This week, we’ve been learning from Kekla Magoon’s award-winning novel, THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE, and to wrap up Teachers Write today, Kekla herself joins us for some Q&A.
What craft questions would you like to ask her? Are you wondering if she uses any special kind of outline or planning tool for her novels? Want to know how she revised this one? Now’s the time to ask!
Kekla will be stopping by the blog periodically today to respond, so feel free to post your questions in the comments.
This is our last Teachers Write post for now, but if you signed up to get the newsletters, you’ll still hear from me once in a while throughout the school year with some mentor texts, mini-lessons, and prompts to keep the writing going. Thanks so much for writing with us this summer!
It’s hard to believe that we’re already coming to the end of Teachers Write for this summer! Today, we’re looking at figurative language, and tomorrow, Kekla will join us for Q&A, but first, I want to share some fun news about what happens next. Thanks to our new newsletter format, if you signed up for Teachers Write this summer, you’ll also get occasional updates from me throughout the school year, with bonus mini-lessons, mentor text suggestions, writing prompts, book news, and giveaways. You’re welcome to use any of this material in your classrooms and with study groups at your school, and you’ll be automatically signed up for next summer’s program, too.
Looking ahead to the new school year, I hope you’ll keep an eye out for my upcoming books and pre-order any that might be a good fit for your readers! These are all available for pre-order today:
Now…on to our last mini-lesson for Teachers Write this summer!
You probably spend time teaching your students about figurative language – the similes and metaphors that can spice up descriptive writing to paint a picture in readers’ minds. But how do writers craft metaphors that are descriptive and vivid while staying true to a character’s personality and voice? Not surprisingly, THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE is a perfect book for finding examples of this element of craft.
The narrator, Caleb, is a kid who’s grown up in a small town in Indiana. He spends a lot of time outside in the woods with his older brother but hasn’t been out of that small town much at all. So the figurative language he uses needs to reflect that lived experience – what he’s seen firsthand or read in comic books or seen on the news his dad watches at night. Take a look at how Caleb describes the appearance of Styx on the very first page…
Maybe we summoned him, like a superhero responding to a beacon in the night.
He was summoned like a comic-book superhero – not like an Uber. This is a perfect and kid-friendly comparison. We see these character-perfect comparisons throughout the book:
Being the center of attention felt something like it might feel to be in a pinball machine – as the ball.
Mom’s eyes became like two chocolate-brown lasers, slicing through us from our bedroom doorway.
This is from the scene where Mom’s mad that they traded their baby sister for fireworks. And soon after, we have this great moment:
“GET in the car,” Mom said in a small, tight voice. A voice that meant massive trouble. Her voice had escalated right through shouting mode into a high, quiet dogs-only range.
Just to be perfectly clear: Bobby Gene and I were the dogs in this scenario. We scurried out to Mom’s station wagon with our tails between our legs.
In this passage, Kekla takes that image of Mom speaking in a high, dogs-only pitch and extends the metaphor with the kids as dogs, who “scurry” out to the car “with our tails between our legs.”
Caleb spends a lot of time outside, so it also makes sense that his comparisons make connections to the natural world.
(Styx) was scrawny, with long, knobby limbs like a praying mantis.
(The moped) looked like a giant grasshopper. Green head, thorax, abdomen. Crisp candy shell, handlebars feeling outward like antennae. Red, gold, and violet flames shot out from the sides of the engine, slicked back in paint along the thorax. A giant grasshopper with fire powers.
And in a scene where Styx says he just wants to stop and “feel the moment” after something’s gone right, Caleb says:
The moment felt like Saturday, like summer heat, like adventure. It felt as big as the sky above us and as firm as the ground beneath. It felt like the soft swish of corn tassels and being one step closer to an impossible dream.
If those corn-tassels aren’t a perfect comparison for a farmland kid in Indiana, I don’t know what is.
So you get the idea, right? We want to use similes and metaphors to enrich our descriptions, but they have to be the right ones. Writers like Kekla make sure their figurative language fits the character and the setting. And that’s what we’re going to play with in today’s assignment.
