Lately, we’ve been seeing quite a few rhyming picture books in our critique group. Writing rhyme for picture books is VERY hard. It’s much more than simply ensuring each couplet ends with rhyming syllables. I jokingly tell people to go to http://www.DontDoRhyme.com (not a real website, yet). But for the intrepid few who continue onward, I offer the following tips:
A. Use the metric system. The three most important elements of a rhyming picture book are meter, meter, and meter. There is NO excuse for the meter to be off. Don’t submit a manuscript until the meter is PERFECT. Compose sentence pairs with the same number of syllables AND with accents on corresponding syllables, as follows.
Write the manuscript, capitalizing ONLY the accented syllables, e.g.,
MAry HAD a LITtle LAMB, with FLEECE as WHITE as SNOW.
EVEry WHERE that MAry WENT, the LAMB was SURE to GO.
Inspect each couplet. Is the syllable count the same? Do the accents fall on corresponding syllables? If not, keep working. Note that the longer the sentence, the more challenging this becomes.
Read your story aloud. Does it roll off your tongue, or trip you up. Then comes the acid test. Have someone unfamiliar with the story do the same. If they can read it without stumbling over any words, you’ve done it.
B. Weak rhyme pairs need not apply. Make sure each couplet’s rhyme pair does, in fact, rhyme. That sounds obvious, but some authors choose word pairs that aren’t perfect rhymes. I’m very picky in this regard. I don’t think “time” rhymes with “fine”, or “choose” rhymes with “loose”.
C. No word-fracking. Do not inject patently gratuitous words in a sentence just to tweak the syllable count or meter. Every word must belong. I once saw this done so well that I was several couplets into a story before I realized it was written in rhyme!
D. Are we there yet? Nope. Writing a rhyming picture book does NOT relieve the author of the normal requirements of a good picture book, including:
Voice. Characters must speak with authentic voices. Your five year-old protagonist cannot say “befuddle” just because it rhymes with “a puddle”.
Character development. Your readers still expect you to create engaging characters with whom they can identify and/or with whom they want to spend time.
Plot. Yup, you still gotta’ offer a story arc. Having a theme is necessary, but not sufficient. Your protagonist must surmount an obstacle or traverse an interesting path.
Love or friendship. The story must feature some form of amity.
Show, dont tell. ‘Nuff said.
Didactic is deadly. Use a light touch with your theme. They’ll get it.
Lexile level and word count. It’s still a picture book, so the word count and Lexile level guidelines remain unchanged.
Re-readability. The story must have a satisfying payoff at the end, or otherwise delight young readers so they’ll want to read it again.
I told you rhyme for picture books was hard! And some tales are better told in prose. Does rhyme make it a BETTER story, or distract from an otherwise engaging tale? Good luck! Henry Herz is the author of Monster Goose Nursery Rhymes, coming in early 2015 from Pelican Publishing.