One of the most frequently asked questions by new kidlit writers is “why do editors say not to write in rhyme?” There’s plenty of picture books written in rhyme, right? They get published somehow!
Well, the answer is a bit complicated. It’s not that editors don’t necessarily LIKE rhyme. It’s just that it is very difficult to do well. Here’s why:
- Rhyme scheme can dictate story–but shouldn’t. Tales should unfold organically, not be forced into the confines of the rhyme. Often it’s suggested to write in prose first—so you don’t get locked into a plot that doesn’t work—then translate it to rhyme.
- Common rhyme schemes can be stale. Editors see them again and again. Avoid overly simple, one-syllable rhyme schemes like go/show/know, to/you, me/be/she/he/see, run/fun/sun, day/may/way/say. If your reader can guess the word at the end of the line before they get there, your rhyme scheme may be too common. Editors want to read rhyme that surprises them.
- Forced rhyme or near-rhyme can ruin a story. This is when words don’t exactly rhyme unless you mispronounce them. Once in a while this is acceptable, but more than a few times in a manuscript and it distracts.
- The meter (or beat) must be spot-on. That doesn’t just mean the number of syllables in each line, but the emphasis on those syllables. Meter shouldn’t be so sing-songy and constant that it lulls the reader to sleep (unless maybe it’s a bedtime book) or so rough that it tongue-ties the reader and forces them to speak unnaturally. Some good rhyming books offer a break in the rhyme scheme for variety—not unlike a bridge in a song.
- Rhyming books are difficult to translate into other languages. An editor may not want to lose out on foreign book sales, so they’ll pass on a rhyming project.
However, if your heart is set on rhyme and if you have a talent for it, you should go for it. At first, Karma Wilson listened to the “don’t rhyme” advice.
“When I first started submitting some 15 years ago all the guidelines said, ‘No rhyme and no talking animals!’ For THREE years I avoided rhyme and talking animals. But guess what my first book sale was? BEAR SNORES ON! And guess what the guidelines said for McElderry books? NO RHYME AND NO TALKING ANIMALS! My passion is rhyme, and talking animals are great as long as they have something interesting to say.”
Yes, you can break the rules like Karma. But get your rhyme critiqued and know whether or not you can nail it.
Me, I’m terrible at rhyme and I know it. I cannot “hear” meter. I’ve tried and failed. My friends have coached me, but I still don’t get the right beat. I can’t dance to it. (I can’t dance anyway. Think Elaine from Seinfeld. Sweet fancy Moses!)
So what is successful rhyme? I’m glad you asked! I’ve got a few examples for you.
In HUSH, LITTLE DRAGON, Boni Ashburn spoofs the lullaby “Hush, Little Baby”. Instead of buying her baby a mockingbird, the mama dragon in the story brings her darling son various villagers to eat. It’s delightfully tongue-in-cheek. Some of the best lines:
Here she comes with a fresh magician.
Don’t mind the taste—he’s good nutrition.
…and later on…
If Mama finds a mean old queen,
Honey, you are lucky—that’s good cuisine!
Notice how these rhymes are out of the ordinary. They’re surprising and fun, plus the words have multiple syllables. She also rhymes “flee” with “fiery” and “bolt” with “revolt”. I challenge you to find these rhymes in another book! You won’t—and that is what makes this story so special.
Jean Reidy’s LIGHT UP THE NIGHT is an example of rhyme that elicits glorious illustrations. Remember that in picture books the art tells half the tale, and these lines create an expansive view of our world (click on image for larger version)…
This is my country, with highlands and plains,
with farmlands and cities and highways and trains…
Notice how there is a break in the rhyme scheme at the end of the stanza—and that line is set apart in the illustration for emphasis. Coincidentally, Jean blogged today about her decision to write in rhyme. Go check it out!
She then gave a swift demonstration
With backflips and butterfly kicks
The wolf looked quite shaken
but hollered, “Yo, Bacon!
I’m not at all scared of your tricks.”
There’s more great piggish laughs (like my favorite “pork-chop” line) but you’ll just have to wait until it’s released in September!
So I hope I’ve provided you with some background on why rhyming picture book manuscripts are a hard sell…but that if they’re done well, they can be spectacular.
What are some of your favorite rhyming picture books? Please share in the comments!