is there any special place, or time of day, etc., that helps you develop new ideas for books? How do you keep your creative juices flowing? 

Laura: I find that getting out and exploring, either on my own, or with my family, is a great generator of new ideas. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a story or poem spark just by walking in the woods or down a city street and seeing something that sparks my creativity.  It can happen anywhere, so I try to always keep pen and paper on hand – in my purse or back pocket.  My phone has also become a wonderful repository for ideas.  As far as keeping those creative juices flowing, I’m easy.  Writing is what fills my well – and I find time to let words spill on paper (or laptop) every day.  That alone keeps the flow fresh and moving. I also make a goal to treat myself to at least one conference/writing retreat a year. 


Linda: What’s next for you in your writing journey? Do you have another rhyming book in the works?

Laura: I’m writing, writing, writing!  I have several rhyming picture books in the hopper ready to go out on submission, so I guess we’ll all just have to stay tuned on this front.  


Linda: What would you like your readers to know about yourself?

Laura: I love connecting with readers and writers.  Invite me to your school or library or special event. Come chat at book events.  I’d also love to connect on social media and via my blog.  Here’s how:

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Book trailer:

BEST IN RHYME TOP 10 – Linda Vander Heyden INTERVIEW BY Manju Howard

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Top 10 Best in Rhyme

Manju: I’m excited to present Linda Vander Heyden and her Best in Rhyme nominated picture books.

Linda: Thanks, Manju! I’m excited and honored to have my books be among those nominated!

Horse Cover

A Horse Named Jack is about a curious horse who loves children. One day, when the children don’t show up to play, Jack grows bored, Bored, BORED! He clip-clops through the barnyard and raids the neighbor’s garden. Soon Jack’s up to his ears in trouble!

Hannah Cover

Hannah’s Tall Order:  An Alphabet Sandwich is about a little girl with a big appetite. When Hannah stops by her favorite sandwich shop, Mr.McDougal will have to scramble (chop, grate, and peel) to keep up with her quest for the perfect sandwich!

In a previous interview (link: you shared that A Horse Named Jack is based on your own horse named Jack. He sounds like a clever escape artist. Who inspired Hannah’s Tall Order?

Linda: I wanted to write an alphabet story that would be silly and make kids giggle. Hannah is a character who just popped into my head one day. She’s precocious. A little girl with a big sense of adventure. With Hannah, nothing is impossible!

How do you create an emotional connection between your main characters and readers?

Linda: That’s a great question! It can be challenging to create a character that touches a child’s heart and captures his or her imagination. In A Horse Named Jack, I think kids connect with Jack’s child-like innocence. He is curious and easily bored. He gets into trouble, though it is never his intention. In Mr. McGinty’s Monarchs, Mr. McGinty, an older gentleman, has a child-like wonder of nature and wants to help save the butterflies. In Hannah’s Tall Order, I think kids can relate to Hannah’s sense of adventure. They wonder what’s going to happen as her sandwich grows taller and taller.

What aspect of writing rhyming picture books do you find the most challenging?

Linda: Writing in rhyme is fun for me. I love the rhythm and musicality of the words. My sisters and I grew up hearing nursery rhymes and listening to classical music. I think that helped us develop an ear for rhythm. (Thanks, Mom!) I think one of  the most challenging things about writing stories in rhyme is keeping a natural speaking voice and not “forcing” a rhyme. Also, writing in rhyme can feel a bit restrictive at times while trying to move a story forward.

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In addition to the challenges of writing in rhyme, Hannah’s Tall Order is an A to Z picture book. How did you make all the ingredients blend together?

Linda: This question makes me smile, because even though Hannah’s character just seemed to pop into my imagination, the story took a long time to write. I researched foods and tried out different ideas. Finding foods that began with the correct letter (and number of syllables) was challenging. (It’s not easy finding a plausible food that begins with “x!”) And the rhyme had to sound natural. I also tried to break things up a bit as Hannah goes down her list of ingredients. That’s where poor Mr. McDougal comes in. Hannah is oblivious to his over-the-top efforts to fill her order!

Describe your path to publication with your editor at Sleeping Bear Press. 

Linda: My path to publication was a long one! I studied the craft of writing picture books…attended workshops and conferences. I joined a critique group, took on-line courses, attended webinars, and sent manuscripts off for critiques by published authors. I took creative writing classes at our university, which included writing poetry. I learned about the importance of a natural speaking voice when using rhyme and about searching for that perfect word. And I’m very grateful to have been chosen for an SCBWI mentorship with an amazing picture book author!

