Writing in Rhyme (is a lot trickier than you might think!)

This spring, Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame set the children’s Twitterverse on fire with a casual tweet about how bad he thought most rhyming picture books were. Aside from Seuss and Boynton, he hadn’t read many he liked. His complaint was met with an avalanche of tweets suggesting the good rhyming picture books. They’re not all bad, you know. So why do rhyming picture books have such a tough reputation?
The truth is, it’s just plain hard to write in rhyme. Think about it. How often do the exact words that express what you want to say happen to rhyme? Not very often, I’ll wager, which is why writing in rhyme sometimes leads authors to choose words that are…not just-right words. Here are some examples of that…
The Overly Simplistic Rhyme:
I like to write in rhyme.
I do it all the time.
The Not-Really-a-Rhyme-Rhyme:
If you like to read rhymes
You should read some of mine.
The Weirdly Forced Rhyme:
When you write in rhyme, you must count each syllables
That’s laying good groundwork, like soil that’s tillable.
(I mean, really… not much rhymes with syllable!)
Even writers who are great at coming up with natural rhymes often stumble with meter in a picture book. Contrary to popular belief, meter isn’t just about counting the syllables in each line.  It’s about paying attention to stressed and unstressed syllables. Most of us learned about this when we studied Shakespeare in school and talked about iambic pentameter…that da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM pattern that rolls off our tongues so easily. It’s a line of verse made up of five feet, with each foot made up of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.
The sun comes up to greet our summer days,
And bathe the sky in pink and purple rays.
When you’re playing around with meter, it’s absolutely essential to read out loud. You’ll figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what possibly works but feels a little shaky. (The truth is, I was thinking about pink and orange rays when I started writing this, but orange is one of those tricky words that different people pronounce different ways. For some, it has two syllables – Or-renge – while for others, it’s just one — Ornge. That can mess up your meter, depending on who’s reading.)
At any rate, compare that couplet above to this one, where I’m being sloppy with meter.
The sun rises and illuminates the summer sky.
I gaze out at the horizon, take in its beauty, and sigh.
The rhyme works, but the meter doesn’t. So even if you like the word choice, it’s clunky to read aloud.
Now that I’ve written you some examples of bad rhyming text, it’s time to look at some great ones! I love our mentor texts for this week because they’re both beautifully crafted rhyming picture books, but they’re totally different from one another.

Martha Brockenbrough’s CHEERFUL CHICK, illustrated by Brian Won, is about a little chicken who dreams of being a cheerleader, so the rhythm of this picture book is just as rollicking as any football field cheer. It’s playful, bouncy, and fun.
Once inside a chicken’s nest
A dozen eggs, all Grade-A best,
Lay still and warm, their contents sleeping,
All but one…who came out peeping.

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Hena Khan’s GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS is a  lyrical, beautiful celebration of culture that looks at colors through the eyes of a Muslim child’s family and religious traditions.
Red is the rug
Dad kneels on to pray,
Facing toward Mecca,
Five times a day.
When I read those two beginnings aloud, the words roll easily off my tongue. The language feels natural and musical…effortless. But writing a great rhyming picture book is anything but that. Tomorrow and Wednesday, we’ll take a closer look at how these writers did what they did.
Your assignment today? Try writing the beginning of a picture book in rhyme. Just a few lines is fine. Tomorrow, we’re also going to talk about how to check your rhyming picture book for meter, so you’ll need something to work with. And don’t worry about getting it wrong! Writers learn from experimenting, making mistakes, and trying again. When you’re writing in the dark, trying something new, you’re being a pretty great role model, and you’ll understand a lot better how your students feel every day.

25 Replies on “Writing in Rhyme (is a lot trickier than you might think!)

  1. Happy to be back this year. Sorry I’m late to class.
    So much to remember when attempting rhyme. I forgot all the rules when I wrote this terrible rhyme with potential last night.

    A summer kid song- (in progress)
    A frog and a bat and the neighbor’s mean cat.
    There goes mama deer with a baby so near.
    Lots of spotted fur, I just want to pet her!
    Summertime fun, I don’t want it to be done.
    Sleepovers galore.
    “Let’s make s’mores!”
    Lightening bugs in a jar,
    Let em out, backyard stars!

  2. Okay, so I have a new puppy named Angus Ogg. He’s monopolizing my thoughts and time. Here goes:

    There once was a doggy named Oggy.
    He liked his pup food rather soggy.
    Till one day he grew.
    It was then that he knew!
    It’s better to eat a hotdog-gie!

    Pathetic, right, lol! But so fun to think in rhymes.
    (PS I love Shakespeare.)

    1. Oggy likes soggy food! I got the visualization of my dog looking at me weird when his food got wet from rain water. It puffed up like soggy cereal.

  3. Thank you for the great post. Last week, I put a request for both of these book at our city library. Rhyming is hard! I like cats, and even though I don’t have little children running around anymore, it brought back memories of when they were running all around our house. At the moment, we only have a dog, but I hope to get another cat sometime as my cat of 18 years passed away.

    Sasha was enjoying her morning nap.
    Until she was pushed off the large arm chair.
    Padding upstairs, she found sister’s lap,
    But brother and his truck, she flew with a scare.

    Leaping on the bed the pillow so inviting.
    “Go somewhere else, Sasha. I’m wrapping presents.”
    Down the stairs she crept and heard the doorbell ring,
    As the door opened darting outside made the most sense.

