A writer named Rebecca Gardyn Levington came super close to being my #PBChat mentee in 2019. I wrote her a private note to let her know how impressed I was by her rhyming skills. So much so that I encouraged her to KEEP writing rhyming manuscripts (which I don’t often do) because it was only a matter of time before some brilliant editor snapped up one of her pieces.
Flash forward to earlier this year, when an email popped into my box from Rebecca, who wanted to let me know that Sleeping Bear Press was publishing her debut picture book, BRAINSTORM (illus by Kate Kronreif) on July 15!!! Here’s the cover:
Besides being THRILLED for her, I asked for a review copy. And people, I was bowled over. The word nerd inside me embraced this book from the first spread:
Oh, little girl. We have ALL been there!
Anybody who’s ever had to write a story, a poem, a letter, an essay, an ANYTHING will instantly bond with this book’s unnamed MC. And, teachers? They’re going to love sharing this one with students to whom they’re about to assign a writing project, especially the BACK MATTER–an incredible number of whimsical prompts to help kids brainstorm their own ideas. Look at this spread, when words and pictures finally start raining down on our MC.
Let’s stop here for a minute. Think about how tough it would be to illustrate a concept book about a kiddo who can’t think of anything to write about.
But illustrator Kate Kronreif took this tough concept and made it sing. Made it bright and lively and joyful, to the point that words and phrases are flying around the pages as the MC’s brainstorming shakes loose a storm of creativity, until she’s “sopping wet with wacky thoughts/of characters and twisty plots,” …
I had to ask Rebecca for a chat. Welcome, Rebecca!
JE: Rebecca, what sparked this idea–one with which writers of all ages will instantly identify?
BGL: First of all, THANK YOU for having me on Picture Book Builders! I’ve been a long-time fan of the blog (and YOU!) and am so honored to be here.
As for what sparked the brainstorm for Brainstorm!…
It all began on a dark and stormy night…
(O.k., it was during the day, but humor me…)
I had been sitting at my desk with my Butt In Chair, desperately waiting for my Muse to arrive, when it became painfully obvious that she had made other plans for the day. I found my attention drifting to the storm outside my window and, as I watched the rain falling, my mind wandered to this thought:
Hmmm….what if IDEAS rained down from the sky…
…you know, like a…rain storm…
NO, wait!…like a….
I immediately turned to my computer and wrote this stanza (which isn’t too far off from what ended up being the initial start of the final book):
My mind is foggy, hazy, gray
until a brainstorm comes to play.
It starts with just one single drop
then others drizzle down —Plink! Plop!
Suddenly, this poem started pouring out of me (pun intended!) about a child caught in a rainstorm of ideas. I never intended for Brainstorm! to be anything more than a short poem, but over the next few months I found myself tinkering and adding more and more to it. And before I knew it, I had a full picture book draft! (Isn’t writing MAGIC?)
JE: It most definitely IS magic. I rarely know where an idea comes from. Rebecca, the precision of every rhyming line tells me this isn’t your first rodeo and that you’re familiar and comfortable with the revision process. What advice would you like to pass along to aspiring rhymers?
RGL: That’s a huge compliment, thank you.
The truth is that I’ve spent the last six years studying and perfecting my skills when it comes to rhyme, meter, and lyrical language, so my #1 piece of advice is: if you love writing in rhyme, you MUST put in the work! Don’t just assume you know what you’re doing because you think you have a “good ear” for it. If you do, that’s great! But remember, you will not be there to read your book to everyone who picks it up. The goal is to craft a book that can be read by ANYONE (with any accent, in any part of the world) and they will not stumble or question “how” they should read it. And the only way to do that is to write in PERFECT meter (i.e. create sentences with stressed beats that are perfectly placed) and to choose rhymes and add lyrical devices that will make sure those sentences are read with ease and fluidity. This is why people say it is difficult to write rhyme well. There is SO much more that goes into it than merely rhyming “cat” with “hat.”
So, if you love rhyme AND you put in the work – go for it! DO NOT listen to all the mumbo-jumbo-hooey-hogwash that “agents/editors don’t like rhyme.” There are PLENTY of agents/editors who like rhyme, BUT (as I said) it HAS to be done really, really well AND you ALSO have to have a great marketing hook (or two!). It’s not enough to just have a “cute” idea.
(I’m realize I’m diverting from the rhyming advice but sometimes I see manuscripts in rhyme that are really beautifully written, but there’s no “there” there. So another piece of advice is: remember that publishing is a business! Even if you have the most perfectly perfect rhyming manuscript, it still needs to SELL. Rhyming or not, you always need to be able to articulate to an agent or editor what need YOUR book fills in the marketplace).
