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Today is a treat for rhyming writers! We’re flies on the wall as author Anne Marie Pace talks about her newest book MOUSE CALLS with Cassandra Whetstone, an educational consultant and writing mentor. Anne Marie reveals her process, her picture book philosophy, and some special devices, like the visual refrain.

Mouse Calls cover. Mouse holding telescope which eyes an approaching storm.

Anne Marie Pace is an author whose eleven published picture books include three rhymers. With Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, she has co-taught workshops in rhyming picture books for the Highlights Foundation. Her newest rhyming picture book is MOUSE CALLS, illustrated by Erin Kraan, from Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster.

Cassandra Whetstone is a former classroom teacher and is the co-founder of Sequoia Gifted & Creative, where she is an educational consultant and writing mentor. She has published poetry in Cricket, Ladybug, and other children’s magazines.

Cassandra: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today, Anne Marie. You know I’m a huge fan of your writing, and I’m excited to have this time to explore your expertise with rhyme. Are you ready to dive in?

Anne Marie: Let’s do it!

Tell me about how you got into writing in rhyme? What were your early influences?

As a child, some of my favorites included Mother Goose, MADELINE, and Dr. Seuss books, so I suppose my immersion into rhythm and rhyme began early. However, writing rhyming picture books isn’t something I set out to do. It just happened as I experimented in my writing. Like many writers, I composed my share of angsty free verse as a teenager, but I don’t consider myself a poet. However, I do love the sounds of words, playing with words, reorganizing words, and the rhythm of language, so writing in verse has become something I really enjoy.

I am a long-time choral singer and I think my musical skills have definitely helped me understand rhythm and meter in a way that can escape some new writers with less musical training. Of course, I always try to make it clear that you can’t write picture books in verse the same way you’d write a song. In music, the songwriter uses time signatures and rests and note values to help the singer know exactly how to create the desired meter. In picture books, we really have only words (with their various lengths and stresses), punctuation, and page breaks. Also, a lot of songwriters use near rhyme at least some of the time, and it doesn’t matter as much because the singer sustains the tone on the vowel; the ending consonant is enunciated, but less obvious, far briefer in length. In a picture book, near rhyme is much more jarring.

You seem like such a natural at it. When you start with a new idea, do you hear the rhyme right away? How do you decide if this idea is going to be in rhyme or not? 

I’ve published three rhyming books, BUSY-EYED DAY (which was originally titled BIG-EYED BUG), SUNNY’S TOW TRUCK SAVES THE DAY, and my brand-new title, MOUSE CALLS. For two of the three, the title came first in conjunction with a rhyming couplet, so the story developed from the rhyme.

For example, in BUSY-EYED DAY, the couplet “Big-eyed bug/Stalk-eyed slug” came to me first. What did that give me to work with? It’s a rhyming couplet, with alliteration of the first and third words. That said Verse to me, so I began creating similar couplets. The story of kids spending the day at the park came later, as I looked at the couplets I’d written and figured out what they had in common (things kids could see at a big city park).

Animals waiting the storm out in cave, sitting around a fire and doing happy activities, like painting and playing instruments.

With MOUSE CALLS, I had the title for several years before I knew what to do with it. I liked the play on “house calls” but a doctor mouse didn’t spark anything for me. When I remembered the classic game of Telephone, I started playing with rhyming animals, and developed the structure, which has plenty of alliteration and both end rhyme and internal rhyme: “Mouse calls Moose/Moose calls Goose/Goose calls Dog and Hog and Hare. Hare calls Bat/Bat calls Cat/Cat calls Frog and then calls Mare.” Even after I was satisfied with the text, which I believe is a great read-aloud, we were still missing a story. My Beach Lane editor Andrea Welch and I hashed out a few ideas and settled on the premise of Mouse helping his friends take shelter from a storm. That story is completely in the illustrations, not the text.

Mouse, in red beanie and yellow sweater, approaches Moose in the forest. Moose has a small basket of branches.

What do you love about writing in rhyme? What are the unique challenges of the form? 

I love it because it is both easy and hard–sort of a perfect balance of fun and challenge. As I said before, I love the sounds of words. I love the rhythm of a well-constructed sentence. Sometimes, even when writing prose, I hear the rhythm of a sentence before I find the words that fit that rhythm. So using sounds and beats to create something that children will enjoy is simply a good time. But rhyme and meter really need to be close to perfect. If you set your reader up to expect a rhyme or a particular beat, you need to keep that promise. Perfect may not be possible, but you can aim for it. For most writers, that means the easy way should not be the final way.

In writing longer forms, like novels, it can be a huge overhaul to change the point of view of the writing, but the outcome is often a fresh look at the story. Picture books are, of course, a shorter work to craft, but have you ever done a total overhaul of the meter or rhyme scheme and what was that like? 

I have done a total overhaul of the story, but once I’ve developed the structure, I stick with it–or at least, I can’t think of any examples where I’ve really changed the structure. SUNNY’S TOW TRUCK SAVES THE DAY began as a story about a family running late for school, but it didn’t seem fresh. It ended up as a story about a family on their way to a picnic. They get a flat tire and have to wait for a tow truck. Because they are waiting, the concept of the passage of time (9:00, 10:00, etc.) found its way in, along with lots of food and trucks. But it was always a story in rhyming couplets.