    1. We are the opposite of your pet situation. I have 3 old cats, but I really want a dog. We lost a fourth cat this year, so I also know how that feels. Your cat descriptions are spot on!

      1. Some of the lines are pretty clunky and don’t sound great when read out loud! But, thanks.

  4. You’re right….it is tricky! Here’s the my unfinished attempt.

    Our family gathers in the park

    with kids that squeal and dogs that bark.

    I hope we’ll stay until it’s dark

    Dad shakes hands with Uncle Tim

    and asks Tim to come with him

    to play horseshoes with Grandpa Jim.

    Mom hugs Grandma and Auntie Sue

    and asks them each “What can I do?”

    They say “We could use a hand or two!”

    My cousins are playing on the swing.

    Jumping off … “You’re here!” they sing.

    With huge grins into open arms we fling.

  5. Years ago we went summer camping and on the last day we packed up as my son played nearby. When it was time to leave, he had several caterpillars all over his t shirt. We laughed about it and took a picture, too. But when we told him he could not take them home, he threw a fit. He cried all the way over the river and through the woods – and that story inspired my writing!

    Alex was a curious boy who went outside to play;
    In the big backyard, near the tiny shiny brook, he would explore crawly critters all day.

    As he held out his hand, a speckled hairy caterpillar moved in…
    It crawled up his arm, and right under his chin!

    Mother was surprised to see a larvae on her boy –
    ‘Put that down right now Alex, that bug is NOT a toy!’

  6. I was looking back at some old jottings and saw a story I wrote about a hen who couldn’t lay eggs (in keeping with the egg theme!). Everyone on the farm feels bad for the hen and starts to put one of their eggs in her nest. The types of eggs expand until the hen has some very interesting hatchlings in the end.
    So, I decided to rework the beginning…

    Mildred the Hen was a beautiful bird,
    But she had a huge problem
    Or haven’t you heard?

    While her friends were all busy with filling their nests
    Our Hen came up empty, despite trying her best.

      1. Thanks! I worked it out without rhyme in the first version. I’m pondering a continuation of the rhyme as a rewrite to see what I can do. All works out in the end 🙂

  7. This is a semi-autobiographical start to a picture book that doesn’t always rhyme:

    Riley Writes a Rhyme

    He loved to write stories, that Riley Pitts
    Or notes or letters or even reports,
    But one kind of writing gave Riley fits:
    Try as he might, he couldn’t write rhymes.

    Under a shade tree he’d search for the words,
    He’d study the leaves, the bark, the seeds,
    He could dream up an essay to celebrate birds.
    But try as he might, he couldn’t write rhymes.

  8. This was not easy! I certainly have been stretched beyond my literary comfort zone today (as a side note, I’ve been thinking about this rhyme all day, and it’s almost 10pm my time!) I just have four lines, and it is certainly rough. I do like the last line though…

    What is a story? What is a book?
    How can we find out? Let’s take a look.
    Stories take our minds to other places and then,
    A book lays it out from beginning to end.
    The book is the vessel, the story a friend.

  9. My daughter tells me she loves more more than the moonlight – I’ve written a few books for her and jotted that down as a title for another one. I’m excited imagining what the illustrations could look like in this one!

    I love you…

    higher than a flying kite
    longer than the longest flight
    bigger than the biggest bite
    taller than the tallest height
    braver than the bravest knight
    darker than the darkest night

    and even more than the moonlight.

  10. Today’s post coming at you all from our visit to the Humane Society. My little one really wants a cat, but I am super allergic. I also posted it on my blog.

    The kitty in the window is what I see.
    “Can be ours for only a small fee.”

    Fluffy, scruffy, and loving too.
    “Please, can I have him? I promise you…

    “I’ll care for it, bathe it, feed it –
    You won’t need to worry a bit.

    Whispering low as we turn to go.
    “Please can I have the kitty in the window?”

  11. I’m in a Star Wars mood, so here ya go…

    Once there was a girl called Rey,
    Who scavenged on Jakku all day.
    Junk and sand is all she had,
    Without knowledge of Mom and Dad.

    But BB-8 and new friend Finn,
    Helped her journey to begin.
    She went to space, stood up to fight,
    Then on to train with a Jedi Knight.

    With saber in hand and Force inside,
    She refused to join Kylo’s “dark side”.
    Rey became a hero, helping all to be free,
    From the First Order’s grip on the galaxy.

  12. I have enjoyed reading everyone’s rhyme selections. Such a variety of topics. Mine was short and sweet as I was working mainly on the meter, which I struggle with.

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

  13. The beach has two parts
    both water and land.
    Fun times can be had
    in ocean and sand.

    Sand shovels and pails
    for sculpting sand art.
    Salt water and sun
    each good for the heart.

  14. This was really hard for me. I’ve always thought my rhyme is so forced, so I tend to prefer free verse. I read some others’ shared ideas and revisited my own ideas this morning and went in a completely different direction. One of my favorite activities of the summer is raising monarch butterflies from eggs and caterpillars. Here is my start:

    A monarch flutters, flying free
    Leaving her eggs to be gathered by me.

    In just a few days, caterpillars hatch
    I’ll need a lot of milkweed to feed this batch.

  15. Pippa runs and Pippa plays
    Pippa chases Boog* all day

    Pippa naps and Pippa eats
    Pippa’s always up for treats

    Pippa’s soft and Pippa’s cute
    Pippa wears her birthday suit

    Pippa’s strong and Pippa’s quick
    Pippa swims to get her stick

    *Boog is my roommate’s cat 🙂