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.
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.
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!