Along the way, there were many times I felt discouraged. When I first started submitting my stories, publishers often requested a self-addressed, stamped envelope be included for their response. I always knew what to expect when I found that same envelope in my mailbox months later! But rejections are a part of the process. I began to look at them as opportunities for growth. I also came to understand how important it is that we not let the desire to be published overshadow our joy of writing!

I am thankful for my family and friends who encouraged me to keep trying. And I love that my stories found a home at Sleeping Bear Press!

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Did you include art notes in your manuscripts? Did any of the illustrations surprise you?

Linda:  I try not to include many art notes in my manuscripts. I use them only if I think the text needs clarifying. I’m very grateful for a wonderful working relationship with my editor. If I have any concerns or questions about an illustration, she is open to hearing them. But those times have been few, and I trust her judgement. I truly love the illustrations in each and every book!

Member Michelle Donny Kennedy asked: Once you’ve edited and polished your story, how do you further cut the word count to fit submission guidelines?

Linda: Hi Michelle, great question! I try to focus on action that moves the story forward and eliminate descriptions that can be shown by an illustration. (A brief illustration note can be used, but only if absolutely needed to clarify what’s happening in a scene.) I ask myself whether a sentence moves the story forward, or can it be eliminated? Are there any unnecessary characters that can be taken out of the story? How about unnecessary words, like “that” and “quite?” Sometimes two sentences can be combined into one tighter one. Or a contraction can be used instead of two words (if it still sounds natural). Having another picture book author critique our stories to see if he/she can find unnecessary words or ways to trim word count can also be very helpful.

What advice would you give to those authors writing in rhyme?

Linda: I would encourage them to read many (many) picture books written in rhyme. And read beautiful poetry. Feel the rhythm and musicality of the words. Does the rhythm flow well? Does the author’s speaking voice sound natural? Does the rhyme work, or can you tell the author was perhaps struggling to find a word that would rhyme? I would also encourage authors to read their stories out loud. And listen while others read them. When we read our own stories, we tend to make the rhythm work, but when others read them, we’ll be able to hear if there are lines that may need some revision.

Where can people find you online?

Linda’s website:  http://WWW.LINDAVANDERHEYDEN.COM/

Linda Headshot

Bio: Linda Vander Heyden is the author of three picture books. She is drawn to stories with heart and humor. Her debut book, MR. MCGINTY’S MONARCHS was short-listed for the Next Generation’s Green Earth Book Award and is a Sigurd F. Olsen Nature Writing Award Honor Book. She is delighted to be sharing her two latest stories with children…A HORSE NAMED JACK and HANNAH’S TALL ORDER: AN ALPHABET SANDWICH (Sleeping Bear Press, 2018). She lives in Wisconsin with her husband, three cats, her border collie, and a horse named Jack!

2018 BEST IN RHYME TOP 10 – Sue Fliess INTERVIEW BY Cathy C. Hall

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2018 Top 10 Best in Rhyme

mary had a litle lab


Wheee! It’s Sue Fliess (Pronounced “Fleece”)!

Sue Fliess, whose name is pronounced “fleece” (which is the perfect tie-in to her book, Mary Had a Little Lab) is a prolific picture book author as well as one of the authors with a book in our Top Ten Best in Rhyme Picture Books of 2018.


So off we go with lots of questions for Sue:


I LOVE Mary Had a Little Lab for so many reasons! But we’ll start with the rhyme since the book plays off the “Mary Had a Little Lamb” nursery rhyme. So which came first? The idea to write about a girl scientist with a problem, or the nursery rhyme inspiration for the book?


Well….sort of neither! I actually dreamt the title of this. Usually my dream ideas amount to nothing, but this one had legs. In my dream, someone asked me what I was working on and I rattled off this title. Of course, no such thing was happening, but I thought about it all morning after I woke up. As is the case with many of my stories, I decided to at least try to write an opening. I loved my opening (which stayed from first draft to final book), and the story felt like it wrote itself from there.



Besides the delightful play on the nursery rhyme, I love the STEM focus of the book. Is there a different approach you use when writing STEM books?


