Rhyming Picture Books: Q&A with Hena Khan and Martha Brockenbrough

This week, we’ve been learning from two incredible rhyming picture books as mentor texts, and now we get to learn from the authors of those books!
What craft questions would you like to ask Hena Khan, author of GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS and Martha Brockenbrough, author of CHEERFUL CHICK?  Are you wondering how they revised their early drafts? Whether they use rhyming dictionaries? How they check to make sure the meter works in each line? Now’s the time to ask! 
Hena and Martha will be stopping by my blog today to chat and answer questions, so feel free to post your questions in the comments!

33 Replies on “Rhyming Picture Books: Q&A with Hena Khan and Martha Brockenbrough

  1. Good morning Hena and Martha! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer questions today.

    I have one story that I was asked me to rewrite in rhyme, which I found incredibly challenging. Can you share expand on any revision tips or tricks that you used during the process? Hena, I so appreciated you sharing an early draft of GOLDEN DOMES!

    1. Hi, Angela. Wasn’t GOLDEN DOMES amazing? That book … it makes me feel humbled.

      So you’re in great shape to do this, because you already have your story and your character. This will help keep you from the Great Rhyming Sins that Kate talked about: forced and cheesy rhymes.

      One of the first things you’re going to want to do is figure out the rhythm of your book. In my opinion, rhythm is more important than rhyming. With rhythm, the book will feel lyrical even if it doesn’t rhyme.

      A critical skill here is scansion, which I learned in college while studying Ancient Greek. My parents thought this was useless, but boy have I proved THEM wrong. Suckers! (Just kidding. I love them.)

      Here’s an introduction to it.

      You might find a bunch of rhyming picture books and mark out how their meters come together. Type up the text, print it out, and mark away.

      Once you’ve found a meter that feels right to you, write the opening of your story. And then think about every spread in your draft, and imagine those in that same meter.

      As far as rhyming goes, well, a good rhyming dictionary is your friend. Just remember that the word that’s rhyming will get extra emphasis, so make it one that’s important to the character, the conflict, and the story. You might circle those in your draft, and then come up with a list of rhymes.

      It sounds silly, but my college roommate and I used to talk to each other in iambic pentameter. And remember how Fezzic in Princess Bride used to rhyme things? If you make this a game that you play on the regular, you will get good at it.

      1. You both are the best, thanks!

        I love Princess Bride! And that is a super cute idea! These are such great suggestions.

        I found that it helps me to write by ear first, and try to keep the number of syllables in each line roughly the same. My first draft of Golden Domes was actually only two lines in my draft, but then we broke them up into four. Next I went back and wrote in bold where the stress falls in each line and then helped me find a pattern and make sure that there was one!

        It helped me to read aloud, and then have a couple different people read aloud, to see if they put the stress somewhere different.

        I also used a rhyming dictionary! Rhyme zone is the best tool ever!

        I hope this helps! Good luck!

        1. Thank you so much, Martha and Hena! I love the idea of marking the stress in bold— I hadn’t tried that yet and it’s such a good tip. And of course, I always love a good Princess Bride reference.

  2. Hena and Martha,

    How many revisions did each of your books go through? What is your attitude toward the revision process? My students often revise reluctantly. They struggle to see their work in a new way and enjoy getting their ideas down on paper, but not fixing them up. I know my question expands up on Angela’s question above, but anything additional that you could share that I could relay to my writing students would be wonderful. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and work with us.

    1. When I do school visits, I often have the kids guess how many times I revised my first picture book, The Dinosaur Tooth Fairy. I have A HUNDRED drafts of that story.

      They are all horrified and perhaps impressed.

      Here’s the thing: We often train kids in school that there is a right answer. That there is a good grade. And because kids are rational, they want to get that on the first time around so there is time to do things they love.

      So, making writing land on that list of things they love is important. When they are playing at recess? That’s research. How does it feel to go down a slide? To kick a goal and miss? When they are playing video games, that’s research. The feeling of shooting an alien? That satisfies the same part of the brain that a plot development does.

      This is one of the things revision can help us do: make our stories feel truer, more authentic, more specific. That requires experience in the world and of all of the human emotions.

      No writer gets all of this right on the first draft. The ones who become authors are the ones who are willing to stick with it and turn revising into a source of satisfaction. The more you can show kids how they already know revision–they know how to practice shooting baskets, they know how to keep trying to draw things, they know how to play games and get better–the more they might accept that writing is a process. (And if rewards can focus on that, rather than the end result, all the better in the long term academically.)

      1. I’m not the one who asked the question but I certainly LOVE your answer!

        Such wisdom:
        “This is one of the things revision can help us do: make our stories feel truer, more authentic, more specific. That requires experience in the world and of all of the human emotions.”

        Awesome!!! (BTW, I have 102 drafts of one of my books!)

      2. I love this reply! I also have many students who are reluctant to revise and have a hard time even knowing where to start. The ideas of recess and video games as “research” and practicing games, drawing, etc as “revision” are excellent! I will definitely share those with my incoming class this Fall

      3. I love this analogy! Thank you for this! As a teacher I have always found the revision process the biggest struggle for my students. As a special education teacher, the process can be even more painful. You have just re-inspired my teaching!