In terms of tangible rhyming craft tips, I will offer my favorite: Avoid using single syllable words whenever possible! Single-syllable words often cause confusion in rhyming verse because it isn’t always obvious whether or not they are meant to be stressed. So, whenever possible, I always try to use multi-syllable words that help force the reader to read the line with my intended rhythm.
If anyone is looking for a class to help them learn and polish rhyming skills, the absolutely BEST, in my opinion, is rhyme goddess extraordinaire Renee LaTulippe’s Lyrical Language Lab (https://www.reneelatulippe.com/writing-courses/). I cannot recommend her class enough (and I promise she doesn’t pay me – although if she did, I would be totally fine with that. )
JE: Amen to all of this. I’d also like to tell aspiring rhymers to visit the website of author Dori Chaconas, where she’s posted a can’t-miss primer:
JE: Rebecca, we writers are often told to give illustrators something concrete to visualize. Much of your story happens inside your MC’s head, yet Kate Kronreif made the girl’s thoughts visual in such clever and satisfying ways, from that first tiny plip-plopping idea to the colorful swirling phrases, memories, and questions that sweep through and around her, to the raging storm of ideas crashing across the page. How did you feel when you saw her sketches?
RGL: OMG, Kate did SUCH an incredible job with the illustrations for BRAINSTORM! As someone who can’t draw a stick figure to save her life, I am in awe. I absolutely love the color palette she chose (and also like how the MC kinda sorta looks a bit like me as a little girl!).
Because the story started as a poem, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how it could or should be illustrated as a picture book. In fact, before Sleeping Bear acquired BRAINSTORM!, I received several passes from editors who liked the idea but couldn’t envision the illustrations. I’m SO grateful that Sarah Rockett, my editor, and Kate, were able to see how fabulous this book could be!
One fun fact about the illustrations: The book is written in the first person, and the main character in the story is unnamed, so I had no idea how Kate would choose to depict the MC. So when I first saw the initial character sketches, I yelled out loud: “Oh yay! It’s a girl!” (Both my children are boys, so I was excited to have my first girl!)
Another fun fact: In my manuscript, as the Brainstorm! grows, I wrote how “gusts of adjectives blow by,” and “verb clouds swell and multiply,” and I mentioned “nouns swirling ‘round” and “funny phrases flying past,” etc. but I had NO idea how any of that would be illustrated. I was thrilled when my editor asked me to provide a list of words, phrases, and images for Kate to use in the art. It’s so fun to see some of my silly sayings used throughout the book (my favorite is “sheep should shower in a shed!” ).
JE: Fun! Your back matter is swoon-worthy, Rebecca, especially for teachers working with young writers. Were these extra included with your submission or did your editor suggest them?
RGL: Thank you for noticing the back matter! I LOVE back matter as well. And YES, I included the page of writing prompts (“Cloudy With A Chance of Ideas”) and the glossary of writing terms (“A Tornado of Terminology”) with my original submission. In fact, none of the back matter changed (other than copy-editing) from when I first sent in the manuscript.
As I said before, it’s so important to help an agent or editor see the sales potential in your project and back matter is a great way to add that an extra “hook” to your book. In the case of BRAINSTORM!, I knew that providing exercises that teachers and homeschooling parents could use with students would only increase the publisher’s ability to get BRAINSTORM! into the hands of kids – which is the ultimate goal, after all!
JE: What else are you working on, Rebecca?
RGL: Oh, I wish I could tell you everything! (Why does publishing have to be so secretive!) The one book I can talk about is an inspirational picture book called I WILL ALWAYS BE… that is coming out in Winter 2024 from HarperCollins. It is a rhyming concept book that encourages kids to celebrate their passions – whether or not they ever make it to Broadway or the big leagues – because doing what you love and loving what you do is what really matters. It is being illustrated by the AMAZING Rahele Jomepour Bell. I can’t wait to share it with everyone!
I also have three more rhyming picture books coming out in 2023 and 2024.
JE: Wow, you’ve really hit the ground running, Rebecca! Congratulations!
Rebecca Gardyn Levington is a children’s book author, poet, and journalist with a particular penchant for penning both playful and poignant picture books and poems – primarily in rhyme. Her debut picture book BRAINSTORM! (Sleeping Bear Press, 2022) hits bookshelves this summer. She has four more rhyming picture books being published in the next two years, including WHATEVER COMES TOMORROW (Barefoot Books, 2023) and I WILL ALWAYS BE… (HarperCollins, 2024). Rebecca’s award-winning poems and articles have appeared in numerous anthologies, newspapers, and magazines. She lives in the suburban jungles of New Jersey with her husband and two boisterous boys. Find out more about Rebecca at www.RebeccaGardynLevington.com and follow her on Twitter at @WriterRebeccaGL.
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