Writing Rhyming Picture Books

Rhyming picture books were the bane of my existence as an agent, honestly, because not many people are that great at writing rhyming picture books. I had one rhyming PB client out of maybe fifteen PB “generalists.” And yet 8 out of 10 picture book manuscripts that came into the slush were in rhyme. That’s a pretty big disparity, right?

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There’s not a lot of demand for rhyming texts, so you need to be writing rhyming picture books that stand out.

The Problem With Writing Rhyming Picture Books

Part of the issue is that a lot more picture books used to be in rhyme than are being published now. So some writers still have this idea in mind that PB = cutesy rhymes. To those writers, I would suggest a trip to the bookstore, so they can see what’s being actively published now. Last week’s post on paying attention to the market would apply a little more heavily here…

Whether it’s a misconception that you have to write rhyme to publish a picture book, or an affinity for rhyme, or a misconception that young kids can only communicate in rhyme, I’d like to discuss this controversial topic with a little more clarity.

Now that I’m a freelance editor, I actually love working with rhyme. Why? Because I have creative writing training, know my poetics, and can identify rhyme issues a thousand miles away. I’m not bragging, but I am here to ruin your day a little bit: Rhyme involves a whoooooooooooooole lot more than putting cute words at the ends of sentences. Yet a lot of people who choose to write in rhyme don’t seem to make that connection.

How to Find Unique Rhymes

First of all, most of the end rhymes I see in manuscripts are about as inspiring as “cat” and “hat,” and I’m pretty sure someone else has already cornered that market. The point of rhyme isn’t to find a word that works and wedge it in somehow, the point of rhyme is to delight, impress, and surprise. If I see an unexpected rhyme in a manuscript, that immediately tells me that the writer knows what they’re doing.

A big mistake I also see is letting rhyme dictate story, not the other way around. Writers become so fixated on getting those rhymes in that things become arbitrary. Why is her name “Dorange”? Because you had to rhyme with “orange”? Okie dokie… Why is he sitting on a wall? Who does that? Oh, so he can have a great fall? Gotcha. But are you writing in service of your story or reaching for a rhyme? If the story falls by the wayside, you are choosing style over substance, and that’s problematic. The integrity of story must come first.

Rhythm and Rhyme in Picture Books

Yet another consideration is rhythm. This is where the poetics training really kicks into gear. Shakespeare didn’t just write in iambic pentameter to torture college students. There is actually a lot of (please forgive me, for I am about to sin) rhyme and reason to rhythm in poetry.

If you haven’t read your rhyming manuscripts aloud and counted your syllables at least once, what are you doing reading this blog post? Make haste! Because if I try reading your rhyming manuscript aloud, and the rhymes are fine, but your syllabic counts are all over the place and I’m tripping over my tongue with each line, this is what it looks like to me:

7 syllables
6 syllables

7 syllables
8 syllables

9 syllables
7 syllables

Books Teach Us How to Read Them

Whyyyyyyy? Why are you making my head hurt? What’s the pattern? Books, especially poetry books, teach us how to read them. Rhyme is a pattern. It says, “You are about to learn that if one line ends with rhyme A, the next line will also end with rhyme A. Then the next couplet will introduce rhyme B…” The rules are right there. So if you’re going to go through all that trouble with end rhyme, why would you not consider your rhythm, too?

I think that reading your work aloud will be extremely illuminating to you if you’ve never even considered counting syllables. The trick here, of course, is actually reading your work as it’s written, not reading your work with the rhythm that you want to impose on it.

It’s amazing how writers tend to snap into their ideal rhythm when reading, even if that’s not exactly the rhythm they’ve written. Better yet, have someone else read your work to you. Where do they falter? Which sentences trip them up? It’s an incredibly illuminating exercise.

The Odds Against Rhyming Picture Books

Now, you might think that I’m just being a stickler. Or that having the letters “MFA” somewhere in my personal history have put me on a high horse. Here’s the real poop on rhyming picture books, and I know you’ve heard this before: Most agents and editors don’t love them. When I was an agent, I didn’t love them because I didn’t know a lot of editors who loved them. When you’re an agent, it makes a lot of sense to really love stuff that sells well, because then you’re providing great service to your clients and making money.

And I’m betting that editors see a whole lot of rhyming manuscripts, too. Maybe not 8 out of 10 submissions, but maybe 5 out of 10. And let’s say that their houses are pressuring them to acquire more quirky/funny picture books along the lines of Peter Brown and Mac Barnett. So they only have room for 2-3 rhyming PBs on their lists each year.

