Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: Learning from a Mentor Text

Remember the old childhood rhyme where you’d make a church out of your hands, index fingers pointed together in a steeple?
Here is the church
And here is the steeple.
Open the doors
And see all the people
That old rhyme has a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that goes like this:
DAH da da DAH.
DAH da da DAH da.
DAH da da DAH
(da) DAH da da DAH da.

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Author Hena Khan’s beautiful picture book GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini, uses a similar pattern as it explores colors through the eyes of a Muslim child.
RED is the RUG
Dad KNEELS on to PRAY,
FACing toward MECca,
FIVE times a DAY.
We see this pattern predicted throughout the book’s lushly illustrated pages. It’s simple and predictable – perfect for this group’s preschool and early primary readers.
Blue is the hijab…
Gold is the dome…
White is the kufi…
Black is the ink…
Brown is the date…
Orange is the color…
It’s important to note that when you’re writing verse like this, the rhythm doesn’t have to be exact. An extra unstressed syllable at the beginning of a line isn’t a deal breaker. But the overall pattern still has to be there. It has to work when you read it aloud.
Reading aloud is a great way to find out if your rhyming picture book text is working, but it’s not perfect. Sometimes when we read our own work aloud, we can force a rhythm to sound okay by the way we read it.  If you really want to know if the meter is working, don’t just read it yourself. Hand it off to someone else to read aloud for you. Does the verse roll off their tongue in the rhythm you intended? Or do they stumble a little here and there? That will tell you where your meter might still need work.
Now let’s take a look at the rhyme in this book. One of the trickiest things about writing picture books like this one is that it’s not enough to find two words that rhyme. They have to be the right words.  And in this case, Hena had the added challenge of working with some very specific language that relates to Muslim traditions and culture – words like Eid, hijab, kufi, Quran, and deen. For some of those, she chose to use related words as her two rhymes:
White is a kufi,
Round and flat.
Grandpa wears
This traditional hat.
One of the biggest mistakes writers make in rhyming stories is forcing a rhyme with a word like kufi. In less capable hands, this page might have written to describe how Grandpa’s kufi was flat and not poofy. But that sounds forced and (wait for it…) kind of goofy. Silly rhymes have their place in the world, but not in a lovely book about faith and culture. So instead, Hena chose rhymes that work without being distracting:
Yellow is the box
We fill on Eid
With gifts of zakat
For those in need
Eid is an easier word to rhyme, so this works in a way that’s conversational and natural.
Knowing how tricky rhyming picture books can be, I asked Hena if she’d share a little more about her process.

“I first decided that it was going to be a concept book and that I would follow the pattern ‘red is,’ ‘blue is,’ etc,” she said. “And at some point I decided that each page would have a ‘glossary’ word (that wasn’t the case initially I think it was more mixed). I wanted to introduce the object or concept in a rhyming couplet! And then it was kind of a puzzle figuring it all out. I wanted to try to include many of the major aspects of Islam—prayer, zakat, fasting, along with some lighter cultural things like henna and lanterns. Some colors were determined by the object like gold being the dome or orange being henna, and others were more arbitrary.”

“When it came to the meter and rhyme, I did it by ear, and then started to count syllables to make sure the lines were somewhat even. I read it aloud and listening to where the stresses of the words fell. I wanted to vary it so it didn’t sound monotonous.” 

Hena shared her first finished draft with me — and noted that this early rhyme is one that makes her laugh now. Notice how much more natural and poetic her revised lines (above) feel compared to this: 

Yellow is a box filled with stuff, 
Zakat, for those who don’t have enough.

Hena is a pro when it comes to revising rhyme. But sometimes, less experienced writers put rhyme first and story second. That’s something Chronicle Books editor Melissa Manlove talked about when I asked her about common pitfalls with rhyming picture books.
“So often I see a plot that’s driven by rhyme, or a pace that’s driven by rhyme, or syntax that’s driven by rhyme. Rhyme should at most be the background to those things, not the thing that changes the writer’s choices. If you think of a narrative as a path the readers follows, then plot determines where the path goes, pace determines how straight it goes there, and syntax is a big part of who’s acting as guide. Rhyme should be no more than the texture of the path underfoot.”