For this one, I’m going to ask you to go outside and find a place to sit where there’s something to see. It can be at a park, by a river, near the subway station…whatever works. First, I want you to pretend you’re a kid like Caleb, who’s grown up in a small farm town like Sutton, Indiana. (Or a small town in Vermont. Or the British countryside. Or India. Whatever works for you. Just not a city.) In that character’s point of view, write a description of what you see/hear/feel that makes use of figurative language that’s appropriate for your background. And then take on a different role. Imagine you’re a kid from South Boston or the Upper West Side of Manhattan or Cairo or Paris or Mumbai. Describe the same scene, but this time, use comparisons and metaphors that would work for your second character.
Maybe you’re thinking right now that there’s even more to think about than where your character is from. Making you’re considering how things like cultural background and socioeconomic status might affect the kinds of metaphors that might work, too. Good! So think about all of that as well. If you’d like to share a bit of your writing, feel free to visit the post on my blog (www.katemessner.com/blog). Just remember that you’ll need to click on the title of the post and scroll down to comment.
And don’t forget to join us tomorrow with your questions for Kekla! We’ll wrap up the week with a Q&A session so you can ask all of your craft questions that relate to THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE.
Writing believable dialogue can be one of the trickiest things about crafting a middle grade novel. A lot can go wrong with dialogue. Here are some of the common pitfalls.
“Hi, Jesse,” said Tom. “Hey,” said Jesse. “What’s up?” asked Tom. “Not much,” said Jesse. “How are you?” “Decent,” said Tom. “Kinda bored.” “Yeah,” said Jesse. “Me too.”
At this point, who isn’t bored? While we want dialogue to sound like real people talking, the key is to leave out all the boring bits that don’t move the plot forward. We want dialogue to sound like real people talking – but we want real-people talk at its most dramatic, its wittiest, its funniest, and its most interesting. Skip over the small talk.
Info dump dialogue:
“Hi, Tom,” said Jesse. “I’m on my way to meet Kayla for ice cream. She’s my friend from camp, which I attend every summer for six weeks. We used to be best friends with Mia, too, but Mia didn’t go last year, and the three of us grew apart. Kayla’s hair looks just like mine, so at camp, they called us the ponytail twins.”
At this point, Tom is thinking “Why are you telling me all this?” So are readers. Sometimes writers try to use dialogue to deliver information that the reader will need later. But that only works if it’s limited in scope and feels natural. Is there a reason for this character to be telling the other character all this stuff? If not – if it’s really just there for the reader – the dialogue falls flat.
“When I woke up for the first day of second grade, the fog was hanging over the lake like a dream that hadn’t fully disappeared into my subconscious upon waking…”
When we’re writing in the voice of a kid character, that voice has to be believable. So unless your character happens to be a ridiculously precocious/pretentious seven-year-old, this doesn’t work. (That said, see Lisa Yee’s book MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS for an example of a book where mature language patterns & vocabulary work beautifully as part of the characterization.)
Take another look at that so-authentic-it’s-boring example with Tom & Jesse above. The words being spoken aren’t the only problem. Nothing else is happening while that boring conversation takes place. Even with spicier dialogue, it can help a lot if characters are doing something while they’re talking – especially if the conversation goes on a while.
“Hey, can you come over later on?” asked Jesse. “I can’t come over because I have to clean my room,” said Tom. “Do you really have to clean it today?” Jesse asked. “My mom said I have to or I’m grounded for the weekend,” Tom said. “That is a real bummer,” said Jesse.
Real people don’t talk like this. We use incomplete sentences and language that’s more casual. Consider this rewrite:
“Hey, can you come over later?” asked Jesse. “Nope. Gotta clean my room,” said Tom. “Today?” Tom nodded. “Or I’m grounded for the weekend.” “Bummer.”
“Dude! We need to go to the skate park today!” said Joe. “Dude! We totally do,” said Tom. Pete nodded. “Dude! That’s going to be awesome!” “Totally,” said Joe.
These guys all sound alike. If their undistinguishable voices and speech patterns keep up, readers won’t be able to tell them apart. Want to know if your characters’ voices are different enough? Copy and paste all of one character’s lines into a blank document. Copy and paste another character’s lines into another document. Then cut them apart and mix them up. Can you sort the lines by character just by the way they talk? Can a friend who doesn’t already know all the dialogue guess who said what?
