When the idea began forming for my picture book, Circus Train, I had just been to the circus with my little family. I knew I wanted to capture that sensory experience, and a few couplets began forming in my mind for what I thought would be a short poem for a possible magazine publication. I had written and published poems and co-edited a poetry collection before, but a picture book was a new (kind of intimidating!) frontier for me. Could my percolating poem about a lively day at the circus develop into a viable picture book that would keep readers turning the page?
Bring in the mentor texts!
I wanted the rhythm of the text in Circus Train to be an integral part of the mood and excitement, so I went to texts where the rhythm and rhyme scheme created momentum in the story. Mentor texts such as To Market, To Market by Anne Miranda, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin, Jr. and Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson served as examples of rhythm done well, creating a pace that keeps the reader bouncing along.
For fun, sharp imagery and excellent rhymes, I turned to poets like Douglas Florian. Since my story was essentially a poem in picture book length, poetry collections were excellent mentor texts to show how to make every word pack a punch in a tiny space. Consider an excerpt from “Venus” in Florian’s collection, Comets, Stars, the Moon and Mars: “Scalding-hot surface,/Nine-hundred degrees./Nothing can live there,/No creatures,/No trees.” He uses crisp images and tight rhymes in list form to describe the planet in a tiny (yet creative!) space. Collections such as these helped illustrate how to select the right words to generate creative rhyming pairs.
As I looked to mentor texts to help me tighten the structure for Circus Train’s rhyme, Verla Kay’s wonderful “cryptic rhyme” (also referred to as “terse verse”) provided the ultimate model. In her picture book, Rough Tough Charley, Kay captures the story of Charley Durkey, a young orphan woman who posed as a man to become a respected stagecoach driver in the 1800s. She uses tight, carefully worded verses to evoke imagery in a small amount of words, allowing the pictures (and the reader’s mind) to flesh out the story: “Charley, orphan,/Runs from town./Hides in stable,/Hunkers down.” Terse verse became the perfect form for my little circus story, allowing the imagery to unfold by compelling me to shave off superfluous words and keep the pace lively.
What I love about these texts, and poetry, in general, is the potency of words; so much meaning, mood, musicality, and imagery is concentrated into short, carefully chosen phrases. More importantly, they show how rhymes and poetry can be like Aladdin’s Genie--“Phenomenal cosmic power, itty bitty living space.”
Wow, Jennifer! Thank you so much for allowing us inside your mentor text journey to publication! Sometimes the mentor experience can carry us beyond the text and span the globe. Please visit HERE for the April Mystery Author Interview with Miranda Paul to find out how passion and experience shaped her newest picture book, ONE PLASTIC BAG.
Jennifer’s picture book, Circus Train, debuted this March (Two Lions). She also co-edited An Eyeball in My Garden—And Other Spine-Tingling Poems (Two Lions, 2010). Her poems have been featured in children’s magazines such as Highlights High Five, Cricket, and Spider. She dreams of joining the circus, but for now is content to juggle her writing life with her husband and five children in Texas.
You can follow Jennifer at www.jennifercolejudd.com, or on her Facebook author page and Twitter.