Rhyming Picture Books Aren’t So Scary

A lot of picture book writers are flummoxed by verse. Maybe you like to write in it, but think editors don’t like rhyming texts. Maybe you can’t really rhyme that well, but feel you should when writing for children. So you ask, “Tamson! What do I do? Should my picture book be in verse? Don’t editors hate verse? Should I take the rhyme out?”

It’s complicated, the rhyming, and it should be treated as such. A lot of novice verse is very, very bad and there can be a visceral reaction to bad verse. Any given picture book editor may have been so inundated with manuscripts that try to mimic Dr. Seuss (who’s so distinctive as to be nearly inimitable) that they’ve developed a knee-jerk reaction to it. It’s sort of like post-traumatic stress. So someone who was heretofore unfazed by couplets starts to flee from them in a panic, or bar the doors to them forever. You can break through, but it won’t be easy. The path to good verse is paved with the same stuff as all other good writing: work. In other words, just because it’s shorter, doesn’t mean there’s a short cut. But here are a few ideas to help you along the way.

1. Try lots of stuff. “First thought best thought” may have worked for Allen Ginsburg, but the rest of us have to work a little harder. Don’t go with the first thing that pops into your head. Try as many different variations as you can come up with. If one line works okay, then find an even better one. Then try for one that’s transcendent. Some poets try hundreds of combinations! See an example below.

2. Use a rhyming dictionary. It’s not cheating. Really. Just because you have a good rhyme in your head, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see what else is out there. And just because you can’t think of a rhyme for orange, that doesn’t mean you should give up on ending a line with it. You should use every tool at your disposal: A rhyming dictionary, thesaurus, a book on versification….If you can write a decent couplet without these tools, just think of how good it could be when you use them.

3. Write in different forms. Poetry is like doing a special word puzzle. There’s something about rules that can force us into our best work. As I said, you shouldn’t just fall back on the first thing that comes to mind, and writing in different forms forces you to find creative solutions.

4. Make sure your word choice works in context. Sometimes two words may seem to rhyme on their own, but when you nestle them in with the rest of the poem they become awkward due to the way the stresses fall on each syllable. Which leads me to….

5. Read your poem out loud. It’s the only way to know if it’s really working.  Things that make sense in your head become awkward when read out loud. Reading aloud is a tried and true test for writing anything in verse (and prose, too, actually!).

6. Scan everything in sight. Despite what some may say, meter is not  a science. That said, there are words with a definite stress pattern, and there are words that we naturally emphasize in a certain context. The best way to get a sense of this is to scan lots of different things–poems and prose. It will give you a feeling for the natural rhythm of your language and how to make the best use of it in your work.

7. Listen to music. Poetry is music. Anything that can get a sense of rhythm or “flow” into your ear will inspire you to write good verse. Just be careful of mimicking a songwriting style. The rules for writing lyrics are a bit looser than they are for writing a poem or a manuscript in verse that’s meant to be read aloud. When words are sung the vowel sounds may be altered and syllables drawn out to fit the structure of the song better. Your rhymes should be perfect—don’t fudge it.

8. Consult the masters. Shakespeare, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Karla Kuskin, Margaret Wise Brown….Okay, here I’m stretching the definition to fit any person who writes in rhyme and inspires you. Read their work. Rewrite it in your own hand. Memorize it. Copy it. Write a sonnet, villianelle, quatrain that mimics the line length, rhyme scheme, themes of one of your favorite poets. Then start again from scratch. You’ll be glad you did.

**Bonus rule! After you’ve done all of this—and only after you’ve tried your hand at perfecting verse—break the rules! Add an extra syllable to a line here and there—just for emphasis. “Springing the rhythm” will make your writing sound a little more organic and less “square” or stilted. Don’t over do it, though. A little goes a long way.

Bill Knott works very, very hard.

One Comment

  1. Posted May 24, 2014 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    I’ve been writing rhyming stories from the age of eight.
    Still waiting for a publisher to open this authors gate.
    I have “Blue Bananas and the Big Bad Bully Baboon,
    who beats his chest and howls grossly out of tune.
    Then I have “Ground-hog Della-may,
    who sticks her nose in everyones way.
    Then, Bowser the Big Black and Brown Bear who is so unique,
    he finds himself in Mrs. Beasley’s Blue Bonnet Boutique.
    I’ve more stories, teachers,and librarians say to mention,
    At fifty-three, no publisher sees, my work gets little attention.

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