Take a look at how Kekla handled the voices of different characters in THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE. These lines of dialogue are from Caleb:
“I said, I don’t want to be ordinary. I want to be…the other thing.” “I know that song. We played it in band. It’s ‘Tarantelle.’” “I think we got off on the wrong foot. I’m Caleb Franklin and this is my brother, Bobby Gene.”
And these are from Styx, who’s older and more worldly
“Actually, I’d like to make you a more attractive offer.” “But I’m bringing all the expertise. Would you rather have two-thirds of nothing and a big problem on your hands, or would you rather have fifty percent of a whole lot, problem-free?” “No relation. Neighbor, friend, mediator. I’ve come to discuss the matter of the gunnysack.”
There’s no way a reader is going to confuse the two, even if there are no dialogue tags to show who’s talking. And speaking of dialogue tags… sometimes, less is more. Back in school, some of us heard the questionable advice “said is dead” from teachers who wanted us to use more vivid dialogue tags. However well-intended this was, it can lead to passages like this:
“He’s here!” Kim shouted. “I’ve been waiting all day,” Tim exclaimed. “Not as long as I’ve been waiting,” Dad chuckled. “I hope he likes the surprise party,” Tim worried. “He’ll love it,” Kim asserted.
When you’re using dialogue tags, said is often your best bet because it doesn’t call attention to itself, interrupting the flow of the dialogue. It’s common enough to be mostly invisible, so the focus is on the story – not your impressively varied dialogue tags. But sometime you don’t need dialogue tags at all. Take a look at how Kekla handled this conversation when Bobby and Caleb were at the pond with Styx and his foster sibling, Pixie. Pay special attention to the mix of dialogue, action, and Caleb’s internal thoughts…
“Are there even fish in here?” Pixie asked. Bobby Gene’s voice floated from above. “We’ve never seen any.” He splashed around in the shallows. “Why did you get the nickname Pixie?” I figured it was okay to ask since we’d been talking about names earlier. “I picked it out.” “Why?” “I have a brother now. I thought we should match.” It took me a while to work it out. Pixie and Styx. Pixie Styx? “You’re a freak,” I informed her. “I’m original.” She enunciated each syllable. “Freak.” She grinned, as if she knew that secretly I was thinking: No one would ever call Pixie “ordinary.” “What?” She grinned wider. “Shut up,” she said. “You know you like me.” “Shut up,” I said. Because I did.
This dialogue hums right along. You can hear the characters’ voices and imagine them interacting, which is a result of that balanced mix of dialogue and action. Studying dialogue in a mentor text like this is one of the best ways to get an ear for how it works.
So here’s your assignment for today. Choose a few dialogue-heavy pages of THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE to mark up. Photocopy those pages, just for this exercise, if you don’t want to mark up your book. Get five different colored highlighters or colored pencils, and use them to highlight the following elements in those dialogue sections:
Color 1 – Characters’ dialogue in quotes Color 2 – Dialogue tags like he said, she asked, etc. Color 3 – Action that’s happening while the characters talk. Color 4 – Internal thoughts from the narrator. Color 5 – Other description mixed in with the dialogue.
When you finish, take a look at the balance. Then, take a passage from your own writing, or imagine a new conversation between some characters you make up (Kids at a soccer game? Moms with toddler at an ice cream stand? Astronaut pals making plans for the day?) and try to create that same sort of balance in a written conversation. If you’d like to share what you wrote for today, feel free to visit this post on my blog (www.katemessner.com/blog). To leave a comment, you’ll have to click on the title of the blog post and then scroll down to the bottom. Happy writing!
Welcome to week 3 of Teachers Write! Hopefully, you’ve already had a chance to read our mentor text for this week, Kekla Magoon’s THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE. But even if you haven’t, don’t worry – our posts will be spoiler free as we take a look at some of the writing craft lessons found in these pages.
If you’re just finding us and aren’t familiar with this MG novel, here’s the jacket copy…
Caleb Franklin and his big brother, Bobby Gene, have the whole summer to explore the woods in Sutton, Indiana. Caleb longs to venture beyond their small town, but his dad likes the family to stay close to home.
Then Caleb and Bobby Gene meet new neighbor Styx Malone. Styx is sixteen, and he oozes cool. He’s been lots of different places. Styx promises the boys that together, they can pull off the Great Escalator Trade – a way to turn one small thing into more, and more, until they achieve their wildest dream. But as the trades get bigger, the brothers find themselves in over their heads. Styx has secrets – and Caleb fears their whole plan might fall apart.
