Awesome Authors: Danna Smith on How Poetry Inspires Picture Books

By Linda Joy Singleton

As a talented author and poet, how does your love of poetry influence your picture books?

Poetry is where I got my start. I have loved words from the moment I meet them and found it was great fun to twist them around and make them sing! I wrote my first poem when I was eight years old and continued to and through adulthood.

With that said, it is as natural as breathing for me to incorporate poetry into my picture books, whether it is an all-out rhyming romp or a subtle lyrical story.

I attribute my love of rhyme to my maternal grandmother, who shared her poetry with me when I was a child and to an uncle who taught me to rhyme on the fly as we danced and clapped and giggled.

Of my sixteen published picture books, all but one book, Arctic White, illustrated by Lee White (Henry Holt, 2016)(a lyrical tale about the Northern lights and the human necessity to create and to express hope through art), is written in rhyme.

Sometimes I like to mix it up. My nonfiction book, The Hawk of the Castle: A Story of Medieval Falconry, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline (Candlewick, 2017), is written in rhyme and prose.

Speaking of poetry, I am developing a poetry website where I can share my passion for poetry with adults.

By the time you read this interview, perhaps I will have it up and running (fingers crossed). For those of you who love poetry, will be a place to come together to share our mutual passion. I have big plans for the site, including poetry prompts for those inevitable days your muse misses the bus, lessons on poetic forms, inspirational messages, poetry quizzes, shopping, and much more. I hope you will pop in often!

There’s rarely just one moment that leads to success. What turning points led to your first sale?

Oh, that’s so true! I wrote for the sheer pleasure of writing until 1999 when I started my quest to write for publication (a challenge I adore). The first turning point was my first writing conference. I signed up for an SCBWI conference in my hometown. I walked in entirely green, but when I left, I knew I was among my people.

I met people who were chasing the same dream of seeing their work in print and sharing it with the world (and have since built lasting friendships with these individuals). I paid for a critique, and although my manuscript needed a lot of work, I felt encouraged and found a critique group that very day!

The next turning point came in the form of a blurb in CBI, The Children’s Book Insider, a popular children’s book industry newsletter. Those were the days of snail mail and no internet (at least for me). The blurb was from an editor who was usually not open to authors without agents but was looking for new talent. She opened a three-month window, and I took the opportunity to climb through. I mailed a picture book manuscript and started the agonizing wait for a snail mail reply.

When I received a letter from the editor, she was intrigued but asked for a revision (a new lesson for me; good books aren’t written, they are rewritten). The blurb was the ultimate turning point that lead to my first sale with Disney-Hyperion. I sold four more books without an agent, which brings me to turning point number three. Once I had a few sales under my belt, acquiring an agent was next in line for my success. I wanted to spend my time writing, not submitting. Having an agent’s representation is an asset as the right agent will guide your writing projects, protect your rights, and cheer you on.

What promotion strategies have worked best for you?

Over the past twenty years, I’ve walked all the traditional avenues of promotion, school visits, library story times, conferences, and social media. For me, though, out of the box promotion is the most fun. For example, for my first book, A Wild Cowboy, illustrated by Laura Freeman (Disney-Hyperion, 2004), I contacted a local kid’s pottery painting store, and we worked out a plan. The store would sell tickets for a fun-filled morning, collecting the fee and reservations upfront.

We weren’t sure how it would work out, but the venue quickly sold out! On the day of the event, kids showed up in their cute cowboy duds, painted a small cowboy-themed pottery piece, ate flapjacks, enjoyed story time, and took an autographed book home. Depending on the book’s subject, I try to tailor my events.

For my book, Balloon Trees, illustrated by Laurie Allen Klein (Arbordale Publishing, 2013), the launch was held at a children’s museum. We had all sorts of balloon experiments for the kids to try.

For Dos En El Zoologico/Two at the Zoo, illustrated by Valeria Petrone (Houghton Mifflin, 2011), my Spanish/English bilingual board book, I contacted our local zoo. They agreed to bring one of the animals depicted in the book to my Barnes & Noble signing. The kids were thrilled (and a little creeped out) to see the author hold a real tarantula! And for my Little Golden Book events, kids have a blast creating their own Little Golden Books from the template here.

If you have an idea, my advice is to make that contact! It’s usually a mutually beneficial endeavor, and businesses are likely to join in the fun!

Any new books/projects you’d like to share?

Oh, yes, thank you for asking. Kiddos can look forward to the following upcoming books!

  • Wake Up, Freight Train! (Little Simon, 2021)
  • A rhyming shaped board book
  • One Blue Gnu, illustrated by Ana Zurita (Amicus Ink, 2022). When a box of cell phones is accidentally delivered to the zoo, one blue gnu quickly calls two white sheep, who plan a party—beep beep beep! Call by call, the party spreads around the zoo, but oh no! Who invited the hungry tiger? And who will he call on his new phone? A fun and colorful picture book romp!

Cynsational Notes

Danna Smith is a poet and an award-winning author of sixteen books for children, including Arctic White, Swallow the Leader, illustrated by Kevin Sherry (Clarion, 2016) Mother Goose’s Pajama Party, illustrated by Virginia Allyn (Doubleday, 2015) and several Little Golden Books. Her nonfiction picture book, The Hawk of the Castle: A Story of Medieval Falconry, received two starred reviews and is a Junior Library Guild Selection.

Please visit her website for updated forthcoming books. Don’t miss the activity guides on each book page (like this one for her counting book Swallow the Leader) with math, science, art, and writing fun designed specifically to work with my books. These guides are an excellent resource for teachers, caregivers, and for home-schooling use.

Danna is currently living in northern California, where she is hard at work on her next book. For more information about her books, upcoming releases, and teaching activities, visit her website at

Linda Joy Singleton is a Roving Reporter for Cynsations. The author of over 50 books from picture books to YA/MG series, including Curious Cat Spy ClubThe Seer (Llewellyn/Flux) and Dead Girl series (North Star Editions). She’s also written picture books, her most recent are Crane and Crane, illustrated by Richard Smythe (Amicus, 2019), Lucy Loves Goosey, illustrated by Rob McClurkan (Simon & Schuster, 2017) and A Cat Is Better, illustrated by Jorge Martin (Little Bee Books, 2017).

She lives in the Northern California foothills, surrounded by a menagerie of animals including dogs, cats, peacocks, horses and pigs. Linda reports on writing and publishing children’s literature for Cynsations.

Follow her on Twitter for writing news @LindaJoySinglet