“Sea Horse, run!” is now the featured video on my YouTube Channel. Watch and listen as I read the story.
“Sea Horse, run!” is now the featured video on my YouTube Channel. Watch and listen as I read the story.
Several people (both students and adults) have asked me why I chose to call my new book “Sea Horse, run!” instead of “Sea Horse, swim!”especially since the later seems more grammatically correct. I considered “Sea Horse, swim!” for my book title. I even changed all of the text accordingly, but in the end I chose “Sea Horse, run!” as the book’s catch-phase and title for one reason: poetic license. It sounds like a pitiful excuse, but poetic license is defined as “the freedom to depart from the facts of a matter or from the conventional rules of language when speaking or writing in order to create an effect.”
1) Both are generally short.
2) Both are usually read aloud.
3) Most importantly, word choice is paramount.
Let’s consider each in depth.
1) Picture books are generally under a thousand words, and new or early readers require many one syllable words. Both ‘run’ and ‘swim’ are one syllable, so the length of the words did not help me choose between them. But…
2) Poetry and picture books are usually read aloud. When I wrote the version entitled, “Sea Horse, swim!”, it was awkward to read, especially aloud. The words ‘sea’ and ‘swim’ slur together, and since the phrase is often repeated, I grew tired of stumbling over the words. I knew if I had a hard time reading it out loud then a child would have trouble, too.
3) So ‘run’ sounds better, but why? Word choice. It comes down to a battle of consonants: hard versus soft. Consonants create hard or soft sounds. Hard consonants stop the flow of air by blocking it with the tongue or lips, whereas soft consonants only partially block air flow. In “Sea Horse, swim!” both ‘sea and ‘swim’ begin with soft consonants. This is a problem because the sentence as a whole is a command and using a soft consonant for the verb is not very commanding. By contrast, the ‘r’ in ‘run’ is a hard consonant which stops the flow of air, a nice compliment to the soft ‘s’ in ‘sea’. Using a hard consonant for the verb ‘run’ also gives the statement a more authoritative ring.
Poetry uses words in new, unconventional, or even playful ways. That’s what makes poetry fun. Picture books do likewise. I play with words in “Sea Horse, run!”. For example, Coral is choral in my story, and using ‘run’ instead of ‘swim’ is just another playful use of words.
But before I considered poetic license, I researched the word ‘run’ with respect to fish. If you google ‘fish’ and ‘run’ you’ll find lots of associations and sentences using the two words. For example:
Why do fish run when hooked?
Why do fish run away when you tap the fish bowl?
When are the salmon running?
Why not let Sea Horse run?
Finally ‘swim’ does not communicate a sense of urgency or direction, whereas ‘run’ does. But did you know that some fish can even walk?
Will my next book be, “Catfish, walk!”? Probably not, but I will add that title to my ever-increasing list of potential books.
So many of my best ideas come from research that at every school I visit, I introduce myself by by describing the library where my research begins: the Blair Library (a.k.a. the Fayetteville Public Library) in my hometown, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Today I read “Sea Horse, run!” at 10:30 am in the Walker Community Room at my favorite library. A wonderful audience filled with children, parents, and educators heard my dramatic reading (yes, I sang Coral’s part!), then I launched into how I created my new, award-winning picture book. I’ve written a few blog articles about some of the topics I discussed such as…
Rewriting the end of “Sea Horse, run!”. (Spoiler Alert!!!) This post includes the video I showed during my presentation. You’ll see step by step how I research and draw characters for the book.
The Power of Three. The number “3” defines story structure and is an important number in children’s stories.
One thing I forgot to discuss during my presentation is why Coral sings in the story. Read Coral as Greek Chorus to find out.
I brought markers, boxes of crayons, and copies of activities for the kids. Several children came up the stage and colored the pictures while I read the book.
You can check out a copy of “Sea Horse, run!” at the Blair Library (a.k.a. the Fayetteville Public Library), or purchase a hardcover in Fayetteville at Nightbird Books on Dickson Street, French Quarters Antiques on Block Street, or Barnes & Noble across from the Northwest Arkansas Mall.
