Rhyming Picture books for ChildrenWriting Rhyming Stories for Children

by Gwenda Smyth  (author and freelance editor)  

I will confess at the outset that I have never written a rhyming picture book (always assuming that this was too tough a market to crack). On the other hand, I have been sent many a book of limping verse for editing as the years have gone by.  

One's first thought on opening the parcel is likely to be: Why has the publisher accepted this manuscript? The answer may lie in the unusual theme or the clever twist on an old theme. It may lie in the flashes of wit that suggest the verse is salvageable. Or it may lie in the ravishing illustrations that have come with the ms; they are too delightful to let go and it's always possible (so the theory goes) to fix up wobbly verse. Most tortured verse, however, will never get as far as a freelance editor.  

For the individual or team who can come up with both appealing pictures and neat verse a great future lies ahead - and there have been a few. This doesn't mean that the author of a book-length poem for children should try to enhance their chances by lining up their own illustrator. On the whole, the old rule applies - a publisher first sees potential in a text, then commissions an artist. 

The Hazards 

Good verse for children rolls along with regular metrical beats falling on the syllables that would be accented in normal speech, together with correct rhymes, and a strong story emerging as plainly as if told in prose: 

I will not eat them here or there. 

I will not eat them anywhere. 

I do not eat green eggs and ham. 

I do not like them, Sam-I-am.  

(Dr Seuss:Green Eggs and Ham, Random House Inc.)

 

Faults That Spoil Good Rhyme 

But very often a good idea is marred by faults such as these: 

Lines where the metre disappears or stumbles:  

It's once I courted as pretty a lass, 

As ever your eyes did see; 

But now she's come to such a pass, 

She never will do for me. 

She invited me to her house, 

Where oft I'd been before, 

And she tumbled me into the hog-tub, 

And I'll never go there no more. 

The trouble is in line 5 - the reader may need two goes at maintaining the beat.  

“She asked me over to her house” would solve the problem. 

Emphasis forced onto the 'wrong' syllable for lack of a conveniently-accented word:  

Bats rest all day 

And feed at night. 

UnDER the trees 

They hide from sight. 

It's not Milton, but it could be improved by replacing under with beneath, a word that is naturally accented on the second syllable where the emphasis is needed. 

Rhymes given precedence over sensible text - 

Quolls were once numerous; 

Now they are few,  

Found only in Tassie 

They live all through. 

To keep the rhyme and rhythm the poet has settled for a daft concluding line. The poet needs to rewrite the verse. 

The use of non-rhymes or near-rhymes in a bid to preserve the storyline or the metre.  

There was an old woman 

Who lived in a sandal; 

Had so many kids 

They drove her quite mental. 

Mental does not rhyme with sandal. The author could try “flew off the handle” . 

The Good News Is... 

The good news is that it is possible to avoid all these traps and produce readable verse for children. But not in a hurry. The longer an author is prepared to spend with dictionary, thesaurus and rhyming dictionary, the better their jingles will be.  

Young children seem to have an inborn love of rhyme and rhythm which can play a part in the development of literacy. We should not cause them to stumble over bumpy rhymes or holey rhythms. Nor should parents and teachers striving to foster a love of books have to tie themselves in knots in an attempt to fit their reading to a faulty metre. 

Scenario 1 

Suppose the following verse arrived on an editor's desk today: 

Ding, dong, bell, 

Pussy's in the well, 

Who put her in? 

Little Johnny Green. 

Who pulled her out? 

Little Tommy Stout. 

What a naughty boy was that 

To try to drown poor pussycat 

Who ne'er did any harm 

But killed all the mice in his father's barn. 

Hmm. After six pleasantly regular lines of two accents each, the metre goes to pieces with two lines of three or four beats (according to how you read them), one three-beat line and a ten-syllable finale that causes the reader to switch from a steady plod to a sudden trot.  

The jingle also contains two non-rhymes ( in/Green and harm/barn). But these things can be fixed. We can change Johnny's paternity to 'Finn' so that he rhymes with 'in'. And while we're about it, why not a bit of alliteration? Freddy Finn has a good ring. And if we're going to do that, we had better alliterate Tommy as well, or, better still, make the verse gender-inclusive. We might expunge pussy, too - seven-year-olds can be quite ribald, given half a chance. So here we go: 

Ding, dong, bell, 

The cat is in the well. 

Who put her in? 

Little Freddy Finn. 

Who pulled her out? 

Little Stella Stout. 

What a rotten brat 

To dunk the family cat 

Who never did him harm 

But on his father's farm 

Killed all the mice, 

And that was rather nice.  

The moral of this exercise is that no verse is beyond rearrangement (author willing), and at least the Preps can now tap along with their maracas, unfazed by sudden shifts in metre.  

Scenario 2 

Here's a more realistic scenario. A commissioning editor phones to say she has a rhyming picture book that needs some work - the illustrations are glorious but the publisher has just had a look at the verse and wants it sent out to a freelancer quick smart. Be firm with the author, he says. The designer needs it in two days. 

