The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Renee LaTulippe
It is such an honor and privilege to be able to interview my dear friend and teacher extraordinaire, the truly amazing and talented Renee LaTulippe. [Drum roll - please.]
Renée M. LaTulippe is an author, poet, and founder of The Lyrical Language Lab, provides free lessons and critiques for children's writers on her Peek & Critique YouTube channel, and blogs on children’s poetry at NoWaterRiver.com. She earned her BFA in acting/directing from Marymount Manhattan College and her MA in English Education from NYU; worked and played in the theater for almost two decades; and taught English, theater arts, and public speaking in NYC. She lives by the sea in Italy with her husband and three children.
Renée has poems published in many anthologies including Night Wishes, Thanku: Poems of Gratitude, Hop to It: Poems to Get You Moving, A World Full of Poems, School People, National Geographic's The Poetry of US and Book of Nature Poetry, Poems Are Teachers, and One Minute Till Bedtime.
Her debut picture book, The Crab Ballet, releases TOMORROW!
Renée, thank you so much for stopping by to talk about your debut book and your writing.
Thanks so much for having me, Maria!
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? How did you begin writing poetry?)
I started writing poetry when I was seven years old, just out of the blue one night while my parents were having a card party. I don’t know where it came from, but I kept doing it through all my school years. I also majored in poetry for a while as an undergrad but became disenchanted and stopped writing for a good twenty years.
Then in 2010 I began writing for kids, again out of the blue. I freelance for a homeschool curriculum developer that asked me to write a book of poems that could be read to pre-readers, and the next thing you know I’d written 40 of them. I’d forgotten how much I loved poetry, so it was like finding an old friend. It still took a couple of years before I discovered the kidlit world, but I’m so glad I did!
Nowadays … I don’t actually write that often. At least on paper. There’s always something happening in my head, though. I’m a very slow writer and am completely in the Dorothy Parker school of “I hate writing; I love having written.” But when I do write, my favorite place to do so is out on the veranda with a cup of tea, looking at the sea. In colder weather, I love the cozy writing nook my husband built for me upstairs, where I have a little window so I can still see the sea.
I've seen your veranda and view from your YouTube poetry series and I can't imagine a better place to write! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
I was an exchange student to Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Every single thing that could have gone wrong did, so I had to go from being a shy, fearful girl to being a very vocal advocate for myself. I found my own host families and “quit” the high school I was attending (I’d already graduated in the US), instead convincing the director of a school for interpreters to let me study French and Spanish (in Portuguese) for free. I also constantly studied Portuguese on my own and left the country a fluent speaker. It was the single most formative year of my life.
Wow. That is both an amazing and unnerving experience. I'm glad you took control and made it a worthwhile year. Have you found anything particularly helpful in keeping you inspired and writing these past couple of years?
Honestly, I am a solitary soul anyway, and I already work from home, so I did not perceive any big change in my life. While I was useless the first month of the pandemic, as I watched with horror what was happening in Italy and then the rest of the world, I then entered some sort of creative vortex. Maybe it was escape? Early in the pandemic, I wrote a poem picture book that I love and that didn’t take me forever to write. It just flowed out like a little miracle. And then that summer I impulsively took a verse novel class and spent several months on the veranda writing close to 200 poems for it. Perhaps it was the lack of demands on my time that made me more productive during that time than I’ve been for the past five years put together.
Impressive! What was your inspiration for The Crab Ballet?
It started as a six-stanza poem in a competition, so my inspiration was the word “iridescent.” I had to use that word in the poem, and it conjured an image of the wet sand when the waves roll back. A lot of what I write is inspired by the arts, plus I have a background in theater, so imagining sea creatures dancing just came naturally.
Oh, and there’s a Brazil connection! I spent the summer at the beach with my host family and was horrified when I saw dozens and dozens of sand crabs pop out of their holes and skitter sideways when the waves rolled out, then duck back in. They looked like giant spiders to me and the image has stayed in my head for the last 37 years. And now I’ve immortalized them, but in a more palatable dance. :D
Competitions can be amazing spurs to creativity. And it's funny which things stick with us over the years. How many revisions did The Crab Ballet take from first draft to publication? Was it always written in rhyme and in this particular rhyming scheme? (BTW – I love how you integrated the feeling of a stage at the ocean’s edge – the “intermission” is genius.)