In this madcap, heartwarming, one-thing-leads-to-another adventure, friendships are forged, loyalties are tested…and miracles just might be possible.
This novel is interesting right off the bat because it breaks one of the usual conventions by having someone who’s not the protagonist or narrator named in the title. Styx Malone isn’t the main character here – he’s the catalyst, the guy who makes the action happen for the narrator-protagonist, Caleb. Styx Malone isn’t the only character in kidlit who grabs a starring role in the title without being the protagonist. Maniac Magee, Yaqui Delgado, Ms. Bixby, Tyler Johnson, Zachary Beaver, and Fudge all made the titles of their books without being the main characters. In all of these novels, the title character is someone who has a profound effect on the protagonist’s life. In that way, the title of THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE sets up from the very beginning what’s to come.
The opening paragraphs reinforce that.
Styx Malone didn’t believe in miracles, but he was one. Until he came along, there was nothing very special about life in Sutton, Indiana.
Styx came to us like magic – the really, really powerful kind. There was no grand puff of smoke or anything, but he appeared as if from nowhere, right in our very own woods.
Maybe we summoned him, like a superhero responding to a beacon in the night.
Maybe we just plain wanted everything he offered. Adventure. Excitement. The biggest trouble we’ve ever gotten into in our lives, we got into with Styx Malone.
As leads go, this is one to hold up as an example. In just shy of a hundred words, Kekla a) establishes the voice of Caleb, our main character, b) sets up the idea that Styx will change his life, and c) makes a promise to readers about what this novel is all about – adventure, excitement, and trouble.
From the title and the very first page, we know that this Styx Malone character is going to transform Caleb’s life in some way. But if we’re going to fully appreciate that change, we need to know who Caleb is before Styx shows up. In answering that question, Kekla offers a master class in characterization. We learn that Caleb longs for a world beyond his small town. And we learn it in a dozen, subtle ways.
I woke up with the sunrise, like usual. Stretched my hands and feet from my top bunk to the ceiling, like usual. I touched each of the familiar pictures taped there: the Grand Canyon, the Milky Way, Victoria Falls, Table Mountain.
We learn so much from these 41 words. The repetition of “like usual” tells us that Caleb’s life has a predictable pattern to it. But wait! This is also a kid who’s taped pictures of faraway places to the ceiling above his bunk, so that they’re the first thing he sees every morning. He literally starts each day by reaching for them. This is a kid who is dreaming of places beyond Sutton. He dreams when he watches the news with his dad, too…
But every once in a while I would see something that made me want to reach through the screen and touch it, you know? Like to get closer to it, or to make it a little bit real. There was a story about dolphins one time. And a feature about a group of kids who sailed a boat around the world. Special things. Things you’d never find in Sutton.
Can’t you just hear the longing? Caleb’s voice is so strong here. You know? Special things. Things you’d never find in Sutton. And it lets readers feel that longing, too.
In this same, watching-the-news scene, we get an amazing sense for Caleb’s dad, too. They’re watching the same program, but they watch it so differently. Kekla used that contrast to create tension between the two that becomes a driving force in this novel.
The problem was, Dad was always talking about us being ordinary folks – about how ordinary folks like this and ordinary folks need that. He usually said all this to the TV, but our house isn’t that big and his voice is pretty loud so you can always hear him.
Ordinary folks just need to be able to fill the gas tank without it breaking them. Ordinary folks go to church on Sundays. Ordinary folks don’t care who you’ve been stepping out with; just pass the dang laws.
Don’t you just feel like you know Dad from the way he talks to the news?
These are brilliant opening pages, and Kekla returns to these themes and threads throughout the novel. That’s part of what makes it feel so real and cohesive.
Your assignment for today is to skim through your copy of THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE and look for the places that call back to those opening pages. How does the author use those images and ideas like the photos on the ceiling and the idea of being ordinary to build character, create tension, and move the story forward? Feel free to make notes on your own, or if you’d like, you can chat with other Teachers Write participants in the comments. To comment, you may need to click on the title of this blog post and scroll down to the bottom.
This week, we’ve been learning from two incredible rhyming picture books as mentor texts, and now we get to learn from the authors of those books!
