Rhonda Gowler Greene is an award-winning author of over 20 children’s books. Her books have received several honors such as IRA Children’s Choice Book, Bank Street College Best Book, Children’s Book Council Showcase Book, and starred reviews in major periodicals. Being a former elementary teacher, Rhonda especially enjoys visiting schools where her goal is to get students excited about reading and writing. To learn more about Rhonda (and also see a book trailer of her newest book), visit her website at www.rhondagowlergreene.com. Your latest book, NO PIRATES ALLOWED! SAID LIBRARY LOU, was released this past Wednesday. It’s not every day that a scary pirate and a witty librarian cross paths. What inspired the story?
Two great picture books inspired the story—LIBRARY LION and HOW I BECAME A PIRATE. A few years ago, I saw them listed on the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list. They sparked an idea—why not put a pirate in a library? A pirate is always looking for treasure. I thought the treasure could be books. Pirate Pete has to discover that for himself though, with some help from Library Lou.
That wasn’t the first time other children’s books have sparked a story idea. I’m constantly reading and studying children’s books, from picture books to novels, to get ideas and also to help my writing. I’m a firm believer that if you want to write great children’s books, you need to study and study what’s already published.
It was fun creating the character, Library Lou. I can relate to her love of reading and books. I actually have my Master’s to be a school librarian, but I never became that after starting a family. My house has so many children’s books in it, though, it could probably pass for a children’s section of a library! NO PIRATES ALLOWED is a rhyming book. What are some of the challenges of writing in this style?
Well, one challenge is that some editors will not even consider manuscripts written in rhyme. It’s because over the years they’ve gotten so many that are poorly written. It’s much harder than it looks to write successful rhyme. Other big challenges are getting the beats (stressed and unstressed syllables) just right and coming up with fresh rhymes. A tool I use is a rhyming dictionary.
To me, writing a book in rhyme is like putting a very difficult puzzle together. I try to get my writing to “sing.” I don’t really study meter. I have a music background (minored in music and piano) though, which probably helps. I do study children’s poetry books. I especially admire the works of Alice Schertle, Joyce Sidman, Linda Ashman, J. Patrick Lewis, Karen Beaumont, and Kristine O’Connell George.
And though Aileen Fisher’s books (over 100) are somewhat dated, I’ve always liked her work. She passed away in 2002 at the age of 96. I have a letter she wrote me several years ago, which means a lot to me. She thought poetry should be delightful. I hope my rhythmical writing delights children (and adults too). You are a former teacher and mother of four. How has being a teacher and a parent influenced your career as a writer?
I don’t know if I would have ever tried my hand at writing if I hadn’t become a parent. When my kids were growing up, I quit teaching and stayed home with them. We read and read and read books. The more I read great books to them, the more it made me want to try to write books like that.
It was not easy getting published though. I got 220 rejections within three and a half years before I sold my first book manuscript.
Being a former teacher, I think, influences my author presentations. I really emphasize reading, writing and revising. I try to impart to students what some of the great educators, such as Lucy Calkins, Ralph Fletcher, and Katie Wood Ray, say: to be a good writer, you need to learn from the best—real authors and real books.
Being a teacher also definitely played a part in my book THIS IS THE TEACHER, which is a humorous, cumulative story about things going wrong during a school day. It starts out—“This is the teacher all ready for school.” It ends—“This is the teacher all ready for bed!” (The clock on the nightstand reads 3:30 PM.) You have an interesting hobby: collecting reading figurines. Can you tell us more about that?
Just like I love being surrounded by books, I also love being surrounded by art about reading. I have about 180 reading figurines. Most are whimsical ones of people (mainly children) or animals. A couple of favorites are two Inuit girls and two Ukranian girls. The animal ones include bears, mice, rabbits, cats, pigs, monkeys, owls, raccoons, frogs, turtles, and a mole. And there are some book character ones too, such as Pooh, Eeyore, and Christopher Robin.
I’m always on the lookout for figurines. It’s exciting to find a unique one when I’m in another country. Sometimes when writing in my home office, I’ll look up from my computer and glance at all the animals and children sitting on the shelves. They’re always busy reading. It’s like the room is full of friends who have the same love as I do. On your website you’ve said you visit schools across the country to inspire students to get excited about reading and writing. What do you feel is the most important lesson that you instill in them before you leave their school?
I think it’s that they can learn to write well. I tell them they can learn to write the same way real authors learn—read like writers and then weave great techniques found in books into your writing. After my main presentation about the stages of a book, where I get ideas, etc., I point out examples of great writing. We talk about how their own stories can “sparkle” by using some of the same things, such as lots of details, strong “muscle” verbs, alliteration, patterned repetition, onomatopoeia, having a problem in the story that builds, etc.
When I was a student, I never had the opportunity to meet an author. I think it’s wonderful that so many schools have author visits now. I find from my visits that students think authors are rich and famous. I’ve been asked more than once if I ride in a limousine. I like students to know that authors are ordinary people who work hard at something they’re passionate about. I want them to know that they can become authors, too, if that’s what they hope to be.
Also, of course, I instill in them what Pirate Pete discovers in my NO PIRATES ALLOWED—that books are the best treasures of all.
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