On that note, I’ll send you off with a short assignment. Remember last week’s writing about gratitude, using Traci Sorell’s WE ARE GRATEFUL: OSTALIHELIGA as a mentor text?  I’m going to ask you to reimagine that idea as a rhyming picture book. Make a list of some of the words you know you’ll want to include – elements of a tradition or culture or season. And then have a go at it, using Hena’s GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS as a mentor text. You can try the same rhyme scheme if you’d like, or use a different one. When you finish a few lines, read out loud and see how the meter’s working out.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at a different rhyming picture book – with a different purpose – to see how another writer made choices about meter and rhyme.
When you can, please take the time to read these two interviews with Hena, too!

15 Replies on “Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: Learning from a Mentor Text

  1. Both books and the impending bike riding day with my sister inspired this first draft. There are some forced rhymes, but I don’t hate it. (Today.)

    Yellow is the start of a smiling summer day.
    Everything outside is the plan for today.
    My bike ride is blue on a path filled with green.
    Red cardinals, brown deer, and a chipmunk are seen.
    Late afternoon the clouds become dark. A booming thunderstorm with golden yellow lighting sparks.
    The family BBQ brings a swirly orange sky.
    Then it’s yellow again while we catch fireflies.
    I yawn as silver stars fill up the night,
    And I think what fun awaits with tomorrow’s morning light.

  2. Mine is very simple. Maureen, you expanded yours.

    A cat as black as night
    goes prowling down the street;
    he looks both left and right
    to find a tasty treat.

    Thanks, Kate, for the exercise.

  3. I love both of these mentor texts! Thanks again for these assignments. Here is my attempt. I would like to add more because this was fun.

    Afraid are my eyes,
    Wide and brown
    Snakes wriggle
    with a hissing sound.

    Silly is my laugh,
    giggles and hoots.
    Dad tickles
    after I take off my boot.

    Sad is my face
    tears and red.
    Mom stressed that
    it is time for bed.

    1. I like that you swapped out colors for your emotions – an interesting twist that works so well in your poem. Great idea!

  4. Here’s a go at capturing some of our weekend trip using the colors from our mentor text and Kate’s thoughts on rhyming text. I love to read books in rhyme; there sure is a trick to writing it!

    Pack the trunk tight
    Arrange it just so
    Then two and a half hours
    Up north we will go

    Yellow is the sun
    That will light up our days
    A quick weekend trip
    To relax in its rays

    Tan is the sand
    That slips ‘tween our toes
    It warms our feet
    Sea breeze tickles my nose

    White is the foam
    Waves wash to the shore
    Tiny bubbles fill footprints
    Made moments before

    Blue is the bucket
    Filled swiftly with sand
    Then dumped on its head
    So a castle will stand

    Orange is the laughter
    Music to my ears
    Three littles at water’s edge
    Erupting in cheers

    Green is the grass
    Surrounding the beach
    A little pocket
    Where the world cannot reach

  5. Revised my We Are Grateful piece from July 9 into a rhyme:

    Original from July 9:
    When school bells ring and students return, we are grateful.
    As lessons are planned and funny stories are shared, we are grateful.
    The cool breezes blow and children’s laughter fills the air, we are grateful.

    Revised in Rhyme July 16:
    As school bells ring
    and students return
    we are grateful
    for what we will learn.

    Lessons are planned
    fun stories are shared
    we are grateful
    that we are prepared.

    Autumn winds blow
    students’ growth abounds
    we are grateful
    new knowledge we’ve found.

  6. This is the rewriting of my story from last week about our summer home in wisconsin.

    When school is out
    The sun hot on our skin
    We pack the car
    And our road trip begins

    2 days in the car
    Then we’re finally there
    When time slows down
    And we breathe the fresh air

    Grey is the house
    Built a century ago
    By great grandad Elliot
    How did he know

    Blue is the water
    Clear and cold
    Or scuzzy and warm
    Depends how the wind blows

    White are the steps
    Where we site every year
    To take the picture
    To show who was here

    Green is the grass
    Where the old teach the young
    To play games without batteries
    Like Freezetag and Spud

    Brown is the table
    3 generations eat
    Sometimes 30 people
    And we all have a seat

    Orange is the sunset
    Painting the sky
    As the sun goes down
    And we wave it good-bye

    Black is the night
    Only lit by the moon
    The sound of the waves
    Our lullaby tune

    1. Love all the sensory language, and the way you transition from day to night! Great job!