How Valerie Bolling Broke All the Rules

I’m so excited to have Valerie Bolling on the blog today. Valerie and I share the same amazing literary agent (Go #TeamJames!); but beyond that, I just adore her debut picture book, Let’s Dance!, which was published by Boyds Mills Press earlier this year. I’m homeschooling my kindergartener this year, and Valerie’s book is one of the many texts we’re using to learn about other countries and cultures.

Valerie has had a unique writing journey. She literally broke ALL the “rules” we’re told as beginning kidlit writers: Don’t write in rhyme; follow the traditional narrative arc; get an agent if you want a major publisher. Read on to find out how she did it!

LL: Welcome, Valerie! First, tell us about your book. What inspired you to write this story, and why did you choose to write without a traditional narrative arc?

VB: Thanks for inviting me to share my story, Laura. I want to start by saying that I’m thrilled that you’re using Let’s Dance! in your homeschooling lessons with your child. What an honor!

I was inspired to write Let’s Dance! because most people love to dance! Turn on music, and watch people –young, old, and in between – start to move. My goal was to feature children from all walks – or dances – of life: a boy in a wheelchair, a girl in hijab, a child in a tutu whose gender is indiscernible. I wanted my story to showcase dance in a way that celebrates diversity – and that leaves no doubt that dancing is indeed for everyone!

To share the joy of dance and the message that we are all connected through an activity we enjoy, I didn’t need to tell this story in the traditional way. After all, dance can follow a certain pattern or choreography, or it can be free-flowing like jazz. My pitch for Let’s Dance! was “Dancing is a universal language, even though we all have different ‘accents.’”

Inspirational art from Valerie’s office

LL: I certainly love to dance, myself!

Were you concerned that since the story is told in rhyme, with sparse text, that it might be difficult to sell?

VB: Honestly, Laura, I was somewhat concerned about writing in rhyme because I’d heard so often that, as you said, it’s “difficult to sell” a story that rhymes. Some agents and editors specifically state that writers shouldn’t query them with rhyming manuscripts. I find that interesting because many of young children’s favorite books are those that rhyme. Children love the language and the predictability, and they often begin to memorize these books.

Despite my concern, I forged ahead because I believed that my story could be right for someone. I knew that if an agent or editor was excited by Let’s Dance!, the fact that it rhymed would only be viewed as enhancing the story. After all, the rhythm and cadence of rhyme matches the tempo and flow of dance. That said, I made sure that my rhyme was “tight.” I must’ve done my work well because I wasn’t asked to make any edits! The only editorial requests were to remove two stanzas (to fit the 32-page format) and to add backmatter (to describe each dance).

LL: So, here’s the question I’m really curious about: how did you sell Let’s Dance! to Boyds Mills Press without an agent?

VB: Let’s Dance! was acquired via a “like” in a Twitter pitch. When I sent the manuscript to the editor, Jes, Negrón, she responded in less than two weeks with the news that she wanted to see Let’s Dance! through to publication.

The ultimate goal of any writer who desires to be published traditionally is to land an agent. However, publication without an agent isn’t impossible. Twitter pitches and contests provide excellent opportunities for pre-published authors. Meeting editors at conferences can also provide a direct “in.” In addition, some publishers and small presses will accept unsolicited, unagented manuscripts.

Kuku dance spread from Let’s Dance!

LL: What other “rules” out there do you think writers can break? Do you have any tips for how to break the rules?

VB: Laura, I’m really not sure what specific advice I can offer regarding whether or not to break rules; it all depends upon an agent connecting with a writer’s work and being enthusiastic about championing it to editors … and then an editor has to be interested in acquiring it … and the editor’s team has to agree to publishing it.

There are so many pieces to the puzzle that the best advice I can give is to write the story that you’re passionate about writing; get feedback on it; make multiple revisions; and when you and your critique partners believe it’s ready, start querying.

Some writers worry too much about the perfect title, word count, and rhyme (as we discussed before). Word count can be increased or decreased, titles can change, and a rhyming story can receive editorial suggestions to make it stronger, or it can even be written in prose. If a story is captivating – and, yes, marketable – someone will want to publish it.

LL: This is all great advice!

Let’s end with a fun question. I was a tap and Irish dancer for many years, so I’m curious: what’s your favorite dance from the book?

VB: I actually enjoy all dances, Laura, but there are two from Let’s Dance! that have special meaning for me. I learned kuku in an African dance class I took during college, and I loved it – the quick movements, the invigorating beat of the djembe! Disco, though, is the first music that I danced to, and it is still music that gets me out of my seat today.

Disco spread from Let’s Dance!

LL: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat, Valerie! How can readers connect with you on social media?

VB: Thank you for taking the time to interview me, Laura, and for sharing my responses with your readers. I hope my journey offers inspiration to someone. Remember though: What’s more important than being published is the love of writing, so if you love writing, keep doing it! You may connect with me on social media in the following ways:
Website: valeriebolling.com

Twitter: @valerie_bolling

Instagram: @valeriebollingauthor

If you’d like to order Let’s Dance!, you can do so by clicking on the Books page of my website. There are numerous options for ordering my book, including getting a signed copy!

Valerie Bolling has been an educator for 27 years, and her debut picture book, LET’S DANCE! was published in March. Since her book was released a week before the pandemic shutdown, she has been engaged in virtual storytimes and panels. Immersed in the writing community, Valerie serves as the co-chair of the NESCBWI Equity and Inclusion Team and is a member of SCBWI, the Authors Guild, and NCTE. She is also a 2020 WNDB Mentee and a member of Kid Lit in Color, Black Creators in Kid Lit, #12X12PB, 20/20 Vision Picture Books, and a picture book critique group. Valerie has two books scheduled for release in 2022 and two more slated for 2023.

Hiya pals, Laura here. If you enjoy my blog and want to connect, you can follow me on Twitter and Instagram!

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