Posted by: Kathy Temean | April 10, 2018

ASK DIANNE: Rhyming Picture Books

Q:  When I go to the bookstore or library for market research, I see a lot of rhyming picture books on the shelves.  Kids love picture books that rhyme, obviously.  But a lot of editors and agents say that they don’t want rhyming picture book submissions from writers.  Why?

A:  While it may be relatively easy for a writer to put together lines that rhyme and have illustrative potential….it can be a bit more difficult to write a fully-functioning picture book story which also happens to rhyme.   There are a few reasons why—but first, let’s review what makes a story a story.

Whether it’s a picture book or novel, to succeed narratively your manuscript needs an interesting main character who faces a challenge, bumps into at least one obstacle, solves an age-appropriate problem, is somehow changed by the experience, and brings it all home to ‘THE END’ in a satisfying way.

All of this must happen whether the picture book text rhymes or not. Unless you’re creating a straight-up nonfiction concept book, you need a story to hang your razzle-dazzle rhythm and rhyme on.

Am I saying NOT to write in rhyme?  No.  I’m saying that if you choose to write a rhyming picture book manuscript, ask yourself these key questions throughout your creative process:

  1. Have I let rhyme dictate the story?  Think of it this way: if your manuscript were a new car in the showroom, telling the story with rhyme patterns would be considered an add-on option package of extras like premium tire rims, but rhyming isn’t the engine that rolls your car down the narrative road.  Using a predictable rhyme pattern using words such as ‘fun’/’run’/’sun’ help young readers develop reading skills, yes.  But to be read by an editor or agent seriously, your manuscript needs a solid narrative structure in addition to your funny and clever rhymes.      
  2. Have I established a strong and consistent rhythm throughout the piece? The rhyme scheme may be fun to play with, but if you don’t focus also on its partner in crime—rhythm—you will likely end up with awkward, uneven lines or breaks. You can do three things easily to avoid this: as you write, pause to read the lines aloud and note every bump in the narrative road.  Then have a friend read it aloud to you and see if you find more. Print out your manuscript and count the syllables of the words in each stanza’s lines:  do they match up?  This will help you fix the bumps and lumps in your writing.    
  3. Have I used unnatural sentence structure to enable a rhyme scheme? It may make perfect sense for nursery rhymes to say things like “and there the king, he found his shoe, and he did see that it was blue” but today’s beginning reader benefits more from a more natural and contemporary sentence structure. If you have twisted and tortured sentence structure only for the sake of rhyming ‘spoon’ with ‘moon’, or find yourself using antiquated words such as ‘twas or ‘til to force a rhythm count, you need to fix it…or re-think your decision to write the story in rhyme.  Ask yourself: would my story be better served in prose?
  4. Have I written a poem or a picture book story? A poem is a work of art worthy of respect and admiration. It takes a strong theme, beautiful language, a rhythm and rhyme scheme—but unlike a picture book, it doesn’t require the essential narrative elements of story to succeed.  Take an honest look at your manuscript to see that all of the key pieces are in place: characterization, setting, action, conflict, resolution, and so on.  Summarizing your stanzas in prose will help you evaluate it.  Printing out your prose summary and pasting chunks of your manuscript on blank pieces of paper representing each double page spread of the picture book you hope it will someday be will, help you figure out if you have the right pacing and page turns.  Each line, rhyming or not, has to carry its narrative weight: moving the story forward to a satisfying ending, all the while helping your main character to change in some way.     

It’s great to want to write a story in rhyme.  It can be fun to write, too.  But to succeed—by which I mean, end up with a manuscript that an editor or agent will wish to seriously consider for publication—you need to make sure that your story, and not the rhymes, can carry the day.  Happy writing!

DIANNE’S BIO:

Dianne Ochiltree is a nationally recognized author of books for the very young. Her books have appeared on numerous recommended reading lists, classroom desks and library shelves. Her bedtime book, LULL-A-BYE, LITTLE ONE, was a selected for the Dollywood Foundation’s childhood literacy initiative, Imagination Library in 2007. Her picture book, MOLLY BY GOLLY! THE LEGEND OF MOLLY WILLIAMS AMERICA’S FIRST FEMALE FIREFIGHTER, received the Florida Book Awards (FBA) Bronze Medal in the Children’s Literature category in 2012 and was chosen for the ALA’s Amelia Bloomer list of feminist literature for girls. Her picture book, IT’S A FIREFLY NIGHT, won the FBA Silver Medal in 2013. Her 2015 title, IT’S A SEASHELL DAY, was given the FBA Gold Medal/Gwen Reichert Award as well as the Gold Medal for Florida picture book from the Florida Authors and Publishers Association. For more information about Dianne’s books, go to http://www.dianneochiltree.com.

Dianne, thanks for sharing your expertise with us. Another great article.

REMEMBER: To send in your questions for Dianne. Use Kathy(dot)Temean(at)gmail.com. Please put ASK DIANNE in the subject box.

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Jackie Hosking and commented:
    This is a very good explanation as to what makes a story written in rhyme and meter work.

    Like

  2. This is spot on Dianne – I’ve reblogged it on my blog being a lover and writer of rhyme. Thank you both, a great article.

    Like

  3. I have to say, the one issue I’ve had (for years) with the “rhyming book” guidelines and opinions is what is considered “forced” or “unnatural” in the rhyme. I’ve seen published books in which the rhyme is really forced or very clumsy, yet it’s published.

    Like

  4. This is fantastic! I’m sure I’ll refer back to this post when revising my work. Thanks for sharing this!

    Like


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