I’m one of the lucky ones. At a picture book workshop I was leading, I got to hear Penny Parker Klostermann first read her hilarious picture book manuscript THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT. I knew instantly she had a winner. So it brought me great happiness to hold this shiny, new hardcover in my hands – with its perfect illustrations – and read it in all its published glory. But in all our time together, I never asked Penny about her inspiration for the story. So today, she’s answering just that.
Take it away, Penny!
What Came First? The Dragon or the Verse?
by Penny Parker Klostermann
I hate to break it to my hungry dragon (for fear he might swallow me up)…but the verse came first. I love a great cumulative tale. The repetition is magical and invites kids to join in. I’d had it in my mind for a while to do a rewrite of There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. All I had to do was find the perfect main character. A resource that I use frequently is agency-mate Tara Lazar’s (of PiBoIdMo fame!) list of 500+ Things That Kids Like. That’s where I found my dragon! Thus began the playful process of writing a rhyming picture book.
What would my ornery dragon swallow after the knight and why? I’d already decided he couldn’t swallow things “just because.” I wanted a good reason for everything he swallowed because in my favorite “Old Lady” rewrites there’s always a reason for the swallower to swallow the swallowees. After researching medieval times, I carefully chose a list of swallowees in logical order for logical reasons. I completed my first draft and had good reasons for each swallowee swallowed. Now time for tweaking. Here are some changes I made on a language level by finding stronger and more appealing word/rhyme choices.
In my first draft, I had horse instead of steed. All along the horse/steed was meant to be an annoyance like the spider “that wiggled and jiggled and tickled inside her.”
There was an old dragon who swallowed a horse
that trotted and galloped around of course.
Oh how the dragon wished it would stop
That clippity, clippity, clippity clop.
A member of my treasured critique group suggested I change horse to steed to reflect medieval times . . . an obvious oversight by me.
There was an old dragon who swallowed a steed
that galloped around at a terrible speed.
Oh how the dragon wished it would stop
That clippity, clippity, clippity clop.
In my first draft I had a maiden instead of a lady. But the rhyme was iffy.
There was an old dragon who swallowed a maiden
With sparkles and jewels that maiden was laden.
See. Inverted rhyme. Yuck! So maiden became lady, which was a better fit and allowed for another joke in my text.
There was an old dragon who swallowed a lady.
It seems quite shady he’d swallow a lady.
One more example. First draft-
There was an old dragon who swallowed a castle.
To swallow a castle? Now that is a hassle.
Hassle is the obvious, overused rhyme. But what else? I tackled this on May 4, 2012. On that day I have three saved versions. One is titled “Ideas for castle line.”
Down to the king and his royal shoe’s tassel.
Down to the king and his shoe’s royal tassel.
Down to a royal shoe with a tassel.
All of the curtains and one purple tassel.
Down to the fool and his jester-hat tassel.
No. No. No. No. And No. The third saved file on May 4th is titled, “Dragon-without castle and moat” because I couldn’t keep the moat without the castle and I still didn’t have a satisfying “tassel” line. The story wasn’t as fun without the castle and the moat. Sigh.
Then on May 6th I found it.
There was an old dragon who swallowed a castle,
Swallowed it down to the last golden tassel.
And I left it to illustrator, Ben Mantle, to determine where the golden tassel would be. Would it be on a shoe? A hat? A curtain? Where?
Over the next year I did a lot more tweaking. Then July 10, 2013, my agent, Tricia Lawrence, subbed Dragon to six editors. Just five days later, on July 15th, we had strong interest from editor Maria Modugno with a revision request.
I’m not going to lie. Even with all the tweaking I’d already done, revising per an editor’s notes was scary. She was asking me to consider changing the third line in my cumulative tale. That line that was repeated six times and key to my story. I saw her reasoning, but could I carry the change throughout my story and still have it make sense? Obviously I did it and my story is so much stronger per Maria’s insightful comments.
So what’s the takeaway for writers? In the end, no matter what comes first—idea or verse . . . tweak, tweak, tweak until all works together seamlessly. That’s when a manuscript has the chance to become a beautiful book.
Read what reviewers are saying about THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT:
KIRKUS – In days of yore, before a certain fly’s ultimately fatal encounter with an Old Lady, there was an old dragon who felt rather peckish.“There was an old dragon who swallowed a knight. / I don’t know why he swallowed the knight // It’s not polite!” He follows the knight with the knight’s steed (“that galloped around at a terrible speed”). Then a squire, a cook, a lady, a castle, and finally a moat are each swallowed in turn. But…“With all of that water, he started to bloat. / And that’s when the dragon roared, and I quote: / ‘Okay, enough! I’ve had enough— / More than enough of this swallowing stuff!’ ” So realizing that eating all those things might have been “a tad impolite,” the old dragon burps them all out in reverse except the knight (which is “ahhh…just right”). Klostermann’s debut is a rollicking and warped Medieval take on the well-worn cumulative rhyme. Prolific British animator and illustrator Mantle’s expressive and bright cartoon illustrations of the red, horned dragon (and the contents of his stomach) are a perfect match. The antics within the dragon’s stomach—every image of the steed is accompanied by a little “clippity, clippity, clippity, clop” in teeny type—and his copious burping will leave ’em laughing.No matter how many swallowed-fly titles you own, this one belongs on your shelf too. (Picture book. 4-8)
SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL – No one seems to know why the old dragon swallowed the knight (“It’s not polite!”) In addition, the bright red beast proceeds to swallow a steed, a squire, a cook, a lady, a castle, and finally, a moat. At this point the creature decides to burp out everything (except the knight), and what preschooler won’t love that! The author has used a broad range of words—savory, shady, fattens, tassel, guzzled, bloat, quote, perchance, amass, and billow. These will add depth to the young listener’s vocabulary. Mantle’s illustrations are full of primary colors and are quite expressive as the dragon gobbles each entity he encounters. Life in the Middle Ages is hinted at with the additional drawings surrounding each dragon tidbit. This will be a great addition to the kindergarten/first grade curriculum on comparing and contrasting similar stories. VERDICT A fine purchase for most collections.
Check out other stops on Penny’s blog tour:
Penny Parker Klostermann is the author of There Was an Old Dragon Who Swallowed a Knight. She loves all kinds of books, but especially loves very silly picture books that make her laugh. She has been known to hug her favorite picture books and seriously hopes that someday her books will gain huggable status too. Penny is a member of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). She was named the 2012 Barbara Karlin Grant Runner-up. She is represented by Tricia Lawrence of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Penny grew up in Colorado and now lives in Abilene, Texas-the Storybook Capital of Texas!
I loved reading the first and final drafts, Penny. I can see it is better as the final draft, but I just love Dragon in any draft. Your characterization is absolutely perfect. You can give lessons in writing character. I can’t wait to be where you are now. It was a pleasure to be involved in your blog tour. 🙂
Thanks so much, Robyn. It was a pleasure to be on your blog!
Verse is never an easy option even so it was no surprise to read of all the tweaking–but it was fascinating! I love hearing how and why manuscripts change over time, and ultimately how they are sold. Congratulations, Penny! I can’t wait to see the final results of your hard work and read THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON!