by Sarah Diamond
Last month, we discussed the novel-in-verse and its recent boom in the young adult market. This month we will dive into the enduring popularity of its younger sibling, the poetic picture book–specifically, the rhyming picture book. Ever since Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss made their respective marks on the cultural landscape, people have associated picture books with rhyming verse. However, writing in verse requires a cautionary approach. Picture Book writers are often warned to avoid doing this because 1.) unless you are a master of poetic form, the rhyme and meter can appear sloppy and unprofessional; and 2.) rhyme is sometimes perceived as being overly precious. For the purpose of this article, we spoke with several successful poetic picture book writers to get their perspective on the age-old question: To rhyme or not to rhyme?
Jane Yolen is the celebrated author of more than 365 books, including many poetic picture books, both rhymed and unrhymed. In her popular How Do Dinosaurs series, each book is structured around sets of rhyming couplets, a friendly cadence that sticks in the brain. She believes that rhymes are an enduring art form “because they are ear-worms. Musical. Small children love the sounds. Before the children are fully lingual they can repeat rhymes, songs, ditties.” Yolen recalls a birthday party she recently attended where the guests, who ranged in age from 19 to 79, were encouraged to perform recitations. “When it was my turn, I began [Lewis Carroll’s] ‘Jabberwocky’—and everyone, from the 19-year-old up, began reciting it with me. That’s the power of children’s poetry!”
Carole Boston Weatherford uses rhyme to influence tone and mood in Jazz Baby and The Sound that Jazz Makes. “The cryptic rhyme, I believe, lends drama. Rhyme is ideal for musical topics,” she says. “Take Freedom in Congo Square, which is a rhyming concept book about slavery and a place in New Orleans where African traditions were practiced and preserved, giving birth to jazz. I also use rhyme in my latest book, How Sweet the Sound: The Story of Amazing Grace, which is a biography of the hymn writer but also a chronicle of how the song has been used throughout history.” Beyond evoking an authentic time and place in a work, rhyme can also be beneficial to young readers. As Weatherford reports, “research shows that a child who knows nursery rhymes by age four will be a strong reader by age eight.” The Center for Early Literacy Learning at the Orelena Hawks Puckett Institute recently found a positive correlation between children’s phonological and print-related skills and familiarity with nursery rhymes. Children who could recite nursery rhymes and play rhyming games tended to have higher skills in vocabulary, alphabet mastery, and reading comprehension.
Based on this evidence, its not surprising that so many picture book authors use rhyme in their work. But Yolen and Weatherford caution not to rush in and use rhyme just for the sake of it, if it doesn’t serve the story. Weatherford says, “the narrative must take precedence over the need to rhyme. Don’t let rhyme dictate word choice.” Yolen reflects on her 1987 book Owl Moon (with Caldecott-winning illustrations by John Schoenherr), a poem in free verse that did not rhyme, and decides that it “would be a disaster as a rhymed book and lose all its mastery and elegance. Each book tells me what it needs.”
Andrea Beaty, author of Rosie Revere, Engineer, also emphasizes that while every picture book is in some sense a poem, they don’t all need to be in verse. “Bad rhymes grate on the nerves and even good rhyme can distract from a story by taking center stage. I think that books should only be in rhyme when the rhyme helps drive the story itself. It never works to write in rhyme as a means to fill a niche or target a perceived audience. Such an endeavor falls flat and lacks authenticity. It sounds like a copout, but I think that people either have a good sense of rhyme and what works or they don’t. If rhyme does not come naturally to you—and most importantly—if the book does not demand that it be written in rhyme, don’t do it.”
Sometimes the instinct to rhyme does come organically, as was the case with Beaty’s best-selling books Rosie Revere, Engineer; Iggy Peck, Architect; and Ada Twist, Scientist. Beaty describes that process, and how she knew when it was right for her work: “When a rhyming book comes to me, it arrives like the faint strains of a song heard through the walls of a house. Distant. Indistinct. But, catchy. I can make out the melody and maybe a snippet of text but not more than that. I let the melody play in the background of my mind over a long period of time before I really start trying to capture it. When I start to write things down, I don’t know where the story is going to go or what’s going to happen. Often, that is dictated by the rhyme. A key example is in Iggy Peck, Architect when the class goes on an adventure. I didn’t know where they were going to go until I explored words describing what people might build. They make buildings, houses, bridges… Bridges are interesting! So I looked for various synonyms to bridges and struck upon the word “trestle.” Ultimately, it led the class to cross a small trestle to a small island nestled in the heart of a burbling stream. From there, a tragic bridge collapse occurred and the story found its crisis. I let the story unfold because of the rhyme.”
Once the inspiration strikes, then comes the hard part of completing a manuscript. Writing verse can be incredibly difficult, especially if a rhyme must come at the end of every line. When Beaty gets stuck on a particular word, she uses a rhyming dictionary, which categorizes lists of rhyming words to spark inspiration. Weatherford, who also uses this tool, recommends rhymezone.com, a free website that provides all the possible matches for any given word, grouped by number of syllables. When Beaty needs more words on a specific topic, she uses a reverse dictionary, which categorizes words around a broader theme. “For instance, the entry under horse describes all kinds of things associated with horses such as breeds, horse riding equipment, and horse diseases.”
This attention to detail pays off down the line, both before and after publication. Brein Lopez, manager of Children’s Book World in Los Angeles, says that the barrier to entry is high for rhyming picture books, which are difficult to execute well. “Nine times out of ten we will reject a title because it’s a rhyming book that doesn’t have really terrific rhymes,” he says. “It’s beautiful when it happens well, but if the rhymes don’t scan or are too obvious, it doesn’t work. A lot of authors think it’s automatically where they should go, but they actually might face more rejections because of it.” Lopez estimates that of the new picture book titles the store accepts every year, around 20% are rhymers.
While it’s easy to get hung up on individual rhymes, a poetic manuscript really lives or dies by the meter, or rhythmic structure, of the verse. This is a mistake that plagues some beginner authors who try to squeeze too many words into a line or let the stress fall on the wrong syllable. That’s why it is essential to read your work aloud, as it will inevitably sound different in your head to when a parent tries to read aloud to their child. Jane Yolen recommends also having someone else read the poem aloud and listening carefully to their interpretation of the rhythm. “A poet can read their own poem aloud and make the scansion work. But having another reader reading it aloud will show you immediately where things don’t line up at all.” Lopez suggests studying the work of Mem Fox (Possum Magic) and Julia Donaldson (The Gruffalo), rhythmic masters who set the gold standard for how rhyming books should sound.
The other thing that Fox and Donaldson have in common with other successful picture book poets is a commitment to character and story, not just charming language. Lopez says that he and his fellow booksellers are weary of books that are “vague and generalize about hopes and ideals” at the expense of telling a good story. He believes that at the end of the day, readers respond to books that combine style and substance into an unforgettable read. His favorite recent example is One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree by Daniel Bernstrom, a fresh take on a trickster folk tale that employs delightful, musical rhyme to tell the story.
One day in the leaves
of the eucalyptus tree
hung a scare in the air
where no eyes could see,
when along skipped a boy
with a whirly-twirly toy
to the shade of the eucalyptus,
-Daniel Bernstrom, One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree (HarperCollins 2016).
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