    2. I don’t think I kept count of how many revisions of my first draft I did. I just worked on it until I thought it was as good as I could get it without help! And then I had several rounds of revisions with friends and readers before submitting to my editor, who then went back and forth with me many more times.

      One thing I tell kids when I go on school visits is that revision isn’t really separate from writing, and that it’s a shame that it has this negative connotation. I also confess that I hated revising as a kid too, but that I realize it was because I took it as criticism, and I felt that red ink meant that I didn’t do a good enough job the first time around. Now I can see it differently but it was hard as a kid, and I wonder if showing first and last drafts is the best way to showcase this. Or maybe a fun exercise could be to take a published masterpiece and imagine some really bad or unoriginal sentences or language that could have been there before!

  3. Hena and Martha,
    I truly enjoyed reading your books and especially using them as mentor texts! My summer school class also loved hearing them–several times! One of my struggling readers said, “It sounds so fun to read!” Made my day!

    My questions are: When you decided (or it was decided for you) to use rhyme in your work, how did you decide on the pattern of the meter? How do you check that it actually works?

    1. Sue, check my first answer.

      In short, it’s scansion. I mark up my pages. https://anniefinch.com/how-to-scan-a-poem/

      As far as deciding what meter I want to use, well, the subject can inform that. I had actual cheers in an early draft, and I listened to a lot of cheers. What came out as I envisioned how I wanted that first stanza to feel to a reader ended up serving pretty well.

      Whatever you choose, it’s a creative constraint. You will come up with more inventive language because of the constraint (kind of the way that you can build a tower of water using a glass vase–something you could not otherwise do with liquid).

    2. Hi Sue! That’s so great to hear! I also addressed the checking to see it works part above in my first response. Regarding the pattern of the mater, honestly it was accidental. Maybe I had the “this is the church” pattern Kate mentioned on my mind?

      I decided to use rhyme because I wrote the first color “red is the rug…” and liked it! In fact my editor told me that I didn’t HAVE TO make the book rhyme, especially since some of the earlier versions were so forced. But for me, once I got rhyme on the brain I couldn’t imagine the book NOT rhyming. And then I was stuck! 🙂

      It got trickier for the follow up book I wrote, Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets, and now I’m finalizing a third book in the series, a number concept. The challenge is the pattern, and saying something meaningful and defining and having it make sense and introduce a term!

  4. Hena and Martha,
    Thank you for taking the time to answer questions, and I enjoyed your books so much. I am interested in the questions that Kate posed. Do you use rhyming dictionaries, and how do you check to see if the meter works in each line? Thanks again!

    1. Hi, Kay!

      I do use rhyming dictionaries. Rhymezone.com is a useful service. Sometimes you can make a rhyme out of more than one word. (Easy and peach tea would rhyme, and also match meter. LONGshort. LONG short.)

      Practice by marking up lines. You can also clap your rhythm out so that it’s in your ears. And then you have to keep yourself honest and not do any emPHAsis shifts that a typical reader wouldn’t know to use.

    2. Yes, please read through my earlier answers too if you have a chance!

      I do use a rhyming dictionary, the online rhyme zone is a good one and helped me a LOT. And it makes me feel legit to hear that Martha uses it too! 🙂

      Meter is more by ear, by bolding the stress in each word, and by counting syllables (or tapping them out) on my fingers!

      1. Oh and I will add that I had one editor who was very particular about meter and wanted it to be absolutely perfect, whereas I think an extra syllable here and there won’t ruin a book as much as a forced or awkward rhyme will.

  5. Hi Hena and Martha, TY for being here for us and answering questions.I know I don’t have the ear to hear rhythm, but I enjoy rhyme. I do use internal rhyme in some of my mss. Do I follow Martha’s suggestion to mark up mentor texts? Also, TY for UNPRESIDENTED, Martha, and Hena, I love all your work, especially AMINA’S VOICE.

    1. Internal rhyme is GREAT.

      Lin Manuel Miranda uses it in Hamilton. For a whole bunch of analysis of this, check out the Wall Street Journal: http://graphics.wsj.com/hamilton/

      If your goal is to write lyrically, then you are all set! If you want to write a successful rhyming picture book, you’re going to have to work on the rhythm. My guess is that you are better at it than you suspect. You just don’t know that you do it every time you pronounce a word with correct emphasis.

      But you know what? You don’t have to worry about being good at it. Just practice it. This is the music of language, and everybody gets to sing along.

      1. Martha, love this answer. I will look at the link and like your everyday analogy – I may sing PBs to myself! (Rhyming ones.) I’ve been told I write lyrically. I’ve read poetry since 5th grade. TY.

    2. Thank you so much! That is so nice to hear!!! 🙂

      Everyone has the ear to hear rhythm, I think, if I have it. It’s nothing but where you put stress on a word. If it helps, mark them up for sure, or write them and put the stress part of the word in bold or all caps.