The ms is titled My Book of Bogies and it is part of a 'My Book . . .' series. The illustrations are indeed delightful, with ambiguous shadows and a quizzical six-year-old protagonist. The first picture shows a giant shadow thrown on the wall by a nightlight. We turn the page and see an innocent mouse investigating the jellybeans on the bureau. Stanza 1 reads: 

It's the middle of the night 

I hear something that isn't quite right. 

It does not fill me with delight. 

It gives me such a fright 

That I can't help screaming with all my might 

And then I see a really awful sight . . .  

This author could have gone rollicking on forever - she still has moonlight, shining bright, terrible fight and nasty bite to work in, let alone uptight. But this would clearly not be a good idea.  

The main problem here is the metre. We have an indiscriminate number of feet (accented units) in each line so that the jingle cannot be read with any regular rhythm.  

A flip through the remaining pages suggests that perhaps, with only two days available, a neat quatrain for each bogy might be the most feasible option, relying on the illustrations to tell three-quarters of the story. 

Back to stanza 1. Let's try for four accents in each line (as in line 3) - this offers more scope than the two feet in line 1. We should also try to keep the emphases on the syllables that are emphasised in normal speech - not someTHING but SOMEthing - or rewrite the line.  

The content is repetitive and can be pruned; line 3 is pure padding; the scream also may have to go - terror could be suggested without spelling it out.  

Modifiers such as quite, such and really can often be deleted to good effect. Moreover, it may be setting too difficult a precedent for the rest of the book if we aim at rhyming all four lines; let's try the pattern a,a,b,b. So we start off: 

It is the middle of the night. 

I hear a sound that isn't right. 

I see a shadow on the wall . . . 

What rhymes with wall'? Tall, fall, at all, call, hall, small, crawl . . . lots of possibilities there, though nothing that suggests a very strong punchline. Look at the picture again. 

Sniffy, twitchy, fat and tall. . . 

'Fat' is a bit weak, but the thesaurus suggests no synonyms for hugeness that make sense in this context. Try something else: ceiling-tall - why not? But the tension is not resolved, the reader is left high and dry. Ah, an idea. Let's add one more line on the next page beneath the picture of the mouse: 

How could that monster be so small? 

That brings the reader down to earth. Now we have a kind of cinquain. Maybe the author will accept it.  

It is the middle of the night. 

I hear a sound that isn't right. 

I see a shadow on the wall - 

Sniffy, twitchy, ceiling-tall . . .[turn page, see mouse] 

How could that monster be so small?  

On to stanza 2. The main illustration shows a shadowy garden where an elongated creature in filmy draperies is springing towards a small boy with dustbin. Over the page we see that it is the family dog wearing a nightgown that has blown off the clothesline. The text reads: 

I'm putting out the dustbin when 

I see two eyes agleam 

Leaping through the hollyhocks 

Just behind the trampoline. 

I turn my torch on 

And what do I see in its beam? 

What is on offer here? A complete change of rhythm and rhyme scheme, though one rhyme is imperfect and the metre such as it is collapses after line 3. In any case it must now be made to fit our four-feet, four-line pattern.  

We have an obsolete adjective, agleam, and we have eyes that leap. The hollyhocks and trampoline are nice but they may be difficult to retain. The ensuing revision involves reducing the garden scene to its bare essentials, listing all the rhymes for hoot, dag, dork, dope and clown, searching for two-syllable synonyms for ghosta and pondering a punchline that will demystify the bogy in four iambs, as we did in stanza 1. This is the best I can do: 

It's wild outside, the time is late. 

Must get this dustbin to the gate. 

But something brings me tumbling down: 

A phantom in a floating gown . . . [turn page, see dog] 

Oh, Fido, you are such a clown!  

It's now time to email a couple of verses to the author and negotiate what degree of change she will accept. The author, amazingly, says go ahead, she knew her verses were crummy; getting the book into print is what matters. A true pro.  

Scenario 3 

Now, a story from the author's point of view. Suppose you hear that a certain publisher is planning a series of beginning-readers of eight pages each and is looking for simple texts with an environmental theme. You gaze out the window for a minute and decide to submit something. Here is your first effort: 

Where do all the seagulls go 

When the thunder claps? 

How do all the acorns know 

To put on tiny hats? 

Why do all the slugs and snails 

Leave those silver tracks? 

When I find the answers, I 

Will write them down perhaps. 

Your partner looks over your shoulder and points out that the rhymes in stanzas 2 and 3 are false. Okay. Send partner away to make a cup of coffee and look at stanza 2 - you need a synonym for hats . . . Easy! They can put on tiny caps. That was a bit of luck.  

Look at stanza 3 - is there anything that slugs and snails do that ends in aps? - claps, taps, slaps . . . Do they leave a lot of gaps or eat up all our scraps? Not really. Slugs and snails will have to go. Who sets traps? Spiders do.  

Do the spiders really plan 

To use their webs as traps? 

This is silly. They obviously do, in their own arachnid way. Try again. 

