Rhyming Picture Books: A Rhyme With Reason

There’s a fairly strong consensus out there that some editors are moving away from rhyming picture books right now. One reason for this, as I see it, is that picture books in general are evolving. They’re being acquired by younger editors, they’re being purchased by cooler parents, they’re becoming modern and… if I dare say… maybe even hip. Not all picture books, of course, because lists and houses have room for the traditional, beautiful picture book reminiscent of the good old days of yore. But there’s definitely been innovation, and that’s crucial to remember when you sit down to write yours.

Rhyming picture books — especially those written in rhyming couplets — take us back to more traditional picture book legacy. That’s not bad, per se, but with all the new styles and ideas hitting the shelves, the more traditional is becoming a more difficult sell. Here are some other reasons rhyming picture books are becoming less attractive to some agents and editors:

  1. They’re old hat. See above.
  2. Not everyone can write brilliant rhyme. And, in this market, it has to be brilliant, fresh, unique, imaginative, unexpected… No lazy or conventional rhyme will cut it.
  3. There also has to be a reason for the rhyme. Too many times, I feel like a manuscript’s rhyme is forced or dictates the story… that the author is making decisions based on which words would fit into their scheme, not based on which words would make the best possible storytelling sense.

If you’re considering writing a rhyming picture book, ask yourself this question: Why does it need to rhyme? If you answer: “Because that’s how a picture book goes” or “Because that reminds me of the books I read as a kid/to my children/to my grandchildren,” then that might not be reason enough.

One of the most compelling reasons to rhyme, in my opinion, is if you are an author who relishes playing with the language. It’s also a good thing if the rhyme is an integral part of the story. I read a book a little while ago that blew my mind with its dizzying, sprawling, complicated rhyme. If there was no rhyme in this book, there’d be no book! If you’re up to the challenge of writing truly astounding rhyming picture books in the current climate, definitely add BUBBLE TROUBLE (Clarion, 2009, by Margaret Mahy and illustrated by Polly Dunbar) to your bookshelf.

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  1. Heather Kephart’s avatar

    Mary, I read Bubble Trouble a few months ago. Like you, I was blown away by the mastery of it. In fact, my jaw dropped. My eyes widened and stayed that way until my son drifted off after a couple of pages. I don’t imagine it was out of boredom with the subject matter and delivery, but because the book was oh-so looong. (He’s only three, however.)

    Do you have a post about writing picture books for adults vs. picture books for children? Some are true works of art, but leave my children flat. (The opposite can be true. My son loves Lisa Wheeler’s UGLY PIE and I didn’t expect him to.)

  2. Kristin Gray’s avatar

    Mary, I haven’t seen this one, but will have to check it out. Thanks! (I even love the illo.)

  3. Amos

    Ode to the Mastery of Maggy Mahy

    >( >( >( >( >( >( >( >( >( >( >( >

    There is really nothing to it; any fool can learn to do it;
    set the circumstance and tone and I’ll begin to make a rhyme:
    chupacabra, llama, cow, orangutan or Eiffel Tower,
    and I’ll crank out bloody kiddie books in half the stinking time:

    There were pickles in the spackle Daddy used today to tackle
    Mommy’s honey-here’s-to-do list and he started in the loo;
    When he saw the pickle spackle Daddy up and gave a cackle
    and with relish he began to fill the cracks around the room…

    We were scared but didn’t panic, for the feel was so organic
    that the antics of our dad were momentarily forgot;
    Someone whispered the opunion that tomato and some onion
    and you’d smell a Whopper every time you went to use the pot!

    Or how about: a pouter was our Eddie, and a shouter,
    always pooching out his lip and slipping into louder mode;
    When we asked him “Wha’samatter?” Eddie’d air a lung and shatter
    all the glass and half the china in his Nana’s curio!

    If a narrative is needed that’s an easy thing indeed, it
    isn’t hard to drag this drivel over eighty, ninety pages
    – or a darkly comic novel that just like a Nabokov’ll
    take ‘em totally by storm and leave ‘em laughing down the ages.

    When to rhyme with such perfection nets one letters of rejection
    it is scanty consolation but it pleases one to think, some-
    where’s a shady den of tricks where shifty agents get their kicks by
    signing other authors’ royalties with disappearing ink.

    >( >( >( >( >( >( >( >( >( >( >( >

  4. Shawna’s avatar

    Personally, I like to write rhyming picture books because I like to read rhyming picture books. I’m always on the lookout for clever, rhyming books to read to my kids. Thanks for the recommendation to check out!

  5. Tamson!’s avatar

    Another, more consumer-oriented perspective on picture books and rhyme (very irreverent, so beware if you are easily offended). http://deadspin.com/5889376/if-you-give-a-mouse-a-cookie-youre-fucked-10-tips-for-avoiding-terrible-childrens-books

  6. Seraph Stein’s avatar

    I appreciate your comments and find what you said above can be true. Classically I have always been a “rhymer” but lately am stepping out into the non-rhyming world. As first…. it was harder not to rhyme… and then it was easier.
    So we will see. I am sending out both types… and hoping to get a response from the big wide world of Kids lit.
    But I hear you, I do. My Mr. George Says (no rhyme) series feels more “modern” even though it is more simple and actually shorter than my Bye-Bye Books which rhyme.
    So like I (and Mr. George) like to say…. You will see, and then you will see.
    -In kindest regards,
    Seraph

  7. Justin’s avatar

    I agree that rhyme should not drive narrative, but poorly executed narrative can be found in plenty of non-rhyming books as well. It seems simplistic to dismiss a technique merely on the basis of its not being performed well at all times and places. There are other means of developing good flow and cadence, but none more effective than rhyme. Its utility in helping children comprehend and appreciate language is incalculable. Any trend away from the use of rhyme is just that: a passing fancy, a craving for novelty in form. The criteria for what makes a book marketable versus what makes it a classic may be mutually exclusive. The former panders to the whims of adults, the latter to the needs of children.

  8. Eileen Mueller’s avatar

    Have reserved Bubble trouble from my library!
    Thanks for the tips.

  9. carole Wilshaw’s avatar

    How does one write a synopsis for a rhyme book? Should I list the titles of the rhymes or send all of them in full as the synopsis (there are 8 short rhymes)? Also if it’s stated by the publisher not to attach illustrations then is this not a disadvantage as the publisher would not get the real ‘feel’ for the book. I haven’t got a website yet but working on it.
    Best Regards,
    Carole.
    Writer/Illustrator

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