      I don’t think I can immediately tell in other texts where the rhythm falls without some effort and reading aloud a few times. I know you can do it!

  6. Martha and Hena, thank you so much for your wonderful books and your (very helpful) advice today! This week’s writing was really challenging and I felt like most of my rhymes were too silly to post! The advice to start with a list of the words you want to emphasize is helping me to think about what I want to say with my writing.

    Martha, I think I heard that “Cheerful Chick” was originally written in prose. Did you (or Hena) find it easier to work from prose to rhyme, or do you usually just set out to write a book that rhymes?

    Again, thank you so much for your books and thoughts on writing today!

    1. Hi, Beth:

      There are as many approaches to writing books as there are books–which I know isn’t a helpful answer. But I think it’s true.

      Cheerful Chick was prose first. The advantage of that, for me, was that I knew the character and the story. I really had one challenge in the revision, which was to translate everything into a metered rhyme scheme.

      Character and story arc can be difficult in picture books, so having solved those challenges helped me. But I can see how someone would take the opposite approach and have it work.

      I can also see how someone might imagine a story in pictures, sketch those out, and then write the text.

      Books that rhyme are really fun to read, and the predictability of the rhyme is pleasurable for kids’ brains (I’m researching this topic now!). So it’s definitely a worthy pursuit, and my best advice is for you to find your way into your story however you can. Think really hard about the emotional experience you want the reader to have, and find your way into those emotional moments as you write.

      And then don’t be afraid to revise and to try totally different approaches to the same idea. The work is really understanding what you’re wanting to say about some aspect of the human experience. Cheerful Chick is, in many ways, about loving something and pursuing excellence and trusting that good things will come as a result. What do you believe, and how can you translate that into story?

    2. All of the picture books I’ve written in rhyme (4 out of 5) were started off as rhyming books. I do have one coming out in the spring that I didn’t intend to have rhyme, but in the end, it felt like it was tied together better if it did so I changed it.

      I think Kate’s point about setting out to tell your story and not letting the rhyme rule is KEY. Otherwise I think they do get forced or silly, in my own experience!

      And like anything else, I think it takes practice and teamwork! I’m sure you can do it if I can!

  7. Hi, Martha and Hena. I’ve always really enjoyed rhyming picture books because they can be so lyrical. Both of your books struck me as wonderful examples of that! Before our discussions in Teachers Write this week, I hadn’t given much thought to the fact that some people do not enjoy rhyming books so much (Who wouldn’t??But, like anything else, I suppose, we all have our preferences). When it came time to publish, did either of you find that it was more difficult to find a niche for a rhyming book? Did the poetic elements create an additional or more complicated layer in the revising/editing process for you? Or was your experience similar to that of working through any other picture book?

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences. This is a whole new and exciting world for me!

    1. I didn’t find it more difficult in terms of publishing. My first PB was prose, and then Golden Domes was rhyming. As I mentioned above, I was the one who decided to make it rhyme because I liked the way it flowed and I think I might have been self conscious about it lacking a story arc since it is a concept and felt that it added another layer to the book.

      That said, it definitely added complexity since I had to work with the color, the item or concept, the description and the rhythm and rhyme! It felt like a puzzle but I enjoyed the challenge and was happy in the end that it rhymed, because I can’t imagine it any other way.

    2. Hello, Breannen.

      I second Hena’s observations that the constraints can make it feel like a puzzle. For the writer, that can be maddening–but also thrilling when the puzzle is solved! And I think for the reader/listener, those solutions we have crafted also give pleasure because they’re feeling the puzzle be worked out in a surprising and inevitable way.

      With PBs, the hard part is always making them feel original and necessary. What new thing are you saying? What new way have you found to say it? Whether it’s rhyme or prose, that is the primary challenge. And of course, we have to leave room for the illustrator, who brings half the story to the page. That requires trust on the part of the writer, plus a lot of practice in knowing what to leave out.

  8. I’ve learned so much this week! Thank you so much Martha, Hena, and Kate for sharing your insights and expertise. My question is in regards to revising: How do you decide when you’re done? Unlike my students, I don’t have a problem with needing to revise/edit. My problem is that whenever I think I’m finished, when I revisit the text, I feel like I need to keep tweaking and have trouble reaching a state of complete satisfaction.

    1. That is such a great question, and one I can completely relate to! I keep tweaking until the text is in final layouts! I try to stop after copyedits, but it’s hard sometime. I think in general, you will at some point feel like it is mostly done, or as done as you can live with, but I think it’s the sign of a good writer to not have total satisfaction. I don’t think I have that still, with any of my published books!

      Good luck to you, and thanks!

    2. Kristi,

      If I am still making tweaks to my manuscript, I don’t let it go. For me, it is fairly rare to make changes as late in the publishing process as Hena does—editors work differently! (And this is a wonderful thing, a reminder that there isn’t formula as much as their is trust, openness, and effort.)

      It’s not to say that I am totally satisfied with my books when I’ve sent them. But I have stopped seeing ways to make them better. This is a good time to let it go, and look for someone else’s wisdom.