Examples of Great Rhyming Picture Books

Then there’s the idea that there are people out there who really, really, really, really know how to write rhyme. My example in this category is always BUBBLE TROUBLE by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Polly Dunbar. I took one look at that text and never wanted to try writing in rhyme, because I think it’s just such an accomplished, virtuoso rhyming text.

If there are writers out there who are carrying Margaret Mahy’s torch and talents for rhyme, they are going to get those coveted and limited PB acquisition slots. Because they know what they’re doing. And the editors who want to work with them are going to hold them up to Mahy-like standards, since that’s an example of rhyming done extremely right that’s already out in the market.

Make Sure You’re Doing a Good Job

As you can see, there are a lot of considerations to writing in rhyme. And finding a good end rhyme to shoehorn in there is just the first level. If you are at all curious, college poetics textbooks are always enlightening, even if you have to also invest in some toothpicks to prop your eyelids open. Long story short, poetry is an ancient art form that has tons of rules and ideas all its own. It’s a system. And if you’re going to bind yourself to a system, you better know the system.

Within the system, you might just find a lot of freedom and creativity. Otherwise, if you don’t know it well or you’re just playing around with it because you think it’s what you have to do, it’s a set of handcuffs that will start to chafe pretty quickly. And it’s likely that you will not be truly competitive.

If you’re writing rhyming texts, don’t freak out. Just make sure you’re doing an excellent job. I mean, that’s good advice for any type of writing, or any pursuit, really, but I’ve found that it especially applies to getting rhyme past gatekeepers. Because rhyming PB texts often come from good, but misguided, intentions.

Hire me as your picture book editor and we can dig into your rhyming text together. All picture book edits include feedback on other picture book ideas you might have!

8 Replies to “Writing Rhyming Picture Books”

  1. I love reading your blog. It’s very enlightening. I gave up the idea of being a writer a while ago. However, when I used to try my hand at it, all my stories came out as rhymes. I wasn’t consciously trying to do it. That’s just how they formed in my head and then on paper.

  2. I’ve always been so confused as to why agents and editors don’t like rhyming books. They were some of my very favorites when I was a kid. And when I taught Kindergarten, they were the ones that the students would request most and I loved reading the most.

    Is it really because people just can’t do it well and they’re tired of seeing it come through? It is too cutesy? Is it too overdone?

    I’ll be honest, I found this post a smidge disheartening, as, of course, I’m working on a children’s book that is a rhyming story. But I will say, while it bummed me out a bit, it is also making me work that much harder to make sure mine is done well. 😀

    1. The short answer to the question is that rhyming texts seem to be the first place many aspiring children’s book writers go when they’re crafting an early idea. As a result, agents are flooded with a lot of amateur efforts that are unpolished, cutesy, AND overdone. The post wasn’t meant to encourage or discourage you, only to acknowledge a market reality and reinforce the idea that this particular style of submission should strive toward very high standards.

  3. Strange that you picked Bubble Trouble as an example of excellent rhyme and rhythm. I’d never heard of it, so I checked out a sample on Amazon. It breaks all the “rules” you mentioned. Uneven syllable count. It doesn’t scan that well. Simplistic rhymes. It even throws in a Seussian made up word, “bibble.” Yet one can’t argue with success. I once interviewed the legendary British pop star, Cliff Richard, and asked him what was the favorite song he’d recorded? He told me it was Devil Woman. He added that, “It used to be the song I hated most, but then it sold a million copies. Now it’s my favorite.” Could it be that a similar revisionist theory applies here? I’m just skeptical as to whether anyone knows what good rhyme is until it sells.

  4. “The point of rhyme isn’t to find a word that works and wedge it in somehow…”

    I know this post is almost a year old, but I keep coming back to it.(Unfortunately) I love reading and writing in rhyme. This line, in particular, I find myself going over in my head and asking myself… am I rhyming WITH the perfect word or am I rhyming BECAUSE I have my heart set on a word and I’m trying to fit it in. ‘With’ usually makes for a seamless story experience, whereas ‘Because’ always feels forced, no matter how cute it might be.

    1. Even if it’s an older post, the advice still holds. That’s the great thing about this blog. For the most part, I discuss evergreen topics. Agents and editors can almost always tell when you’re inserting a word because you’re in love with it, and that doesn’t usually go over too well. Substance should trump style. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Very nice post. I agree that rhyme is to delight and surprise or give you what you would not expect, but I do not agree that it is to impress, which means you are trying to show off, which can turn readers off.

    I try to avoid using common rhymes or rhymes you might find in greeting cards.

    Story should still come first then rhyme second — unless you can build a great story around an amazing, one-of-a-kind rhyme, which, I think, would be very difficult.

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