Why can't flies watch out and see 

That spider webs are traps? 

That might do. Now stanza 4. It rhymes, but is it a bit weak? A look at your list of aps rhymes suggests nothing useful. So why not change the rhyme pattern completely: ab, ab, cb, then dd - or, to allow a bit more scope - defe? It might help to compose the last line first and then work backwards: Someday I will know or The things I want to know. There should be plenty of ow rhymes: go, slow, tie a bow, high and low, to and fro . . . What about this?  

If I keep on asking 

Everywhere I go, 

I will find the answers to 

The things I want to know. 

There is a semi-happy ending to this story. The publisher feels that the poem is a bit slight for the series of readers but can use it as one page in a genre-based anthology for Year 1. The royalty will be one-fifteenth of 10 per cent. Perseverance is rewarded.  

Golden Rules? 

So labour on. We all know that success is 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent perspiration. There are no golden rules for writing children's verse, but here is a sort of checklist: 

  • Start with any old idea, then do some research to enrich the story possibilities.  
  • Make sure that every line contributes something to the story.  
  • Aim for a definite rhythm and true rhymes.  
  • Try out phrases, keeping the accents where they fall in natural speech.  
  • List rhymes that connect with the sense and at the same time keep rephrasing the sense to make other rhymes available.  
  • Try starting in the middle of a stanza or at the end.  
  • Don't get hooked on the metre that first occurred to you. Try a different one.  
  • Read your work aloud. If you need to slow down some phrases and hurry others to reach the beat in time, rewrite that line.  
  • Talk to the family in verse (In this example the syllables which are naturally stressed are in bold)  

"I don't know if 

You are aware, 

There's someone's undies 

On the stair . . ."  

 

or "Perhaps you may think 

That I speak out of turn, 

But the vegie lasagna 

Is starting to burn . . ."  


Well, it's all good practice. And, of course, always check by phone whether a publisher is willing to look at unsolicited manuscripts for children— verse or otherwise.
 

TERMINOLOGY 

Most storybook poets could go through life without knowing any of the following definitions, but it might be nice to nod sympathetically when someone tells you they are writing a version of The Three Bears in dactylic tetrameter. 

Metre is the arrangement of words in patterned units (like bars in music). Each unit is called a foot and has one stressed syllable and one or more unstressed syllables. Here are the names of some feet, with / representing the stressed syllable and - representing the unstressed syllables:  

amphibrach - / - To market,/ to market,/ to buy a / fat pig, 

dactyl / - - Home again, / home again, /jiggety / jig. 

anapaest - - / No-one knows /I am here 

In the dark/without fear. 

iamb - / Don't in- / terrupt / the po- / et, friend, 

Until /his po- / em's at / an end. 

trochee / - Up in- /to the / cherry /tree 

Who should / climb but / little / me! 

 

 Lines may be named according to their number of feet. 

monometer = one foot, dimeter = two feet 

trimeter = three feet, tetrameter = four feet 

pentameter = five feet, hexameter = six feet  

  • A stanza of two lines is called a couplet.  
  • A stanza of three lines is called a tercet.  
  • A stanza of four lines is called a quatrain.  
  • Quinquain, sestet and octet have special applications. See dictionary.  

Rhyme is repetition of the sound in the final accented syllable (and any following syllables) of words or verse lines: go/slow, nitty/gritty, steadily/readily. Words of different lengths can rhyme: quality/frivolity. A quaint distinction is made between 'masculine rhyme' where the stress is on the final syllable (indeed/mislead), and 'feminine rhyme' where an unstressed syllable follows the stressed rhyme (bolder/colder). When the initial consonant of the stressed syllables is also repeated, this does not provide a correct rhyme: crustacean/station, adolescence/obsolescence.  

Near-rhymes occur where only the spelling looks similar: love/move, through/bough, or where the sounds are not identical: raise/face, fall/still, and so on.  

Internal rhymes occur in the middle of a line and create a pleasant echo, but may not be strong enough for young children:  

The wind blows and the rain comes down. 

Now it snows, and we head for home. 

Scansion is analysis of metre, using symbols to show stressed and unstressed syllables. Sometimes it is useful to clarify what has gone wrong with a composition. Verse is scanned not by syllables, but by accents. In the following couplet both lines have four accents but one has twelve syllables, the other, nine: 

There was an old woman tossed up in a basket 

Seventeen times as high as the moon. 

A steady rhythm can contain a mixture of feet (the syllables which are naturally stressed are in bold) 

O my love / is like / a red / red rose  

That's new- / ly sprung / in June: 

O my love / is like / a mel- / ody 

That's sweet-/ ly played / in tune. 

Lines 1 and 3 begin with an anapaest; the rest of the feet are iambs. It's not the feet but the beat!  

And so to bed— or back to the computer, as the case may be!  

[© Gwenda Smyth, a children’s author and freelance editor.]

This article was first published in Writing For Success Newsletter. Reprinted with permission from Writing For Success. www.writing4success-newsletter.com  

 

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