What craft questions would you like to ask Hena Khan, author of GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS and Martha Brockenbrough, author of CHEERFUL CHICK? Are you wondering how they revised their early drafts? Whether they use rhyming dictionaries? How they check to make sure the meter works in each line? Now’s the time to ask!
Hena and Martha will be stopping by my blog today to chat and answer questions, so feel free to post your questions in the comments!
Martha Brockenbrough’s CHEERFUL CHICK, illustrated by Brian Won, is a celebration of both cheerleading and determination. It’s a great mentor text for us to study as we take a look at the way the topic and theme of a book guide decisions about rhyme and meter.
Remember the cheers you heard at basketball and football games? There’s probably one catchy cheer that comes to mind right away. For me, it’s this one:
We got spirit, yes we do! We got spirit, how ‘bout you?
It has a peppy meter to go along with the rhyme.
DAH da DAH da DAH da DAH! DAH da DAH da. DAH da DAH?
Martha kept that element of cheerleading in mind when she chose her rhyme scheme and meter for CHEERFUL CHICK. It’s written in iambic tetrameter, so each line is made up of four iambs. In other words, it goes like this:
da DAH da DAH da DAH da DAH….
Interestingly enough, Martha’s first draft of this book wasn’t written in rhyme. As an experienced writer, she knew about all the pitfalls of writing in rhyme and opted to try it in prose instead. But when she sent the manuscript to her editor, Arthur Levine, he suggested that this is a story that might actually work better with the added challenge of rhyme.
“Since I already had the character and story, though, the challenge was to come up with a rhythm and rhyme scheme that echoed the cheerleading protagonist’s nature,” Martha wrote in an April tweet thread.
She came up with a plan to give iambic tetrameter a try. When I look at how this book turned out, I can only imagine how much fine-tuning and revision went into making this work. But the end result is a book that captures the main character’s nature and rhymes without feeling forced or clunky. It reads like a cheer, which is perfect.
Cheerful chick worked day and night Until at last her moves felt right.
And then she hatched her lifelong dream To build a barnyard cheering team.
She got her muscles good and warm And did her moves with perfect form:
Side splits, wing stands, super punches – Chicken shook her feathers bunches!
That last line was fun, wasn’t it? When we were looking at Hena’s GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS yesterday, we talked about the care she took to make sure the rhymes felt natural and didn’t call attention to themselves, because that’s a gentle, lyrical story about colors. CHEERFUL CHICK has a more playful, humorous tone, so it’s fine (and fun!) if some of the rhymes stand out a bit more:
Ms. Cow knows all the wildest moves. Just watch her stand on two front hooves!
Ms. Cow just stood and blinked and chewed. And said, “I’m so not in the moooood.”
Even when the rhymes are more playful, the rhythm stays consistent, and that’s important for a read-aloud. Martha’s keen ear for meter comes from her college study of ancient Greek poems and dramas.
“It helped me see much better what Shakespeare is doing. Which leads me to my second point. Rhythmic writing does not have to rhyme. It will be lyrical and delightful because of the rhythm. See Shakespeare’s plays for this,” Martha wrote. “And there are lots of ways you can play with rhythm. With a forthcoming picture book, THIS OLD DOG, also edited by Arthur & illustrated by Gabriel Alborozo, I decided that every word the dog narrator thinks has one syllable. For me, this captures the voice of a dog. A good dog who likes long walks in the grass. Are you stuck with a picture book? Think about the rhythm of the language, and choose one in harmony with your character.”
On that note…here’s your assignment. We’re going to play around with some different voices today. Choose a character — a young person, a big old tortoise, a rowdy squirrel…whatever you want — and try writing a few lines in that character’s voice. It can be about anything – what the character loves, their plans for the day, their dreams for the future. But give some real thought to how the rhythm and word choice will reflect the character. When you’ve written a few lines, switch gears and write about the same topic but in a different character’s voice. How does that change how you think about meter and rhyme?
Remember the old childhood rhyme where you’d make a church out of your hands, index fingers pointed together in a steeple?
Here is the church And here is the steeple. Open the doors And see all the people
That old rhyme has a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that goes like this:
DAH da da DAH. DAH da da DAH da. DAH da da DAH (da) DAH da da DAH da.
Author Hena Khan’s beautiful picture book GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini, uses a similar pattern as it explores colors through the eyes of a Muslim child.
