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.
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.
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.