Writing Rhymes: A Rhyme With Reason

Curious about writing rhymes in a picture book? Consider this first: There’s a fairly strong consensus out there that some editors are moving away from children’s rhyming 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’re considering writing rhymes for your picture book.

how to write rhyming picture books, writing rhymes
Bubble trouble! It’s a good thing if the rhyme is an integral part of the story.

Writing Rhymes: Should You Even Try?

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 to re-think the “how to write rhyming picture books” question:

  1. They’re old hat. See above.
  2. Not everyone is good at writing rhymes. 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 rhymes in a 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.

Two Good Reasons for Writing Rhymes

If you really want to dig into writing rhymes, though, here are two good reasons to do so. 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 rhymes in the current climate, definitely add BUBBLE TROUBLE (Clarion, 2009, by Margaret Mahy and illustrated by Polly Dunbar) to your bookshelf.

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!

12 Replies to “Writing Rhymes: A Rhyme With Reason”

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

  3. Amos "Papa" Bubbler II says:

    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. 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. 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,

  6. 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.

  7. carole Wilshaw says:

    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,

  8. Hi
    I’m the author of Finger Rhymes for Manners. My rhymes are a new invention called action rhymes that don’t worry about flow too much as the emphasis is on the action and how the reader says the line out loud to motivate the children to move. So all rules of rhyme do not adhere at all in this book. It’s all about fun for the children instead.
    All the best Lily

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