RED is the RUG Dad KNEELS on to PRAY, FACing toward MECca, FIVE times a DAY.
We see this pattern predicted throughout the book’s lushly illustrated pages. It’s simple and predictable – perfect for this group’s preschool and early primary readers.
Blue is the hijab…
Gold is the dome…
White is the kufi…
Black is the ink…
Brown is the date…
Orange is the color…
It’s important to note that when you’re writing verse like this, the rhythm doesn’t have to be exact. An extra unstressed syllable at the beginning of a line isn’t a deal breaker. But the overall pattern still has to be there. It has to work when you read it aloud.
Reading aloud is a great way to find out if your rhyming picture book text is working, but it’s not perfect. Sometimes when we read our own work aloud, we can force a rhythm to sound okay by the way we read it. If you really want to know if the meter is working, don’t just read it yourself. Hand it off to someone else to read aloud for you. Does the verse roll off their tongue in the rhythm you intended? Or do they stumble a little here and there? That will tell you where your meter might still need work.
Now let’s take a look at the rhyme in this book. One of the trickiest things about writing picture books like this one is that it’s not enough to find two words that rhyme. They have to be the right words. And in this case, Hena had the added challenge of working with some very specific language that relates to Muslim traditions and culture – words like Eid, hijab, kufi, Quran, and deen. For some of those, she chose to use related words as her two rhymes:
White is a kufi, Round and flat. Grandpa wears This traditional hat.
One of the biggest mistakes writers make in rhyming stories is forcing a rhyme with a word like kufi. In less capable hands, this page might have written to describe how Grandpa’s kufi was flat and not poofy. But that sounds forced and (wait for it…) kind of goofy. Silly rhymes have their place in the world, but not in a lovely book about faith and culture. So instead, Hena chose rhymes that work without being distracting:
Yellow is the box We fill on Eid With gifts of zakat For those in need
Eid is an easier word to rhyme, so this works in a way that’s conversational and natural.
Knowing how tricky rhyming picture books can be, I asked Hena if she’d share a little more about her process.
“I first decided that it was going to be a concept book and that I would follow the pattern ‘red is,’ ‘blue is,’ etc,” she said. “And at some point I decided that each page would have a ‘glossary’ word (that wasn’t the case initially I think it was more mixed). I wanted to introduce the object or concept in a rhyming couplet! And then it was kind of a puzzle figuring it all out. I wanted to try to include many of the major aspects of Islam—prayer, zakat, fasting, along with some lighter cultural things like henna and lanterns. Some colors were determined by the object like gold being the dome or orange being henna, and others were more arbitrary.”
“When it came to the meter and rhyme, I did it by ear, and then started to count syllables to make sure the lines were somewhat even. I read it aloud and listening to where the stresses of the words fell. I wanted to vary it so it didn’t sound monotonous.”
Hena shared her first finished draft with me — and noted that this early rhyme is one that makes her laugh now. Notice how much more natural and poetic her revised lines (above) feel compared to this:
Yellow is a box filled with stuff, Zakat, for those who don’t have enough.
Hena is a pro when it comes to revising rhyme. But sometimes, less experienced writers put rhyme first and story second. That’s something Chronicle Books editor Melissa Manlove talked about when I asked her about common pitfalls with rhyming picture books.
“So often I see a plot that’s driven by rhyme, or a pace that’s driven by rhyme, or syntax that’s driven by rhyme. Rhyme should at most be the background to those things, not the thing that changes the writer’s choices. If you think of a narrative as a path the readers follows, then plot determines where the path goes, pace determines how straight it goes there, and syntax is a big part of who’s acting as guide. Rhyme should be no more than the texture of the path underfoot.”
On that note, I’ll send you off with a short assignment. Remember last week’s writing about gratitude, using Traci Sorell’s WE ARE GRATEFUL: OSTALIHELIGA as a mentor text? I’m going to ask you to reimagine that idea as a rhyming picture book. Make a list of some of the words you know you’ll want to include – elements of a tradition or culture or season. And then have a go at it, using Hena’s GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS as a mentor text. You can try the same rhyme scheme if you’d like, or use a different one. When you finish a few lines, read out loud and see how the meter’s working out.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at a different rhyming picture book – with a different purpose – to see how another writer made choices about meter and rhyme.
