Today I get to share Renee LaTulippe’s debut picture book about dancing in the ocean. Prepare for a lavish conversation of poetry, symphonies, and tulle!
Renée M. LaTulippe is the author of The Crab Ballet (Cameron Kids/Abrams, 2022) and Limelight: Theater Poems to Perform (Charlesbridge, TBA) and has poems published in many anthologies including Night Wishes, School People, National Geographic’s The Poetry of US and Book of Nature Poetry, One Minute Till Bedtime, and ThankU: Poems of Gratitude.
Renée developed The Lyrical Language Lab and provides free lessons and critiques for children’s writers on her YouTube channel. She has a BFA in acting/directing and an MA in English Education. She lives by the sea in Italy with her husband and three children. She is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown. You can learn more about her at her website.
CRAB BALLET is her debut picture book. It is a stunning underwater ballet featuring crabs. The rhyme scheme is fantastic and the illustrations are gorgeous. It has a few surprises tucked inside that I don’t want to spoil, but trust me when I say that this is a book you won’t want to miss.
Me: Let’s talk about your journey into picture books because it’s different from some of the other authors who have visited my blog. Can you give us more details on where you got started? What was your first publication (and where)? How many subsequent publications did you have up until now?
Renee: First, thank you so much for having me on the blog!
And you’re right, I did come to write for kids in a roundabout way, and rather late at that. For over a decade I have been an editor and writer for All About Learning Press, a company that creates homeschool spelling and reading curricula, and it was early in my time with them that they asked me to write poems and stories for their early readers. I began with a collection of poetry for preschoolers called Lizard Lou and then went on to co-author another eight books of vocabulary-controlled stories. What a great challenge that was! And those books are still going strong as part of the homeschool programs.
I credit that project for reawakening my love of poetry—and for opening my eyes to the fact that writing for children was an actual thing that I could do! Who knew? It was a whole new world and I dove right in by creating a children’s poetry blog, No Water River, and getting to know the wonderful kidlit writing community. After getting some poems published in picture book anthologies, I started turning my efforts to my own PB, MG, and YA books.
Me: THE CRAB BALLET is a fantastic mashup of sea life and dance. It’s incredible! What gave you the idea for such a beautiful metaphor?
Renee: I tend to see things in terms of the arts — for example, I correlate poetry to a symphony and use musical terminology to talk about it. For me it seemed like a very natural thing to connect the fluid, graceful movements of sea creatures to dance. I’m also a great admirer of dancers and have often sighed over how weightless they are, unbound by gravity.
As for the crabs, many years ago I spent a year in Brazil as an exchange student. While at the beach, I watched in amazement as dozens and dozens of sand crabs popped out of their holes, skittered around sideways, then ducked back in when the waves rolled in. That image has stayed in my head for the last 37 years and I had it in mind when I chose ballet. I mean, how can you not picture those six spindly legs with toe shoes on! 😀
Me: Ha! I love that. What did the writing process for this book look like? Was the story always in rhyme? How many revisions did it take?
Renee: The book began as a six-stanza poem for a poetry contest in which I had to use the word “iridescent” in a poem. That original poem had the same meter and rhyme scheme as the book has now, though the word “iridescent” was cut in an early draft.
It’s had only two major revisions, the first being when I thought I’d try expanding it into a picture book and brought it up to 11 stanzas. The next one was when my agent thought it was still a bit uneven in that I had more happening in the first half of the book, so I added to it and brought it up to the 16 stanzas it has now. But that second revision took me a year to complete! It was very difficult due to the rhyme scheme I’d chosen, seeing as I had to find more sea creatures and ballet moves to match them, and then fit them all into my meter and rhyme scheme. I was so relieved when I finished! 😀
Me: I love the structure of a 2-act performance. It really drives this story. Yet, even with it, there is no main character or a typical plot arc. Some might call it a “quiet” story. Did that make marketing the manuscript difficult? How long did it take to sell?
Renee: In fact, this is a poem picture book rather than a narrative picture book. Poem picture books are essentially extended poems and follow a different structure. Instead of a traditional plot, they have an arc—for example, morning to night, the seasons, the beginning and end of a voyage. In the case of The Crab Ballet the arc takes form of a theatrical performance in two acts, from when the curtain rises to when it comes down the final time.
This is my favorite type of picture book! For those interested, I did a video about them a while back to explain exactly what they are: What Is a Poem Picture Book?
Unfortunately, poetry in general can take longer to sell, but of course this also depends on the subject matter. There are more commercial poem picture books (especially nonfiction) that might sell more quickly. The Crab Ballet went on submission in late 2017 and sold in early 2020, so a little over two years.
Me: Wow! Two years! What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Renee: That there’s always room for improvement. I mean, that shouldn’t be surprising, but that second revision was so difficult that I was kind of terrified to imagine what changes my editor, Amy Novesky, might inflict on me, and I couldn’t imagine what I could change to make it better. And she didn’t really have any big changes, but the comments she did make led me to look at several stanzas more closely, tighten them up, and polish them with better phrasing. Then the copyeditor made an astute observation that led to further last-minute improvement. So I am very thankful for their questions and insights!
Me: The illustrations by Cécile Metzger are wonderful. They actually remind me of some of your watercolor “experimental” paintings (as you call them). I especially loved the textures and color palette. Were there any illustration surprises for you? Any favorite illustrations?
Renee: I feel very fortunate that Cameron Kids chose Cécile—what a perfect match! Her work is as delicate as tulle, and I just love every single detail of it.
One surprise was her treatment of the intermission (no spoilers—you have to read it to see what I mean!). I don’t know what I was expecting exactly, but it wasn’t that, and at first I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. The more I looked at it, though, the more I realized it was the exact right choice and now it’s my favorite moment in the book!
I also love the last illustration where the crabs are dipping back into the sea because it looks like a beach where I take my kids. There’s a big rock a little ways off shore that we jump off of, and it was such a surprise to see it depicted in that illustration, as if Cécile got in my head somehow! Amazing!
Oh, and Cécile recently posted her own favorite spread on Instagram (coucou_illustration):
She wrote that it was the first scene she painted as she was experimenting with colors and textures, and that she painted it several times to get it right. As she says, “It was during the cold weeks of February 2021, but painting these colourful corals and joyful crabs made these days warmer.”
I love knowing that! And of course all the crabs are just too cute.
Me: Any advice for other picture book writers and/or poets?
Renee: Here’s a bit of advice that comes from working with my students in the Lyrical Language Lab: try new forms for your work. Without fail, students tell me at the end of the course that they never would have tried writing their stories in free verse (or rhyme or lyrical prose), or that they never knew they could even write in that form. But trying on new formats for size can often reveal new ideas and directions for your story. If you have a prose picture book, try writing the opening in rhyme or free verse—and vice versa. EXPERIMENT!
That is great advice Renee. Thank you for stopping by my blog.
Dear readers, if you haven’t yet had a chance to read this book, I highly recommend it. It’s an enchanting look at life under the sea that I haven’t seen before. Only Renee could imagine crabs as dainty dancers, instead of pinching monsters (as one of my horrified students recently exclaimed). This graceful blend of poetry and imagery feels as delicate and delicious as the crust on a creme brûlée. Don’t miss it!