Can you talk a bit about how you turn a story in rhyme into an actual picture book with line breaks and page turns? 

My published rhymers are for the youngest listeners, so usually the complete couplets or stanzas stay on the same spread. However, in BUSY-EYED DAY, the climax of the story occurs when a spider startles a little girl, who runs to her mother for a hug. That couplet takes place over three pages, which shines a spotlight on the importance of the moment and gives it some oomph. My friend Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen has a new book coming out this fall called ROXIE LOVES ADVENTURE. There’s a spot where the rhyme scheme leads you to believe a certain word is next and there’s a page break before the word–and then the actual word is something completely unexpected. It’s brilliant.

Something I’ve included in two of my books (BUSY-EYED DAY and MOUSE CALLS) is a refrain. My editor Andrea Welch encouraged me to add a refrain to each book as sort of a pause, or grounding. A refrain becomes familiar to the reader, and it relieves what might be an otherwise monotonous structure. In BUSY-EYED DAY, the refrain is text which appears after each three couplets: “Busy-eyed day at the park.” But in MOUSE CALLS, I never found a refrain I was happy with, but Andrea still asked for a pause. So we ended up with a sort of visual refrain. The illustrator Erin Kraan included several wordless double-paged spreads, all set in a cave, with a growing number of animals as the book progresses. It works well, and with no words on the page, it forces the reader to stop and examine the wonderful details Erin included in the illustrations.

This is so interesting. Your writing is so lovely to read and to listen to. When I share your books with my students, I appreciate that you are meeting them at the page in such a gentle and respectful way. What is your advice to new writers? 

I try not to talk down to readers. Just because they are young and have less experience with life and a smaller vocabulary doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be respected. New writers who are just learning to write picture books are still finding their voices, and that includes their willingness and their ability to meet kids where they are. Hopefully, they’re studying mentor texts, especially new and outstanding books that manage to feel comfortable, yet fresh. The more they write, the more they’ll develop their craft.

How have rhyming picture books evolved over the years and why is it important for writers to study new works as well as old classics? 

Of course, it’s most important to write from the heart and our heart is often full of the books we loved as children, or the books we read to our children.. But some people embark on writing picture books without knowing the wonderful creators of today.

I mentioned before that as a child I loved Dr. Seuss. He certainly earned his place in the canon. His books were published as many as eighty-five years ago, with his best-known books coming in the 1950s and 1960s. Honestly, we don’t need another Dr. Seuss because most of his books are still in print.

When writers try to emulate his style now, their work tends to seem dated. As a technical point related to writing rhyming picture books, Dr. Seuss had a unique, clever voice, but one of the reasons he was able to write so seamlessly in anapestic tetrameter (aside from sheer talent!) is that he invented words. If he needed a three-syllable noun that rhymed with some other word, and an English word didn’t exist, he would just create one. In his time, that was exciting and fun; today, it just isn’t often done.

But we can still learn lessons from his work. The mastery of anapestic tetrameter and creation of crazy vocabulary aren’t what’s necessary. Meeting kids where they are intellectually and emotionally, making them laugh, making them think–those are the things a modern writer can take away from Dr. Seuss.

My younger students are usually quite willing to jump in with their creativity, but often those inner critics start to get really invasive by the time they are in upper elementary grades. What’s your advice to kids and adults who want to tap into their creative ideas but the editors on their shoulders get in the way? 

All of us have editors on our shoulders. The only real advice I have, and something I should take to heart more than I do, is to keep writing. Write through the block, even if it’s painful. The more words you produce, the more likely you’ll be able to pull gems from your output.

I sometimes work with learners in grades 3-5 who are still developing their phonemic awareness and need to play with rhyme and manipulating sounds, but often when I pull out a rhyming picture book they are resistant because it looks like it’s for younger kids. Once I crack the book open and begin reading, they relax and enjoy the rhythmic ride, but what are the rhyming books that you might recommend for older readers? 

Some of my favorite authors are Julia Donaldson and Mary Ann Hoberman. They’re just so skilled in telling lengthier stories with rhyme. I can see why a student of that age might feel that way. Verse allows for a lot of white space on the page and kids alternately embrace it, fear it, or hate it, depending on their mood.

To prepare for this interview I reviewed your booklist on your gorgeous website and wow! You’ve written some wonderful books and the adorable MOUSE CALLS was just released. I’ve ordered my copy of MOUSE CALLS and can’t wait until I get to share it with the kids in my life! One last question, what’s on the horizon for you? What are you working on next? 

Right now, I’m doing weekly MOUSE CALLS events, including some book signings and school visits. I wrote a biography of Anne Hutchinson for the Core Knowledge Foundation and I’m excited to see that when it comes out. As far as new writing goes, I am mostly revising some manuscripts I wrote in the spring. Hopefully, I’ll take some big steps forward in the next few months with those.

That sounds busy. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today. I’ve learned so much from you and I’m looking forward to reading what you do next! 

Thank you Cassandra and Anne Marie for this inspiring and informative talk!

Blog readers, you can win a copy of MOUSE CALLS by Anne Marie and Erin Kraan, released by Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster just a couple weeks ago! 

Leave one comment below answering this question: do you write in rhyme? Why or why not?

A random winner will be selected next month.

Good luck!

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