Rhyme Time

Oh, the poor rhyming picture book. Love them or hate them, they are a much discussed topic among picture book folk. Some label them outdated, or old fashioned, and some believe they are the only true picture book style. I like to camp somewhere in the middle.

A good rhyming picture book is marvelous, and a bad rhyme is like a new pop-star sans autotune. But how do we tell the difference? I’ll give you some examples.

Dr. Seuss is the most often imitated rhymer, and for good reason. His stories are bouncy and weird and fun to read out loud. The rhyme propels the reader forward building momentum like a bobsled race. You can’t stop mid-line, or even mid-story without feeling like you might cause an 80-word pileup behind. But, as a former colleague once noted, “Dr. Seuss ruined rhyming picture books forever.”

I agree. Dr. Seuss is Dr. Seuss, and you, I am sorry to say, are not. When I read submissions that follow his particular rhyme scheme, I’m not impressed. First of all, I think the author isn’t totally innovative. Second, his texts are long by today’s standards. Have you read the Cat in the Hat lately? It’s 1621 words, and 61 pages, which is about twice as long (in word count and page count) as today’s picture books. It’s also 59 years old this year, so.

My point is that it takes a LOT of words to keep to that rhythm and make it tell a story.

But borrowing an innovator’s style isn’t the worst offense. I also see a lot of submissions which keep to a rhyme scheme, but force the words into an odd, unnatural structure. For instance (made up by me):

The temperature was ten below

But off to school Babs did go

This is a case of rhyme before language, and rhyme before story. In the first line, temperature gives a nice rhythm, but no one actually refers to that word when talking about the subject. Natural English is more likely to use “it” because we don’t talk about anything else being ten below. It’s implied we’re talking about degrees. The second line is completely backward. Babs went off to school is more natural. She did go in this context is nothing anyone would ever say, so please don’t put it, or anything that doesn’t sound the way people speak, in your rhyming text. EVER. (In a better text, this would simply say “It was freezing, but Babs went to school anyway,” saving you three precious words to use later.)

So what makes good rhyme then? Ah, the million dollar question. I have been thinking about this a lot. We live in an age of innovation in music, and why shouldn’t that carry over into our texts as well? Why write a plodding ABAB phrase when you can get jiggy? Seems like the whole world has been listening to Hamilton (whose creator won a MacArthur Genius Grant, just sayin’) because it’s thrilling. It’s fresh and cool and mind-blowing. Why shouldn’t picture books do that too? Hip hop isn’t the niche it once was, and authors can find inspiration in how it’s put together. Go back and read your beat poetry collections from college. Or read new poetry for inspiration.

Here are some examples of recent rhyming texts which are doing it right:

I Stink! (the whole series) by Kate McMullan and Jim McMullan

Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry and Tom Lichtenheld

Some Bugs by Angela DiTerlizzi and Brendan Wenzel

Counting Crows by Kathi Appelt and Rob Dunlavy

Skippyjon Jones (the whole series) by Judy Schachner

Iggy Peck, Architect by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts

These texts tell a story using rhyme in some way, but come at it with syncopation and a jazzy sensibility. Or they use really modern language in fun, off-kilter ways. Because of that, they feel new and interesting and original. Do all rhyming texts need to be that way? Not really. For example, a bedtime book probably needs to be more regular and soothing.

Many editors say they won’t even consider rhyming books. If you’re just getting your feet wet in picture books, I generally advise staying away from rhyme. Picture books are the hardest thing in the world to write, so why give yourself the added challenge of rhyme? But if you’re up to it, dig in. Don’t rhyme because you think you have to. Do it because you want to write a powerful, tantalizing rhyme that will make an agent or editor dance. Be the exception to the rule.

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