When you can, please take the time to read these two interviews with Hena, too!
This spring, Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame set the children’s Twitterverse on fire with a casual tweet about how bad he thought most rhyming picture books were. Aside from Seuss and Boynton, he hadn’t read many he liked. His complaint was met with an avalanche of tweets suggesting the good rhyming picture books. They’re not all bad, you know. So why do rhyming picture books have such a tough reputation?
The truth is, it’s just plain hard to write in rhyme. Think about it. How often do the exact words that express what you want to say happen to rhyme? Not very often, I’ll wager, which is why writing in rhyme sometimes leads authors to choose words that are…not just-right words. Here are some examples of that…
The Overly Simplistic Rhyme: I like to write in rhyme. I do it all the time.
The Not-Really-a-Rhyme-Rhyme: If you like to read rhymes You should read some of mine.
The Weirdly Forced Rhyme: When you write in rhyme, you must count each syllables That’s laying good groundwork, like soil that’s tillable.
(I mean, really… not much rhymes with syllable!)
Even writers who are great at coming up with natural rhymes often stumble with meter in a picture book. Contrary to popular belief, meter isn’t just about counting the syllables in each line. It’s about paying attention to stressed and unstressed syllables. Most of us learned about this when we studied Shakespeare in school and talked about iambic pentameter…that da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM pattern that rolls off our tongues so easily. It’s a line of verse made up of five feet, with each foot made up of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.
The sun comes up to greet our summer days, And bathe the sky in pink and purple rays.
When you’re playing around with meter, it’s absolutely essential to read out loud. You’ll figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what possibly works but feels a little shaky. (The truth is, I was thinking about pink and orange rays when I started writing this, but orange is one of those tricky words that different people pronounce different ways. For some, it has two syllables – Or-renge – while for others, it’s just one — Ornge. That can mess up your meter, depending on who’s reading.)
At any rate, compare that couplet above to this one, where I’m being sloppy with meter.
The sun rises and illuminates the summer sky. I gaze out at the horizon, take in its beauty, and sigh.
The rhyme works, but the meter doesn’t. So even if you like the word choice, it’s clunky to read aloud.
Now that I’ve written you some examples of bad rhyming text, it’s time to look at some great ones! I love our mentor texts for this week because they’re both beautifully crafted rhyming picture books, but they’re totally different from one another.
Martha Brockenbrough’s CHEERFUL CHICK, illustrated by Brian Won, is about a little chicken who dreams of being a cheerleader, so the rhythm of this picture book is just as rollicking as any football field cheer. It’s playful, bouncy, and fun.
Once inside a chicken’s nest A dozen eggs, all Grade-A best, Lay still and warm, their contents sleeping, All but one…who came out peeping.
Hena Khan’s GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS is a lyrical, beautiful celebration of culture that looks at colors through the eyes of a Muslim child’s family and religious traditions.
Red is the rug Dad kneels on to pray, Facing toward Mecca, Five times a day.
When I read those two beginnings aloud, the words roll easily off my tongue. The language feels natural and musical…effortless. But writing a great rhyming picture book is anything but that. Tomorrow and Wednesday, we’ll take a closer look at how these writers did what they did.
Your assignment today? Try writing the beginning of a picture book in rhyme. Just a few lines is fine. Tomorrow, we’re also going to talk about how to check your rhyming picture book for meter, so you’ll need something to work with. And don’t worry about getting it wrong! Writers learn from experimenting, making mistakes, and trying again. When you’re writing in the dark, trying something new, you’re being a pretty great role model, and you’ll understand a lot better how your students feel every day.
One of the things I love about nonfiction picture books is that they come with so many different structures and styles. Yesterday, we took a closer look at Traci Sorell’s We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, which takes a look at the tradition of gratitude in Cherokee culture. Traci is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation, so while this is an informational picture book, it’s also very personal in its perspective.
Today’s mentor text is Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor, a picture book biography of zoologist Joan Procter. It’s written by Patricia Valdez and illustrated by Felicita Sala, and it’s one of my favorites when it comes to this format.