Yes, but it’s more about working STEM aspects into the storyline. Since I mostly write fiction, I can get away with STEM being creatively weaved in, as opposed to worrying about exact science, for example. With this particular story, the title gave me a head start. But when I could tell I wanted Mary to be a little on the ‘mad’ scientist side vs. just a straight-up scientist, I threw in some Rube Goldberg-esque inventing. So that gave it the E in STEM, along with the science part. But in a silly and humorous way.



And finally, I love your humor, which seems to be a trademark in your picture book style. I’m a big fan of all humorous picture books, but I wonder if humor is something that can be taught. If so, how can writers develop their funny bone?


Wow, I’m grateful that you said that because I feel like I’m figuring it out as I go each time, asking, is this funny? Corny? Or only funny to me? Either way, I would tell people to read funny picture books to get a feel for how writers work the humor into the storyline. Sometimes the answer is to leave room for the illustrator to inject the humor. I will often have an art note like: I picture this as a funny scene. Or, this is sarcasm.  In case my text does not make it obvious. Funny is hard to pull off. Bu this is why you have other writers read your work – to tell you what’s working or not working.



Oh! And here’s a question from one of the Rhyme Revolution members, Natalee Herring Creech, just for you:  Did you or your agent do anything special with the submission—Mary Had a Little Lab—because it was in rhyme? (Like avoid or target certain editors/publishers?)


Hi Natalee! Almost all of my books are in rhyme, so as opposed to avoiding certain editors or publishers, we usually target those that we know have liked my rhyming work in the past, whether they have published me or not. Very few editors we submit to now do not like rhyme, because that would be a waste of everyone’s time. As with any submission, you or your agent should do the homework to make sure the editors would be receptive to whatever style you’ve chosen to write your story in.



You have a book trailer for Mary Had a Little Lab (and most of your books!). I’m sure your background in marketing and copywriting is hugely helpful so do you produce your own book trailers? Do you think PB authors need book trailers?


I don’t think anyone needs a book trailer to be successful, but after publishing many books in this super crowded market, I’m looking for any tools I can use to help me avoid the same types of promotion of my books. A trailer is a little different than just showing the book cover over and over. So a book trailer is an easy (fairly easy—I taught myself) and fun way to have a teaser for a book—plus, people love watching videos. I do recommend keeping them at about 1 minute in length.

Loved that book! Best of everything in 2019 for you and yours AND your writing!


How about the best advice you ever got in your writing career? And what do you always tell any writer who wants to be a rhyming picture book author like you?


I’ve received a lot of good advice over the years. One piece of advice I got was: write like the writer next to you is writing the same story at the same time. Which goes hand in hand with this piece of advice: You’re only as good as your last book. Which sounds harsh. But essentially it means don’t publish/write a book and rest on your laurels. If you are going to continue publishing, you have to stay relevant, which means as soon as you finish one story, start working on the next. Because you never know what’s going to sell, when. But if you’re not writing, you won’t have anything to submit. For writers who want to be rhyming picture book authors, I always say start with the story. Then decide if the best way to tell it is in rhyme. If the answer is no, don’t force it into rhyme. Rhyme is just a vehicle for delivering your story. Next part of that is, read it out loud to yourself. Then have someone read it out loud to you. I still find that I think my story is polished, and then someone will read it out loud and stumble over parts of the rhyme. Then I fix and do it all again.



Thanks, Sue! And best of luck with Mary Had a Little Lab and all the books you have coming out in 2019! You can check out her terrific website for all her titles, published and upcoming, but you can’t leave until you go to her Videos tab and watch a parody video (or seven). SO much fun! I love Sue Fliess (pronounced “fleece”)—and you will, too!

sue fliess


Sue Fliess (“fleece”) is the bestselling author of Robots, Robots Everywhere!, How to Trap a Leprechaun, and more than 25 other children’s books including Mrs. Claus Takes the Reins, Ninja Camp, A Fairy Friend, Tons of Trucks, and many Little Golden Books. Her books have sold over 850,000 copies worldwide. Her background is in copywriting and PR/marketing, and her essays have appeared in O Magazine, HuffPo, Writer’s Digest, and more. Fliess has also written for Walt Disney. Her books have received honors from the SCBWI, have been used in school curricula, museum educational programs, and have even been translated into French, Korean and Chinese. The Bug Book was chosen for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Her books have won awards and accolades. She’s a member of SCBWI and The Children’s Book Guild of DC. She does book signings, school visits, and speaking engagements. Sue lives with her family and their dog in Northern Virginia. Visit her at