Blair Library became the first building in Arkansas to register with the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification program. The library received its LEED silver certification from the USGBC in December 2006. Read more or visit Fayetteville’s Blair Library online at: www.faylib.org.
Someone asked me today, “How do you know when you are finished rewriting?” A great question! I’ve found that just when I think my story can’t possibly be any better, someone will give me a nudge in a different direction and, “Voilà!” A better book is born.
The key to knowing whether or not you are finished rewriting is to test your story with your audience. Of course a picture book should be tested on children, but usually every child will like your story. In addition to kids, seek out a dozen or more teachers, librarians, and parents. Ask your adult readers to give you feedback. Granted, sometimes it’s hard to get an honest response. Most readers want to say, “That’s great! I love your story,” or “Good job!” That isn’t necessarily what you want to hear. You want readers to be as critical as possible. If there are major flaws with your story, you have to know BEFORE you publish it. That’s why you test it with so many people. Out of a dozen readers, one or two will be brutally honest, but their feedback could mean the difference between an “okay” book or a “great” book.
I speak from experience. My new picture book, “Sea Horse, run!”, went through eighteen rewrites over the course of a year. I thought the story was finished, but when I was looking for feedback on the art (only weeks before the book went to press), one librarian spoke up and said,
“I don’t like the end of your story.”
In that version (the 18th draft), Sea Horse, Coral and Sea Dragon laugh at the Shark, Eel and Octopus for not realizing the “Sea Dragon” was only a harmless, Leafy Dragon. This concerned parent/librarian pointed out how inappropriate my ending was for children. I listened and realized that I needed another revision. I was mortified. At least a dozen other people had told me they liked the book. Should I really rewrite it AGAIN based on the feedback of one person? The answer is, “Absolutely!” Why not write it one more time? After all, as a writer, you can always go back to the old version. It never hurts to write your story from a different angle or with an alternate ending. You may like the new version better. That’s exactly what happened for “Sea Horse, run!”. With only a few weeks left before the book went to the printer, I took the story apart, piece by piece, desperately seeking the perfect finale.
The ending came to me as I studied the art. Since the book takes place on a coral reef, I drew a variety of fish for the background. One fish was the ribboned sea dragon. I asked myself, “Why is Leafy Dragon coming to the reef in the first place?” Answer: “To visit his cousin, Ribbon.” I not only revised the story, I revised ALL of the art by hiding Ribbon in every picture so that in the end, Sea Horse realizes that a sea dragon lived on the reef all along. The new ending increased the story to 849 words, a real drawback since I was committed to keeping it under 800, but the story improved so much, I decided not to worry about the length.
The revelation that there were three sea dragons instead of one made for a better ending, and it was far more appropriate for children. The new ending also allowed me to put three sets of “three” in the book, a nice touch since the number three is so important in children’s literature. (Read my previous blog post, “The Power of Three in Children’s Books.”) Although it was an enormous challenge to revise my “final” draft,” the extra effort was well worth it. When I tested the book on readers again, they were more enthusiastic than ever. I knew the 19th version would be the last, and a character that began as just another fish in the background took on a much larger role. In retrospect, I’m fairly certain that final revision helped transform “Sea Horse, run!” into an award-winning book.
Want to know more about ribboned sea dragons? Read my blog post entitled, “Ribbon,” or watch the video below. Remember: Don’t be afraid to REVISE!!!
The Three Bears, Three Blind Mice, The Three Little Pigs, The Three Musketeers, and don’t forget to make three wishes! The list goes on and on, so I thought, “Why not use the number three in my next picture book?”
