Thunder and lightning! Very, very frighting! It’s a storm, so hold onto your hats! You’re not going to want to miss today’s picture book interview.
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 various anthologies, newspapers, and magazines. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two boisterous boys. You can find out more about Rebecca at her website or follow her on Twitter.
Have you ever looked at the blank page and been stuck? You have NO idea what to put down (either in writing or drawing)? That is what BRAINSTORM! is about. A little girl is trying to write for an assignment in school and is stuck. She has absolutely NO ideas what to right about until KERBOOM! a brainstorm hits with sudden showers. While this is a fanciful take on where we get our ideas from, it’s also an excellent map for children (or adults reading to them) to figure out how to get unstuck. It takes the reader by the hand and leads them out into the rain of ideas and teaches them how to proceed with questions and fine tune those sudden bursts of inspiration. Plus, there’s wonderful back matter with writing prompts! This is a book I can guarantee almost every teacher of young children is going to want to have on their shelves. I do!
Me: You have been a journalist and a poet. What is it then that drew you to writing picture books?
Rebecca: Such a great question. I’ve always loved writing. I’ve been keeping a journal since I was 8 years old. And as a child and teenager, I was always scribbling something – poems, jokes, stories, inspirational sayings, etc. Eventually, I turned that love of writing into a career as a professional journalist, writing feature stories and articles for many national and local newspapers and magazines. I stopped writing while raising my family, but after a decade of full-time Mommying, I found I missed it so much! I knew I didn’t want to go back to journalism, so I enrolled in a local writing class called “Where Do I Begin?” which seemed exactly perfect for me since I had NO idea what I wanted to do, only that I needed to write something again!
The teacher gave us weekly prompts and I kept coming back with silly rhyming poems. I was having so much fun! Turns out, the teacher was a middle grade author, and she thought some of my poems could be fodder for picture books. She told me about SCBWI and I went to my first conference in New Jersey that summer (2016). That is where I first saw author Lori Degman do a presentation on rhyming picture books. My mind was blown! (Lori, coincidently years later chose me as one of her #PBChat Mentees and has now become a great friend). That whole conference weekend was so inspirational. I knew I’d found what I wanted to do with my life. Kidlit people were my people!
I spent the next several years learning everything I could about writing picture books for kids and, especially about writing in rhyme. I enrolled in classes (I can’t recommend Renee LaTulippe’s Lyrical Language Lab course enough), I read craft books, found critique partners, joined 12×12 and The Poet’s Garage, entered writing and poetry contests, etc.. I’ve never looked back!
Me: Your story of a girl who struggles with writing, but then experiences a storm of words, a literal brain storm, is very creative! What gave you the idea to write this book?
Rebecca: I love wordplay! In fact, many of my poems and manuscripts have stemmed from a turn of phrase or idiom or a word turned on its head a bit. One day I’d been sitting at my desk while a rainstorm brewed outside. Instead of staring at the blank screen, I stared out the window. Somehow (magic?) the word rainstorm turned into brainstorm as I contemplated what to write about when — BAM! (seriously, it was just like lightning!) — I had this image of ideas pouring down from the sky! I just started writing what I thought would remain a short little poem. But it kept calling to me and I tinkered with it a lot over the next several months until I realized that maybe this could be a picture book.
I Googled “brainstorm” and “picture book,” certain that someone must have done this already. I was shocked that I couldn’t find anything! And then, as I thought more about how teachers could use the book, I wrote my pitch, figured out my hooks and added back matter. That’s when I realized I had created something pretty cool and unique – and possibly marketable as well!
Me: I love that! The illustrations by Kate Kronreif are absolutely perfect for your story. I loved the textures and expressions of the characters! Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Rebecca: Kate did SUCH an incredible job with the illustrations for Brainstorm! Because the story started as a poem, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how it could 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 Kate and my editor, Sarah Rockett, were able to see how fabulous this book could be!
In terms of surprises… 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. Maybe it’s because I have two boys, but I always envisioned the MC being a boy. So when I first saw the initial sketches I was so excited that I yelled: “IT’S A GIRL!” (I also love that she kinda looks like me a as a little girl!)
