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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!

In Corey Rosen Schwartz’s THE THREE NINJA PIGS, the rhyme is infused with porcine puns. Kids and adults alike will appreciate the humor:

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!

mehndiThis week my India-born critique partner submitted an engaging group of multicultural poems.

“Summer Paintings” featured three young girls decorating their palms in the mehndi tradition, embedding secrets in the scrolled henna designs—initials of boys and dreams and all the hushed longings of adolescence. Toward the end of the poem, the girls washed away the paste to reveal the designs. The next line, Finally freed from our impatience, caused debate among our group.

The girls in the poem had a wonderful time waiting for the henna to dry, for the patterns to stain their skin. They laughed and talked, giggled and blushed. Why were they impatient if they enjoyed the journey?

The answer? This is what childhood is about: impatient eagerness.

While children take pleasure in their activities, they are always rushing forward to the next thing. As a child, every experience is new. There is little time to let events soak in when there is something else to explore. They are motivated by an insatiable curiosity.

Moreover, children wish to repeat favorite experiences over and over again, and not soon enough. I’m reminded of this when my family leaves Chuck E. Cheese. Two seconds into the parking lot and my daughter pops like a balloon: “Mommy, when are we going to Chuck E. Cheese again?”

When writing, I will try to remember the impatient eagerness that my critique partner so eloquently showed.

Does your character display an impatient eagerness? What is next big thing for them?

Women Who Write, a collective of published and aspiring female authors from New Jersey, invite you to attend their fall reading at the Bernardsville Public Library this weekend.  On Sunday, October 28, 16 women will read original works of poetry and prose.  Come join us for an inspiring afternoon of stanzas and stories! 

Bernardsville Public Library
1 Anderson Hill Road (center of town off Olcott Square)
Bernardsville, NJ
Sunday, October 28
2pm-4pm

As a children's book author and mother of two, I'm pushing a stroller along the path to publication. I collect shiny doodads on the journey and share them here. You've found a kidlit treasure box.

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