In “Sea Horse, run!” I use the number three, three times:
1) Sea Horse turns three colors: red, yellow, and blue. I chose these colors because they are primary colors, but I also associate each color with Sea Horse’s emotions. Red is a symbol of courage and sacrifice. Sea Horse is willing to sacrifice himself to save his best friend, Coral, so red is Sea Horse’s predominate color in the book. Sea Horse is yellow when he is feeling surprised or scared. When Sea Horse is parted from Coral, he turns blue because he is sad to be away from from his friend.
2) Three predators give Sea Horse advice: the Shark, Eel, and Octopus. Moving from the not-so-clever Shark to the very intelligent Octopus, each animal is terrified by the thought of a much larger predator, the sea dragon. They all tell Sea Horse to “run” or swim away.
3) In the end, three sea dragons are on the reef. The ribboned sea dragon (Ribbon) was there all along. The leafy sea dragon (Leafy) arrives to visit Ribbon, and on the last page the weedy sea dragon (Weedy) is seen in the distance.
In the end Coral sings, “Three little dragons! Three little dragons!” That sounds like a great title for my next book.
Three Little Dragons, a sequel to “Sea Horse, run!”.
Students always ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” My answer is, “The library.” Every book, play, and poem I have ever read contributes to my creative process. In the case of “Sea Horse, run!”, ancient Greek plays inspired one of my favorite characters: Coral.
Why does Coral sing in “Sea Horse, run!”?
The Oedipus plays and Antigone are only a few examples of ancient Greek dramas studied by older students in junior high or high school. In Greek theatre the chorus was one of the most important components of the play. The chorus narrated and would collectively comment on the dramatic action. If the hero had hidden fears, the chorus expressed those fears to the audience usually by communicating in song.
Coral sings, but only the hero (Sea Horse) and the audience (the reader) can hear her song.
Sea Horse does not express his fear, but Coral projects fear by singing, “Sea Horse, run far, far away!” and “Sea Horse, run! Sea Horse, run!”
Coral also comments on the action by stating the obvious. In the end, she sings, “Three little dragons,” underscoring that three different sea dragons are on the reef.
Coral sings, “I see, I see!” She “sees” the sea dragon before Sea Horse, a poignant image considering Coral polyps do not have eyes; but of course, the all-knowing prophet in Greek literature is generally blind making Coral more than a chorus. She’s also a “seer.”
How did I come up with idea for Coral as a chorus?
A coral is a colony or group of many polyps, so I imagined if a coral living on the reef could talk, it would have many voices speaking as one just like a chorus! It’s also fun to note that in the English language the words ‘coral’ (c-o-r-a-l) and ‘choral’ (c-h-o-r-a-l describing the music sung by a chorus or choir) share the same pronunciation.
Picture books are not just for small children, preschool-2nd grade. Older readers and writers can learn much by studying the structure and content of a story in miniature. In “Sea Horse, run!”, the complexity of Coral’s character adds another layer of enjoyment directed specifically at older readers.
The eyes are the soul of my characters. I put a lot of time and thought into each pair of eyes; however, Coral is an important character in “SEA HORSE, RUN!”, and she does NOT have eyes. I knew that would make it more challenging for readers to connect with her character, but since my husband is legally blind, I decided her character would give me the opportunity to express that you don’t need eyes in order to ‘see’ and understand the world around you. One of the most profound moments in the story is when Coral sings, “I see, I see!” She knows the ‘seaweed’ is the sea dragon long before Sea Horse understands even though Sea Horse has eyes to see.
Do coral polyps have eyes?
Many species of sea horses are entirely dependent on their coral environment for protection. Sea horses can change their color and texture to mimic the corals they are attached to which means the corals provide the perfect hiding place from predators. Since corals often protect sea horses, I thought it would be a nice reversal in “SEA HORSE, RUN!” to have my hero, Sea Horse, protecting his best friend, Coral.
Also, many species of coral and even some coral reefs are endangered around the world, so it was easy to imagine Coral needed to be protected in the story. But protected from what? That was the hard part. I knew the danger needed to be concrete for young readers, so I chose a sea dragon because the word ‘dragon’ definitely excites the imagination!
Why are corals important to sea horses?