I have to confess up front that I never intended to remake the popular children’s song “The Farmer in the Dell.” But when my son (4-years-old at the time) asked if I knew the farmer had taken a wife, the idea of writing a less gender-traditional version took hold in my mind. Perhaps I could tell a different story? Allow kids to ask questions and imagine new possibilities? At the very least, I could add humor and change up the lyrics.
After the decision was made to write The Real Farmer in the Dell (about twenty second later), I sat down and opened up my computer. To write? No. To research. I needed to know a few things first.
When basing a story off of any existing work, it is important to check that the foundational work is within the public domain. That is, it is not protected by copyright or other intellectual property laws and can be used freely. There are many ins-and-outs to what may or may not be part of the public domain, and copyright law is different throughout the world, but it was safe to say “The Farmer in the Dell” had long been part of the public domain.
Clearing that hurdle, I went on to search for other books on the market that might be similar to my idea. Because “The Farmer in the Dell” is so well-known and within the public domain, there was a chance someone had already done what I planned to do, or at least something close to it. Google, Amazon, and Goodreads are all great places to start. It also helps to check out publisher catalogues for the upcoming season(s): it’s possible the book you are looking for is forthcoming.
Since you are reading this now, it’s obvious I found no other books like mine on the market. So, I got back to work again. Writing? No. More research. “The Farmer in the Dell” has been around for almost two hundred years and there are quite a few variations. I wanted to choose the most common way it was told to reach the widest audience. I also needed to understand the meter (rhythm) of the song so that my repeating verse would match and become an easy stand-in for the original words.
With my research complete, I sat down and began to write. I had several objectives. First, change the setting. (What is a dell anyway?) Second, challenge the audience’s expectations. (Maybe it isn’t a farmer? Maybe the farmer doesn’t take a wife?) Then make things more realistic. (Just one dog? Since when does a cat willingly let a dog take it anywhere?) And finally, craft a new ending. (Who wants to read it if there isn’t a twist and fun at the end?)
There was also one important component to put into place. I needed a narrator. One that was believable and who kids would want to follow through the book. After all, it was the REAL story. The question was who? In order to keep things familiar, I chose a character from the original song. Once I settled on the mouse, I was able to punch up and polish the text.
Of course, on the other end of the spectrum from craft and storytelling is the marketing of a book like The Real Farmer in the Dell. I am learning more about this every day; however, there are two things worth mentioning. First, because I did my homework before rewriting such a popular children’s song, my story-time and classroom audiences immediately catch on and recognize the new additions. They react with looks of surprise, giggles, laughter, and cheers. The familiarity mixed with contrast keeps them engaged and guessing throughout.
Related to this is how quickly they pick up the new language and sing along. I often hear from parents days or weeks after my visit that their children sing the new version at night and with friends and siblings. It is not only the best “word of mouth” advertising I could ask for; it is a truly wonderful feeling.
Today’s post comes from Sandra Sutter in celebration of her debut picture book The Real Farmer in the Dell, released earlier this year with Clear Fork Publishing. You can find the book on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Book Depository. Congratulations, Sandra!
About Sandra Sutter
Sandra is a former counselor and attorney turned children’s book author and a master finder of silver linings. Originally from the beautiful Front Range of Northern Colorado, she now lives in the heart of Kentucky’s Bluegrass with her husband and two spunky kids. Her debut picture book, The Real Farmer in the Dell, came out in March with Spork, an imprint of Clear Fork Publishing. A second, Stan’s Frightfully Clumsy Halloween, is set to come out later this year, also with Clear Fork Publishing. You can learn more about Sandra on her website or follow her on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.