Verla Kay brings an unusual dimension to picture books—non-fiction cryptic rhyme for pre-school children. According to Kay, “cryptic rhyme is my own term for my own style. . .I write in short, clipped, descriptive verses that paint vivid, concise pictures using almost no full sentences. Much is left to the imagination of the reader, who must fill in the gaps.”
Kay’s stories are carefully researched and constructed—her 200-word books taking anywhere from two to five years to complete. Sometimes Kay will work on one verse, or even one word, for months until it’s just right. “It took me six months to find two words in the first stanza of Gold Fever (Putnam, 1999). Until I found ‘dashing’ and ‘snicker’ for that verse, it simply didn’t have the flavor of the time period and the urgency that I wanted to convey to the reader.”
A resident of the Sierra Nevada foothills in California, Kay lives and breathes the history of many of her books. “I am surrounded by old gold mining towns that are still alive and functioning. History is everywhere and this beautiful country inspires me on a daily basis.” She shares this inspiration with children during school visits with live gold panning demonstrations and in the Gold Quiz on her website.
Kay’s second book, Iron Horses (Putnam, 1999), tells the story of the transcontinental railroad. Each word conveys the flavor of the time period and sings with the rhythm of an approaching train.
Ties and rails.
Spikes and nails.
Black clouds scuttle,
Of particular interest is Kay’s ability to create memorable characters in a mere 200 words. “My characters are meant to show a slice of life of another time, another place, and to me, they are that other time, that other place.” Jasper from Gold Fever (Putnam, 1999) mines the California gold fields of 1849. His adventures (or misadventures) make him one of Kay’s favorite characters because he reminds her of her husband. Especially his:
Crusty long johns,
Caked with dirt.
Kay’s most compelling character is Charley from Rough, Tough Charley (Millbrook, 2003). “It’s the biography of a crusty stagecoach driver from the 1850’s and ‘60’s. . .Charley’s story is dramatic and has heart to it. . .When Charley died, it was discovered that he was ashe.”
Tattered Sails (Putnam, 2001), Kay’s newest book, takes readers back to 1635 aboard a ship traveling from London to the New World. Kay again combines her skills as a poet with impeccable research to create Thomas, Mary and Edward, three children who manage to survive their ocean voyage enduring:
Lice and rats.
Kay puts the same energy into helping other children’s authors as she displays in her writing and presentations. Part of her website is set up specifically for writers and contains transcripts of on-line chats with editors and literary agents, writers’ tips and workshops. In fact, Kay’s website recently received an award for its contribution to writers. “No one really succeeds by stepping on others. The best and most satisfying success comes when you help other people to succeed with you. I spend much of my time assisting other writers because if I ever get to the top of that ladder of success, I want to have all my friends up there with me.”
After working several temporary jobs (from cutting chives in a field, to owning and managing a laundromat, to managing a condominium complex), Kay discovered her true calling in her early 40’s. While managing the Snaps ‘n Snails Day Care Center, Kay read great numbers of books to the children in her care. Before long her own story ideas began to blossom and finally the call to write became too strong. She had to give it a try.
The mother of four grown children, Kay confesses that she is “addicted to Nintendo. Dr. Mario is my favorite game.” When she’s not writing, her family can usually find Kay in front of her computer screen puzzling through her latest adventure program.