Do you think in rhyme all of the time? Do your stories evolve with a rhythm to resolve? I’ve always loved the lyrical cadence of stories written in verse. And despite the conventional wisdom that rhyming books are out of favor, I can’t seem to help myself. For fellow rhyming fools like me, here are some lessons I’ve learned.
First and foremost, it’s all about the story. Like any other book, a rhyming book needs a main character with a problem to solve and obstacles to overcome. The rhyme should enhance the story, not the other way around. The master is, of course, Dr. Seuss, 100 years old this year and still as clever and popular as ever. Consider my all time favorite, The Cat in the Hat. Strip away the terrific illustrations. Peel back the engaging rhyme. What’s left? A fun and funny story about a pair of siblings who are invaded by a mischievous Cat. They must figure out how to get rid of him and all evidence of him, before mom arrives home. There you have it. A main character with a problem to solve and obstacles to overcome: the bare essence of any good book.
The rhyme should actually rhyme. Words that “almost” rhyme like end / friends, been / seen, or hand / slammed make for a weaker read-aloud. It’s important to think about regional pronunciation as well. Here in New England, “idea” and “clear” might rhyme, but that won’t be “cleah” in other locations. Nosy Crow’s excellent article on this topic considers English pronunciation worldwide, and speaks to the challenges of translating rhyming books into other languages. A really good example of rhymes that actually rhyme is the classic Madeline series by Ludwig Bemelmans.
Meter matters. Of the four basic meters, iamb, anapest, trochee and dactyl, it doesn’t matter which one you choose, but it is important to be consistent throughout the story. Each verse should be dead-on in terms of word stress. Having a friend cold-read a rhyming story aloud is the easiest way to realize that although the words “aglow” and “pillow” both end in “oh,” they’ll never rhyme because their stress differs. RhymeWeaver is an excellent website for the fundamentals of meter and all aspects of writing in rhyme.
Word choice is key. Easy rhymes like red / bed and may / day are fine, but a verse that rhymes galore / in store or insane / complain makes you sit up and take notice. Choosing exciting, evocative and humorous words for the non-rhyming words is just as important. Word selection that is both familiar to children and appealing to editors can be a tough balancing act. For my money, Paul Czajak does this really well in his Monster and Me series.
Are there other rhymers out there? What’s your biggest challenge with writing in rhyme? Have you found publishers open-minded to rhyming books?