There are countless ways a writer can approach a picture book biography. Traditionally, we think of a biography as the basic story of a person’s life, from cradle to grave, and some picture book biographies do follow this format. But many more capture just a part of that person’s life, looking at their work in the world through a particular lens. It’s especially important to consider this approach if you’re writing about someone who’s already been the subject of numerous books. The world might not need another book about Ben Franklin’s basic life story, for example, but there’s still plenty of room for books that explore a lesser-known but fascinating aspects of his life, such as Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France by Mara Rocklifee and Iacopo Bruno (Candlewick, 2017) and Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention by Barb Rosenstock & S.D. Schindler (Calkins Creek, 2014).
Some of my favorite picture book biographies fall into what I’d call the “How the Seeds Were Planted” category. They look at a person’s major accomplishment and then look back to that individual’s childhood to see where the first sparks might have been kindled, where the seeds for that great project came from. Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor is one of those books and does a brilliant job connecting the dots to help young readers understand how a girl who loved reptiles grew up to be a famous zoologist. (And this approach has the bonus of showing young readers that the seeds for their own great accomplishments of the future are being planted right now, too!) Let’s take a look at how Patricia does that…
The book opens with young Patricia having a tea party. But it’s not an ordinary tea party! Her guests are the lizards she kept as pets. Right away, we have an interesting, kid-friendly image to begin the story. How can you not love a kid who throws tea parties for lizards? And look at how Valdez brings us into the time period of the early 1900s…
Back in the days of long skirts and afternoon teas, a little girl named Joan Procter entertained the most unusual party guests.
She could have given a date – “One day in England in 1905…” but that would have felt stuffy and more like a research report than a story. The best picture book biographies paint pictures of a person’s life with language that’s vivid and fun. I love the alliteration in these lines…
Slithery and scaly, they turned over teacups. They crawled past the crumpets.
Isn’t that fun to read?
In this story, we get to see Joan as she grows – as a young naturalist, taking notes on her lizards in her bedroom, as a sixteen-year-old, walking the baby crocodile she’s just been gifted, and being mentored by a curator a the Natural History Museum. The story could have started with Joan’s accomplishments as an adult, but by approaching it this way, Valdez allows young readers to make a connection with someone their own age in the opening pages, which makes it more likely they’ll stay with Joan, following her story as she grows into the famous naturalist she eventually became.
The story goes on to share Joan’s work with Komodo dragons as an adult, but at the end, it calls back to that opening tea party. On the very last page, Joan, an adult now, is shown surrounded by children at a tea party she hosted at the zoo’s reptile house, with her Komodo dragon, Sumbawa, as the guest of honor. This return to a variation on the opening image brings readers full circle and wraps the book up in a most satisfying way.
That passage, like all the others in the story, is based on historical documents and Joan’s actual writings.
(Note that at the time this was written, they thought Sumbawa was female, that’s why he’s referred to as “she” in the article.That’s one reason authors have to double-check even primary sources! We learn more about history as time goes on, and we always want the most current information.)
Anyway, these are the sources that sparked that lovely beginning-to-ending connection for Patricia.
If you’re looking at your copy of the book right now, you’re probably noticing that this “last page” isn’t really the last page of the book at all. So let’s talk about back matter…
Back matter is the rest of the story and the related bits of information and resources that come after the primary narrative ends. Pretty much all of my favorite nonfiction picture books have back matter. In Traci’s We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, it consists of a page of definitions of things mentioned in the story, from shell shakers and stickball to the Trail of Tears, along with an author’s note and a page on the Cherokee syllabary.
At the end of Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor, Valdez shares a more formal version of Procter’s biography – one that includes all the dates and details that perhaps weren’t visual enough to be part of the main story. This is a way to add that cradle-to-grave version of the biography after the fun, kid-friendly story. It’s followed by a bibliography, which is included in nearly all picture book nonfiction. Other back matter might include timelines, maps or charts of relevant information, and lists of books, websites, and museums for readers to explore if they’d like to learn more about the topic.
So here’s your assignment for today: Make a list of five people whose lives you find interesting. They can be famous historical figures or little-known people who have amazing stories. And then, for each one, try to imagine three different ways you might write a picture book biography of that person, other than the cradle-to-grave model. For example, in writing about George Washington, one might choose to focus on Washington the Soldier, or Washington the Enslaver, or on one small chapter in Washington’s life that changed its course. Got the idea? If you need to take a little reading & research time, go right ahead. And then spend a little time brainstorming angles for your own picture book biographies!