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Top poet, author, and teacher Renée LaTulippe shares what it’s like working from Italy during the pandemic and her advice for children’s writers.

CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT: Welcome to Kite Tales! I’m currently enrolled in your online ten-week Lyrical Language Lab. Your instruction (from Italy!) during the pandemic has been seamless. How has teaching this course been different?

RENÉE LATULIPPE: First, thanks so much for having me, Christine! It’s been a delight having you in class, and I have been continually amazed at how all the current students have kept up on their assignments even during these weird and trying times. Luckily, I have been teaching this course since 2014, so by now it’s a pretty well-oiled machine. I’ve been in lockdown here in Italy since March 8, and I admit that in the first three weeks of the lockdown I was extremely distracted and found it difficult to concentrate on anything—yet when I opened our class forum and saw all the great work to dive into and critique, it was like a little escape into beautiful language. So I have you guys to thank for those hours of normalcy in the early days! As the lockdown has progressed, there have been ups and downs and a few extra stressors (online school!), as I’m sure you in the US are experiencing now. And with three kids—ten-year-old twin boys and a three-year-old girl—and a continuous cycle of news, being able to find the time and the silence I need to focus on the video feedback for the course has been a challenge. It is only now in our fourth week of isolation that I have begun to feel “normal” and the new routine is beginning to fit a bit better.

Besides teaching the course, I also produce free weekly lessons for my Lyrical Language Lab YouTube channel. I debated continuing these lessons during the pandemic, but in the end I felt it was important not to completely disrupt my life—and so the show must go on! 

CVZ: Your class is packed with instruction and yet there’s much more to learn. Where should a newbie start?

RL: There is always more to learn, isn’t there? I guess it depends on what you are writing, but since I work mostly with picture book writers, I always suggest first taking a “how to write a picture book” class—and the one that I most recommend is Susanna Hill’s Making Picture Book Magic. I think comprehensive feedback on your work is essential, and I have made it an integral part of my own course. It’s especially important when you’re just starting out, and Susanna’s class is the only one that I’ve personally taken that offers helpful, in-depth feedback every step of the way. I also suggest that people take this kind of class before taking my course because it’s a how-to on the big-picture concepts of writing picture books (story arc, plot, character development, etc.), whereas my course focuses on the language itself. Another great resource is Ann Whitford Paul’s classic how-to, Writing Picture Books.

CVZ: Lyrical language goes beyond poetry and picture books. How can other writers benefit from learning and using poetic techniques?

RL: Well said—lyrical language and poetic techniques go WAY beyond poetry. In fact, I think every writer should study poetry regardless of what genre she is writing in or for what age group. Think of all the elements that poetry and every other type of good writing have in common: conciseness, precise word choice, imagery, figurative language, emotional weight, storytelling, sound devices, rhythm, breath, and (sometimes) rhyme. All of these poetic techniques combine in your prose to make your writing more musical and help you create read-aloud language that will transport the reader into a world of imagination. And in the case of picture books, it helps you do all that in as few words as possible.

CVZ: The study of poetry can come across as overwhelming with its unfamiliar terms such as dactyl, spondee, and trochee—it’s all rather Seussian at first. Does, for example, a picture book writer need to know these things?

RL: Not necessarily. First, I try not to confuse poetry with rhyming picture books, because they are two different things. If a writer wants to write rhyming verse for a picture book and has a natural ear for meter, rhyme, and rhythm, she can happily go about her business without ever knowing what enjambment is. I know several published writers of rhyming picture books who are masters of meter and rhyme but have no idea if their books are in anapestic meter or whether they have truncated feet. But there are many writers who don’t have that natural ear, and in those cases, knowing the mechanics of rhyme and meter can open a whole new world. I’d also like to point out that knowing all the technical stuff becomes important if you are in a critique group with other rhyming picture book writers. I would imagine it’s very difficult to critique rhyming manuscripts if the group doesn’t have a shared vocabulary of technical terms AND a background in how meter actually works. I still see people giving advice about counting syllables when the number of syllables in a line has absolutely nothing to do with writing consistent meter! So I am going to revise my first answer to this: not necessarily, but why wouldn’t you want to know as much about your craft as possible?CVZ: Do you have any parting tips for writers?

RL: Yes, I have two extra tips:

  • If you are brand-new to the world of writing for kids, start by reading a WHOLE LOT of books in the genre you want to write, whether it’s picture books or middle grade or verse novels or chapter books. Reading widely is the best “course” you could possibly take! And if you’re NOT brand-new … keep reading a WHOLE LOT of books in your genre and out of it.
  • Read, write, and listen to poetry. There are hundreds of amazing poets for young people out there, and adding a healthy dose of poetry to your reading diet will do wonders for your imagination and your craft. I have an entire blog and video library dedicated to children’s poets at No Water River as well as a Big List of Children’s Poets. That’s a great place to start!

Renée M. LaTulippe is an author, editor, and teacher. Her debut poetry collection is forthcoming from Charlesbridge and her poems appear in over a dozen anthologies including Night Wishes, School People, THANKU: Poems of Gratitude, National Geographic’s The Poetry of Us, and One Minute Till Bedtime. Renée teaches The Lyrical Language Lab and provides weekly free lessons and critiques for children’s writers on her YouTube channel. You can reach out to her via her blog, website, and Twitter: @ReneeMLaTulippe. She also has a Peek&Critique service. She is represented by Elizabeth Harding of Curtis Brown, Ltd.

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Images courtesy of Renée LaTulippe.