01 - Rhyming Picture Books - Start on the Right Track
Updated: Mar 16, 2021
Writing in rhyme is the hardest element of the picture book writer's skillset. In this first Tale from the Critique, I share my advice to a first-time author who approached me for feedback.
A friend of mine wrote a picture book and planned to approach a publisher. The theme was child wellbeing and moods. Whilst a worthy topic, the book was a long way from being publisher-ready. Below are the top tips I gave to her, and would give to anyone hoping to get into picture book writing.
Because of the way picture books are constructed, publishers expect stories to be Laid out across 12, 13.5 or 14.5 double page spreads. At the moment, your 9 verses are tricky to lay out in this way, so you might want to look at how to split verses across spreads or add some verses. Think about the pictures
Some verses lend themselves really clearly to illustration, such as verses 2, 3 and 4. However, it is less clear what some of the other page spreads would feature. Think about the key visual elements in your words that the illustrator can work with on each of the spreads. Perfect rhymes
Make sure all of your Rhymes are perfect. In verse 1, myself and else do not rhyme and this would be an issue for most publishers.
Use prose to plan a poem A top tip Is to write out exactly what you want a verse to say in prose rather than in verse. Check that each verse carries a different but linked message and they flow from one to another. For example, verses 2, 3 and 4 are all related to the character being different things that reflect different facets of their personality/mood. Avoid clichés
Try and find your own unique way of saying things. Try and avoid phrases that are overused in children's books. Don't use words just because they rhyme
Check each of your rhymes and make sure that the words you are using are not being used simply because they rhyme. The strongest rhyming stories feel natural and would still work even if they didn't rhyme (which is exactly what some publishers do when they translate rhyming texts) Story matters, even in a poem
Think about the progression of your story. Even though it is a poem, It's still nice if the story moves on and there are key story elements to it. For example, you could add in something about other people wanting the character to be someone else. This creates just a little bit of drama and conflict, which helps to make the poem more dramatic. Leave Me Alone and Worries Go Away by Kes Gray are great books to look at for this sort of character journey laid out in rhyme. Rhyming stories are rock, not jazz...
Try and stick to a single rhythm for your verses. Each line does not have to have the same syllable count but the stresses need to fall in the same places. Get several other people to read your poem and listen to how they read it, with an imaginary metronome ticking in your head. Ideally they should all read every verse fluently with the same rhythm.
Having said this, be careful not to end up with a 'dum de dum de dum de dum' rhythm when it is actually read - you can break lines across pages or put greater emphasis on certain words to allow the reader to inject variation. Room on the Broom is brilliant for this, with onomatopoeic words (whoosh!), asides (as the witch put the hat firmly back on her head) and exclamations (yes!), plus changes of pace (the dragon flew after her, breathing out fire!). Your last line has this with ‘I Love Me!’ - I would be tempted to put this on its own page.
Rhyme is hard
Writing in rhyme is the hardest challenge in children's writing but there are great resources to help. Picture Book Den is particularly useful, e.g. https://picturebookden.blogspot.com/2013/10/to-rhyme-or-not-to-rhyme-by-natascha_3.html?m=1