My files show ten drafts, but most of those are minor changes. It really underwent only two major revisions: the first when I brought it from six to eleven stanzas, and the next when my agent suggested it needed more balance and I then brought it up to sixteen stanzas plus the glossary of ballet terms. That revision was a doozy and took me a year to complete. I told you I’m a slow writer!
It was always written in rhyme with the same treacherous rhyme scheme it has now, and it always included French ballet terms. All of the original six stanzas are still in there, although the word “iridescent,” which started the poem, was cut in an early draft.
And thank you re: “intermission”! That was also in the original poem and was one of those pat-myself-on-the-back moments when it came out of my pen. Ha.
I don't think a year is too long, especially from the viewpoint of one who doesn't regularly write picture books in rhyme. So, what was the toughest aspect of writing The Crab Ballet? (Working the factual elements &/or the ballet terms into the rhyme?) Were there one or two words/rhymes that were particularly tricky to work out?
Oh, of course it was that diabolical rhyme scheme! The French ballet terms actually helped me because so many of them end on stressed beats, which fit my iambic meter, as well as on long vowel sounds, which help my rhyme. The hard part was all those third-line rhymes, since they all rhyme with each other. That means I had to find 16 words that rhymed and fit the story.
Text © Renée LaTulippe, 2022. Image © Cécile Metzger, 2022.
A single urchin rules the reef,
her en pointe dance too rare, too brief!
A tiny, spiny dynamo—
her fans sit stunned in disbelief.
The urchin stanza was problematic. I really wanted to use en pointe, which is pronounced ON PWANT, as an end rhyme, but the fear was that many people simply wouldn’t know how to pronounce it, and maybe it was a bit forced. And I tinkered with lines 2 and 4 in that stanza quite a bit as well.
I am so in awe of your poetic talent! As a child, who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book?
I had a giant book of fairy tales from around the world that had a swirly red and gold cover, tiny type, and 1000 onion skin pages. I read that book over and over from childhood through high school. It was like tomato soup, that book—familiar and comforting. Sadly, it was the victim of a light summer rain and swelled to twice its size. I dried it and saved it, but it was never the same. Wish I still had it, though!
Sounds like it was a great book. Is there anything you want your readers to know about or gain from The Crab Ballet?
All sorts of things! First, I just want them to enjoy the show and the beautiful art. Then I hope maybe they’ll think about it when they go to the sea or the lake or the river and pause to appreciate the creatures there. And I always want to foster a love of the arts, both performing and visual, and this is a theme in so much of what I write.
Oh, I think you've definitely succeeded in these goals. When you first saw Cécile Metzger’s illustrations did anything amaze or surprise you? Which is your favorite spread?
I was thrilled that it was watercolor! I mean, what else could it have been, right? But honestly, I had very bold images in my head when I wrote the text (which, on retrospect, doesn’t make a lot of sense), so seeing Cécile’s gorgeously delicate renderings in that subtle and soothing palette really did take me by surprise. As a nascent watercolorist myself, I oohed and aahed over her colors and control, and of course overall the crabs in their ballet poses.
Text © Renée LaTulippe, 2022. Image © Cécile Metzger, 2022.
And I couldn’t believe the last spread when the crabs are dipping back into the sea! It reminded me instantly of a little beach I take the kids to, which has a fantastic rock for jumping off of. How did Cécile get in my head like that?
© Renée LaTulippe
That's really a fun coincidence. Thanks for sharing the picture. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
Why, yes, thank you for asking! The Crab Ballet may be my debut, but the first book I actually sold is a collection of theater poems called Limelight: Theater Poems to Perform. It’s in progress with Charlesbridge and is very special to me since it’s the book I wrote under the gentle guidance of my mentor and friend, the late Lee Bennett Hopkins.
And then there’s that YA verse novel that I’m THIS CLOSE to sending to my agent. Wish me luck.
Best of luck! And I am eagerly awaiting the cover announcement for Limelight ! What is your favorite Park or Forest, regional park, or city park (or other equivalent in Italy)? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
For years I have dreamed of going on a volunteer retreat to an orangutan reserve in Borneo. There are many of them in Indonesia and Malaysia, and I just think it would be an amazing and emotional learning experience. I would love to take the kids, too.
That sounds like an amazing adventure! Thank you, Renée for stopping by and sharing your time and thoughts with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.
Be sure to come back Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on The Crab Ballet.
To find out more about Renée LaTulippe, or to contact her: