by Alli Brydon
April is just around the corner, and it’s National Poetry Month! In honor of good ol’ verse, I wanted to talk about rhyme and meter in picture books.
Back when I was an acquisitions editor working in house at a publisher, I was particularly fond of meter and rhyme in kid’s books when it was done well. I’d be the editor my colleagues would go to with a sticky line of verse. But writers always hear that editors don’t want to see rhyming picture books these days. Editors say, stay away from it. I know that advice bristles a bit, especially for those of us who love to write it and those of us who love to read it aloud (*raises hand enthusiastically*).
This is because good verse in a picture book is a super tough thing to nail. End-rhymes need to feel fresh and exciting, sometimes unusual or surprising. For example, we’ve all heard these rhyming words way too much:
Sure, kids love to say these word combos. And at the age kids are reading picture books, they are really experimenting with rhyming words like these. But, think about it—do YOU as the parent or writer want to use these all-too-familiar word combos anymore? No, you probably want to move past this to something that keeps you, as a writer and reader, on your toes. The idea is also to challenge the reading kid to expand their rhyming vocab. And then there’s “slant rhyme,” or rhyme that’s just a little bit off—beloved in MFA programs and Lin-Manuel Miranda musicals, but sadly not beloved in the children’s book world [sigh].
With meter—which is the “bounce” of the rhythm of the line—it’s good to establish from the beginning the number of syllables (or “feet”) and the cadence (usually iambic, possibly anapestic, both of which sound closest to natural speech)…and stick to it! Variance in meter can and should happen only as a device to stress an emotion or particular action in your story. If your meter is off, it will tend to trip up your tongue when you read it aloud. So…read it aloud and see what happens!
Those are the technical points of verse. And yes, if you can manage to make your rhymes fresh and meter bouncy, it will feel like your story is on point. But there’s another thing…
Your verse actually has to tell a story too, with a clear and forward-moving plot, well-rounded characters with sensical relationships, and a conflict that rises in tension and gets resolved in a satisfying way by the end. No big deal, right?
I often see writers who are trying to work in verse make some big mistakes, to the detriment of their stories. Sometimes a writer will sneak in a word only to satisfy the rhyme, not to advance the narrative or characterization. The same thing can happen with meter. This is being a slave to your form. Your verse should work for you, not against you. Having to shoehorn, or lift-and-tuck, or corset your words can create a nonsensical spot in your story or give it a “roundabout” quality, where the narrative just goes in circles rather than forward. And that just won’t do. In a picture book, every word counts. And storytelling matters. If you have a rhyming text that doesn’t really tell a story, it’s a poem not a picture book manuscript.
So, what to do if you want to write rhyming picture books? You can practice. It’s like learning to play music. Make a point to study the patterns of rhythm and sound in poetry, both within your head and out through your vocal chords. Belt it out, baby! Understand the different examples of meter, like iambs, trochees, dactyls, spondees, and anapests. You might be able to answer an obscure Jeopardy question and impress your friends! Find some books where the rhymes make you chuckle, or smirk, or do this 😲 with your face. I also recommend memorizing some of your favorite rhyming picture books and reciting them out loud (either to kids or to yourself, which is a great alternative to singing in the shower!). Doing these things is like giving a gift to your writing self, as you can use elements of verse when you write prose, too!
And once you have that rhyming, rhythmic picture book draft, I want you to do something a little crazy: take it out of verse. Rewrite the whole thing in prose to see if the narrative and characters are working and progressing as you want them to. No need to craft this rewrite. It can be as simple as “this happens here, she says this there”—to make sure you’re hitting all the plot points you want to and not sacrificing the storytelling for the form.
Here are some of my favorite picture books in verse:
Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast, by Josh Funk
Little Blue Truck, by Alice Schertle
Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site, by Sherri Duskey Rinker
Any of Jane Yolen’s How Do Dinosaurs…? books
Teeny Tiny Toady, by Jill Esbaum
Oi Frog!, by Kes Gray
Alli Brydon is an independent children’s book editor and writer based in the New York City area. With nearly 15 years of experience developing, editing, and selling children’s books with US publishing houses, she has spent a large part of her career nurturing writers and illustrators to reach their potential. Having formerly worked both as an acquiring editor and as an agent for children’s book authors and illustrators, Alli has a unique blend of skills and an insider’s view of the industry. Please drop in at allibrydon.com to learn more, sign up to receive her blog posts by email, or just say “hi!”