Me: There are so many words and creative ideas spinning within the illustrations. Did you write those into your manuscript? Or did Kate come up with those on her own?
Rebecca: Oh, all of that was added much later! As I mentioned, at first, I really thought I was just writing a poem, so while I was having fun writing about how “gusts of adjectives blow by,” and “verb clouds swell and multiply,” and about “nouns swirling ‘round” and “funny phrases flying past,” 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 as inspiration and to weave throughout 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!” :)).
Me: I love that you have writing prompts for young readers in the back matter. Was that your idea or your publisher’s? How did you come up with so many great ideas to inspire young writers?
Rebecca: Thank you for noticing the back matter — I love back matter! 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 and very little, if any, of the content changed, other than some light copy-editing.
I feel very strongly that, these days, it really isn’t enough to just have a “fun” or “cute” story if you want to get an editor’s attention. We have to remember: writing may be an art, but publishing is a business. We must think about and show publishers WHY someone will buy our book over all the others. Adding back matter can give a manuscript that extra “hook” or extra reason WHY. In the case of Brainstorm!, I knew that providing curricular tie-ins and exercises that teachers and homeschooling parents could use with students would only increase the publisher’s ability to market the book and get it into the hands of kids – which is the ultimate goal, after all!
Most of the writing prompts I made up myself by…well…brainstorming! I tried to put on my 8-year-old brain for a bit and think of fun things that I would want to write about. I also asked myself lots of “what if” questions. Some prompt ideas I found online, which I then tweaked a bit. For the glossary, I went through the manuscript and highlighted all the terms that kids learn in school as they begin lessons on sentence structure and narrative story-telling. I used the dictionary to provide definitions and then made up example sentences for context.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Rebecca: How easily and naturally this one poured out of me (pun-intended!). Looking back, I realize that writing Brainstorm! helped me identify the type of stories I really love writing – plotless poem-picture books! In a lot of my earlier work, I see now how much I struggled to write stories with traditional story arcs. I would try to create an interesting character with a problem and have them make three attempts to solve it, etc. I followed the pattern (I’m an obsessive rule follower!), but – despite my stories being well-written and well-rhymed – they never connected with agents or editors. I now can see why. It’s because I was forcing it. I was trying TOO hard to “play by the rules,” and as a result, my stories didn’t sing.
Me: Any advice for other new picture book writers and/or poets?
Rebecca: I have SO much advice! But to piggyback on the last question, I’ll keep it to my favorite quote: “Do what you love and love what you do.”
As I said, when I started, I listened too much to what the “rules” were and not enough to what felt right to my heart. I felt like my manuscript wasn’t “good” or “right” unless it had a traditional narrative arc. I also thought I “shouldn’t” write in rhyme because “no one likes rhyme.” But yet, every time I tried to write a story that conformed to the “rules,” it always fell flat and I felt disconnected from my work.
It wasn’t until I began tinkering more with children’s poetry that I realized that the books I loved reading the most were really more like long poems. I began studying these “concept” or “poem-picture books” and realized that writing these types of manuscripts felt much more natural to me. Once I started thinking of my “stories” as extended poetry and stopped focusing so much on characters, story arcs and “rules,” my writing began to flow more easily and I began to sell books. In fact, 4 of the 5 books I’ve sold so far began as poems, and the majority of them have no plot.
So, I encourage all writers to, above all else, write what brings you joy. Eventually, yes, you will also need to think about marketability and “hooks” to be sure that your idea is saleable. But don’t start with that. Start with joy. Start with fun. Start with heart. The rest can be added later.
That is such great advice Rebecca! Thank you for stopping by my blog today.
Dear readers, BRAINSTORM comes out in a few weeks, but you can preorder a signed copy of it now here. If you are an educator of young kiddos, this is definitely one you’re going to want in your classroom collection. Same if you are a home-schooling parent or even just a writer (or illustrator) yourself! It’s chock full of inspiration. Trust me, you’re not going to want to miss this unique picture book.